“I Often Look Down On Myself”

Despite all the distancing, I’ve had many more meaningful interactions with my students this semester than I anticipated. Interactions that have left me feeling sublimely aligned with my life purpose.

I regularly challenge students to focus more on learning processes than outcomes. More specifically, I advise them not to focus on grades too intensely.  I’m not naive as to why so many of them do exactly that—scholarship requirements, good driving discounts, graduate school applications, and parents’ expectations for starters.

And yet, deep down they know their intense focus on grades often compromises their learning. Many still can’t help themselves.

“Why, do you place so much importance on your grades?” I gently probed with one of my first year writers last week during a one-on-one conference. I don’t remember what she said, but I’ll never forget her follow up e-mail.

“You asked me when we last met why I focus so much on my grades. I gave you the first answer to come to mind. I have put a lot of thought into it. I often look down on myself. I have a hard time telling myself, that I’m smart or interesting or pretty. I have a hard time accepting it when others say it’s true. Grades are the way, I can look at myself and say, ‘here in front of you is proof that you are smart, or at least smart enough, and that you can succeed.’ That’s all. Thank you for everything professor.”

I’m the one who should be thanking her for the single most honest, heartfelt explanation for grade anxiety I’ve ever heard.

Rich Beyond Measure

That’s a wrap. The semester is over. Grades are (mostly) in. Back at it January 7th for one month-long course. Then my academic year will be a wrap since I’m a half-timer. Don’t hate me because you ain’t me.

It felt kinda weird returning to work in early September after such a long sabbatical. Pre-sabbatical, I handed off my administrative duties, so I was teaching full-time for the first time in a long time. And while I was gone, even more colleagues who I enjoyed had moved on. By “kinda weird” I guess I mean somewhat disconnected.

After all these years, I sometimes feel as if I should’ve assumed more administrative responsibilities somewhere along the line. I mean what kind of sad sack is back exactly where he started 22 years earlier?

And yet, as I read final papers, and email messages, and hand written notes of appreciation, I feel like finally, I might be getting this teaching thing down. Of course, putting that in writing means my “J-term” course will probably be a disaster, you know, pride coming before the fall and all.

Every educator is different, but for me at least, the “secret” to teaching well is the same as living well, the more selfless, the better. Maybe it was having no administrative responsibilities that enabled me to see and hear my students more clearly this fall. More specifically, maybe it was not being in a hurry, maybe it was taking the time to listen to them and to read their words even more closely. And then to respond to those words.

The more authentic and present I am in the classroom, the more my students appreciate my teaching. They also appreciate the thought put into our more accessible, shorter, more thought provoking than average reading list.

My students’ end-of-semester gestures of appreciation make me think I’m still doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Consider one student among many, a physically imposing, politically conservative, first year footballer whose domineering dad tolerated no negative emotions.

“When I found out I had to be in a mandatory writing seminar as part of the ‘First Year Experience Program’ (FYEP) titled ‘The Art of Living’, I dreaded it. I despised writing, especially that of a personal nature. All of the essays and discussions I would have to participate in would be about my life, inner thoughts, and feelings. I figured it was just another stroke of bad luck. My goal for the semester was just to survive, and hopefully improve on my personal writing ability after a few failed attempts. However, I found out very quickly that this was just the class I needed. It turns out that my destiny was not to have an unfortunate event take advantage of me, but was to have an unbelievable stroke of luck being placed in the Art of Living writing seminar.”

Further in:

“This unexpected change of heart provided me with energy and enthusiasm. Writing my fourth essay became something I enjoyed, not something I dreaded. I wrote about my stance on modern love and the concept of soulmates, which was the strongest stance in any essay I had written. I wrote about my own experiences with love, and how in my eyes the person I want to marry will be able to fill my heart with love. I wrote about how that love would allow me to experience the six varieties described in Krznaric’s writing: eros, pragma, ludus, agape, philuatia, and philia. . . . I had ended up doing the exact opposite of what I had initially thought I would: I wrote about my definition of love, my love life, and I loved doing it. By writing from the heart and being vulnerable with my audience, I was able to capture their attention and provide details that I otherwise might have excluded. My paper connected better with my readers, and it was relatable. Over the course of this semester I had not only grown as a writer, but I opened my mind and grew as a person.”

Watching this young man blossom into a superb, sensitive discussant was a joy:

“One of the most influential changes to my (writing) process was in-class discussions. They allowed me to deepen my understanding of the prompts while listening to others’ thoughts and feelings. I could formulate my own stances in response. It allowed me to consider outside opinions and beliefs and flush out my ideas. They made my essays even more thorough because I gained not only different pieces of textual evidence but I learned about different experiences my peers could connect to the readings. Being able to have personal, open conversations in class also made the texts more applicable to daily life. The discussions helped shape not only my essays, but the way I looked at the world as a whole. I could consider expanding my varieties of love as Kznaric wrote, or I could consider the lifestyle of Stoicism written in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. These discussions opened my heart and mind to the different ideas we discussed in class, and allowed me to incorporate those into my essays. This class broadened my life views and expanded my horizons.”

Because I’m half-time and I get paid over 12 months, and I max my retirement contributions, and I add family dental insurance and a Health Saving Account in for good measure, my take home pay for November was $34.37. But I feel rich beyond measure.

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words