Reflections on the End of the Semester, With Diet Pepsi

Who waxes philosophical on a Friday morning?  Somebody dodging the last eight freshman research papers, that’s who.

It’s the end of the semester.  Really.  On Monday I give my final final and can put this semester in the book of Things I Wish I’d Done Differently.  Maybe there are, somewhere out there, college professors who hit the tape at the end waving their arms and high-fiving students.  I always stagger across the line feeling like I owe my students a refund.

It’s uncomfortable, but it pushes me, this never feeling satisfied, never feeling completely good about What Just Happened.  Here is today’s true thing:  In nearly twenty years of college teaching (!), I have never taught the same syllabus twice.  Never.  Every course, every year.  Is that difficult?  Well, yes.

But doing things the same way, the same semester over and over, is worse.  Yeah, I have found things that work, certain assignments or techniques that tend to push people out of their comfort zones and into something that could resemble learning if I don’t look too closely.  I do those more than once, but always in a new context, and always, at the end, I have that hollow feeling of a job done, but not well done.

What could I do differently?  Everything.  I almost always do everything differently, and every semester, at the end, I look at those final papers and think, “What is wrong with me?”

This is probably a mother, or perhaps a southern, thing.  A different thinker might do something like “What is wrong with them?”   I can’t do that, because it is my JOB to cut through the BS, find the connections between my subject (writing, in this case) and their lives, and help them care.  Some of them do.  A lot of them just get by, not really using their whole brains, not trying anything new or taking any risks, not thinking.

I’m not sure I blame them.  Awareness is like Douglas Adams’ total perspective vortex; once you see the injustice and the problems, it becomes impossible to cozy up in your tiny mind and be comfortable again, and at the same time, you realize your powerlessness.  It’s the odd paradox of the professoriate that at the end of the semester, when in terms of awarding grades and crap like that we are most “powerful,” we are also most aware of how powerless we really are.  What’s a grade worth, in the face of the challenges of living a life that’s worth the air we breathe and the space we take up?  Not much.

Most of the people I know who teach (at every level), do it because they want the world to be a better place for their having taught in it.  Broadly speaking, that means they want their students to come out of their classes not just with a collection of facts, but more intelligent, compassionate, open-minded, more willing to explore the world with an eye to making it better.  If we could really do this, the ripple effect would change history.

But it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and that’s why the end of the semester is not so happy.  There wasn’t enough time.  We were so close!  Or maybe we weren’t; maybe the comma splices got in the way.  Maybe having to read hard things was too hard.  Maybe the world doesn’t change because, whatever I believe about teaching, my students believe in the power of the grade.

Maybe I need to shut up and evaluate these eight essays.  The great thing about the end of the semester is that there’s a new one coming.  Maybe this fall I will finally get it right, find the formula, get my finger on the “connect” button and push it.  Despite all our jokes about booze, which none of us can afford at this point in our lives, the real drug of academia is hope.  Where would we be without it?

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