Giving a Damn When it Counts

Two weeks from now I will once again don my academic regalia (which, for some reason, is almost always donned in the humid heat of late August and late May) and prepare to celebrate my students who will graduate from college. Some will actively avoid me. Some will have forgotten about me. Some will embrace and thank me. Some will keep in touch, while others I will bid farewell for the last time.

Of course, some of them I will be glad to see go. Some (sadly, more than I would prefer) I will have forgotten. And some I will remember fondly and miss genuinely. Inevitably there will be some with whom I will miss an opportunity to congratulate and say goodbye… which bothers me for a bit. But I remember that the day is not about me — it is about them, and what they have accomplished (or will, after those elusive few make-up credits). My experiences with them are certainly varied. Some were an intellectual and emotional joy to work with over the months and years. Others I recall for that one ten-week term they tried my patience and raised my ire. Still, what they have accomplished is worthy of celebration, and at these times I mourn as well the kids who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to successfully get this far.

One of the valuable things about being in this job for a while is the unique opportunity to observe something of the lives of our students over time. Rationally, we realize that our students are complex human beings with often unpredictable, messy lives. Still, there is much about their lives we are not privy to observing, and these sometimes crucial moments of anxiety or struggle can be easy to forget. Such a moment finds me today, as I prepare to grade a stack of students work, some of which will make me smile, and some of which will make me grimace and swear.

Sam Bell of Johnson County Community College wrote a piece for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog that provides a helpful reality check as some of us push through the final days and weeks of grading student work from our limited frame of reference as our students’ classroom teacher. It is important for us to be mindful of the human lives that define them apart from our role in it, and to be capable of the compassion and concern for their learning that brought us to this profession in the first place.

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Why Professors Should Give a Damn

The spring semester is coming to a close. That means students are trying to pull up their grades, professors are finishing projects and committee work, and almost everyone is running low on patience. On social media, I’ve seen an uptick in professors’ complaints about their students. Recently, I read a thread on a social-media site that minimized a student’s struggles because she had asked for an extension on a deadline. Faculty members castigated her and welcomed her to “the real world.” One suggested how to avoid dealing with her. Are we serious? If we don’t understand students’ real-world dilemmas, what are we doing teaching?

[more reality check after the break!]

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