Thursday, June 11, 2015

Life on furlough

Today is the last of the final exams for the term.  For the academic year.

Last week, as I walked into the classroom for one last time for the year, I could feel the angst within that it will be a while before I get to interact with students and get them thinking about the kinds of questions that I would like them to think about.

"I feel depressed that this is the final week and this is the last class meeting" I opened.

The problem with having delivered what I thought were funny lines but with my naturally unsmiling face was immediately made obvious.  "You are being sarcastic, right?" said one.

"No, I mean it" I said.

It is not that all the students love me.  Far from it.  There are never any long lines of students waiting outside my office, as is always the case with the popular professors.  But, getting students to look at the world a tad differently from what they are used to is something that I will miss during this forced furlough.

Most of the students are so immensely respectful.  Like the student from another class who emailed me:
My paper is not the quality of work I would have have liked, but it is what time/work allowed right now.  Please don't take this as me not being interested in your class.  I enjoyed the course and found many of the ideas presented to be interesting and enlightening.  Have a great summer and thank you.
The student sounds like one of those whose parents never had problems punishing--because the kid always self-delivered punishments more severe than what the parents would have.

In my books, the student is educated.  After all, there is a lot more to education than mere grades and the diploma.
This point is made succinctly by an apocryphal story about a university president who said this to new freshmen each year: “For those of you who have come here in order to get a degree, congratulations, I have good news for you. I am giving you your degree today and you can go home now. For those who came to get an education, welcome to four great years of learning at this university.”
In such an approach to education, I am never on the search for some prized student, whom I can take on as my protege and create a "mini me."  No, ma'am.  As with the people I meet in the world outside the classroom, it is the genuine, no-pretense, adults I like to see in my classes.  That email from the student is a classic example.  It is always a pleasure to meet such youth, which then reassures me that the future is in safe hands.

Soon, the grading of the papers will be done.  It will then be a long wait until the new year.  Perhaps it is this absence that makes the heart grow fonder.  But, surely there has to be a way to grow fonder without the furlough!

When the new year resumes, rarely will I see many of the students in my classes again.
That is the strange reality of teaching. For a few months, we are front and center in our students’ lives—or so we hope. They are the focus of our courses, our assignments, our examinations, our office hours, our meditations in the car ride home. We encourage them. We try to fill the gaps in their education. In some cases, we try to resolve the unique challenges that they pose to us (as well as to themselves), psychologically as well as academically. We modify our lesson plans and rework our syllabi. We talk about our students with colleagues. We may even consult with an administrator or two for advice, guidance, or suggestions about a lecture, an exam, or a behavior issue.
And then it all comes to an end. Students leave, move on, transfer, graduate, and, quite often, we never see or hear from them again. And we are OK with that.
For us, the process starts over, and we soon find ourselves caught up in new stories, while the previous ones remain largely unresolved. Did Jim, who talked about becoming a therapist, go on to graduate school in psychology? Did Jessica, who argued so passionately in class against the death penalty, make it as a lawyer? We fill in the blanks about them based upon what we know (or think we know), and tell ourselves that their stories ended the way that we hoped.
 I have the furlough time to fill in some of the blanks.  But, first things first--I have final exams to grade!

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