One University of Maryland student was cursing Mary Ryan as she argued viciously with her husband, Jack, on the daytime soap opera, Ryan's Hope.

Another student, unhappy with Jack's escapades, was muttering as he packed up his books: "I can't believe he did that. . . . That was really poor."

Soap operas are big on the University of Maryland's College Park campus, as they are just, about every where else. All over the campus, student cluster around television sets in their dorms and in the student union to watch them and some arrange their class schedules around them.

The two students watching Ryan's Hope were attending David Feldman's class on soap operas, one of College Park. Enrollment in his class for the coming fall term is 300, "all I can possibly handle, he said.

Characters like [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] become intimate friends of many students.

"It's tremendous entertainment," said Feldman, a student of pop culture who inaugurated the soap opera class last fall when he began teaching as a gradate student in the American studies department. "There are not too many places you can go now for a good story, except perhaps gothic novels."

Since the course began, Feldman's students have laughed, booed, squirmed and chortled at the daily evelopments in the working lives of journalists Mary Ryan and her [WORD ILLEGIBLE] husband Jack, her parents who tend bar in New York's upper West Side, and the doctors, nurses, immigrants, politicians and others who come and go in their community.

Quite frankly, admitted Sally Bernstein, 21, of Arlington," I couldn't imagine missing the shows, so I signed up for the course and even get three credits for watching." She got "absolutely hooked" after spending six weeks in the hospital.

Another student said she was "desperate" last summer after missing the soaps for a month. "I had to call up my sister every day and ask what was happening," she confessed.

"These characters have become part of our lives," said Feldman's soap opera buff since his early teens. "It's very much like having a beset friend. And it's coping. Like a dream we can allow ourselves to work out our problems by watching how these characters do it."

"And take out our frustrations on them," interjected a male student.

Soaps mirror people's lives better than any other entertainment, Feldman believes. "They contain themes of love and friendship which have died out in the movies, and families or surrogated family units trying to work out their problems."

In Ryan's Hope we have about 15 people interacting organically in a simple story that has not progressed very far in two years. I think one thing this does for college students is give them some stability and social order," he said.

The hour-long classes consist of a half-hour of TV watching and another half-hour of discussion. The student's use a text on television programming and write papers onthe subject as a class requirement.

Like it or not, television is a connecting link in the culture, a communal experience the stuff of gossip, and even the teacher that takes viewers into strange but instructive interpersonal situations.

"We were talking in our class about where students learned how to act on a date," said Feldman. "Basically, they said, it came from TV, from the characters they've been watching all their lives."

According to ratings, 30 million Americans watch daytime serials every week, including a growing number of men. Feldman said he finds "closet addicts" wherever he goes.

At a lecture he gave at a fashionable women's club in Northern Virinia, "the ladies were confessing all over the place by the time I finished," he said, with a contented smile.

Watching soaps with students reveals something about their value system, he said. "This is one of the few courses that forces them to examine what's happening in their lives."

Well, Mary Ryan's current dilemma is a dodzy, if you haven't been watching. She's agonizing over whether to consent to a lie so that Jack can obtain a Catholic annulment of their broken marriage, Jack, meanwhile, still loves her, but he chickens out every time he gets close to reconciling. Just to make it a bit murkier, he's decided to take a sexy physical therapist to their baby's christening. "I think you'll find it interesting," says Jack, as the music faces and the scene trails off. Indeed.