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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Professorial Persona

I was thinking again today, in the 102 class, about how my professorial persona has changed over the years, and most radically in the past year. Even though something about me apparently still reads as ferocious, apparently I'm becoming a slightly  more approachable dragon. I certainly have been getting a number of e-mails from students, which delights me--even when the questions they ask require a deep inhale through pinched nostrils while I gather my patience and compassion.

There were two young men in the 102 who had not been there before: one has been on my roster since the first day; the other registered late but was on my roster by Monday, yet was a no-show. They both showed some signs that they intend to take things seriously, want to understand--but I told them very clearly that I'm already significantly concerned about how far behind they are. Just that fact alone is enough to make me willing to wager that they won't make it through the semester. It's unbelievably rare for anyone to miss the first two assignments and still come through successfully. There is another student in the same class who is in the same position: he registered about ten minutes before Monday's class, arrived late, and told me with trepidation that he would also have to be absent today. He may have a slightly better shot, as he was already talking about making sure he'd get all the work for me on Monday--but I've been fooled so many times by students who seem to be completely on the ball and who, in fact, are not even in the ball court.

But I mention them in part as evidence of how my persona has changed. In the past, the two young men who arrived today would have gotten a very stern, grim-faced professor issuing the warning. This time, they got someone who was concerned, supportive, smiling, understanding.... It probably won't make a damned bit of difference to their success, but I certainly like myself better when I present a more relaxed persona.

Of course, it is a persona. That professor is not false in any way: she's me; I'm her. But we pick and choose which parts of ourselves we reveal and which we conceal, and when, and why. The snake-haired witch will make her appearance if need be, but I don't feel any longer as if I need to lead with that look.

The class was a bit chaotic but juicy. I kept interrupting their good conversation to clarify a point about the logs--and (as usual) I gave them the option of re-doing their logs to improve on them. And I haven't booted anyone yet for not being prepared, though there was one young man I should have tossed: he's been there since class 1, and yet was not prepared (though he was last time). I overheard him--and several other students--confessing that they hadn't looked carefully enough at the schedule of assignments. I'm on the fence about whether to remind them to look or whether to let them figure it out on their own: "Oh, shit! I keep missing assignments. I guess I need to look at that schedule more carefully and more frequently." I'm tending toward the latter.

Paul and I had a lovely discussion about critical thinking, about understanding ourselves exactly what we're doing with various assignments, and he pointed out to me a problem with the set-up of the logs: they can't start with evidence. They need to have a sense of the story as a whole--and then go back and figure out how they got there. I do make a big point about "read the whole story first," but I still haven't backed up far enough, or emphasized the real breakdown of steps. I need to rework that yet again (the search for the magic explanation or assignment that suddenly brings enlightenment to all). But when I backed up and re-explained to the students today, they seemed to get it better. And I had another moment, similar to one in yesterday's 102, in which I could say, "That, right there: that's what goes in logs."

My efforts to convey the value and process of the logs is dovetailing in interesting ways with last semester's Assessment Committee work on assessing "critical thinking." In doing my own response to the assessment, I realized I don't break it down clearly enough for myself, never mind for the students. I'm now envisioning a combination presentation/workshop on somehow clarifying what part of critical thinking we are addressing in a given assignment. The assignment itself may not change a whit, but I'm betting if we foreground exactly what's going on with it--here's how revision requires "critical thinking" for instance--the way we approach the assignment might work better. Foreground it for the students, not just for ourselves.

This is what I love: the perpetual process of understanding better what I want students to learn, and why, and how I think they can best learn it.

So, I gave the "work through frustration" and "college will change you" speeches in class today--and as usual, some of the students looked at me as if I'd just sprouted broccoli from my head while others nodded in agreement. I ended with a sentence I sometimes use and sometimes don't, about the need to approach college with a certain attitude of humility. I always say, "If you're not willing to change, if you think you know what you need and you're good just like you are, now isn't the time for you to be in college." But this time I added, "So being in college requires that you approach it with a certain humility. You need to say, 'I want to be changed; please change me.'" One young man, who is in the running to be a favorite student already, showed me the last line of his self evaluation after class, saying, "After what you just said, you're going to love this." He's right: I do. His last sentences are "Unlike when I was 18 and I knew everything, so you couldn't tell me anything, I am 31 now, and I know nothing so I want to know everything." Yep, that's the attitude.

In fact, he's one of at least two young men in that class who have been away from college for a while--and frequently those are the absolute best students. Sometimes, if the gap has been too long, that sets up another whole set of problems, but these guys have been away but are still young enough to be malleable, flexible. Not that that's always a function of age: the possession or lack of those qualities is individual, and some can maintain flexibility life long while others solidify early. But I'm liking the two of them in class so far. A few other students stand out for various reasons--a few because they are particularly bright, a few because they notably are not--but those two stand fair to be featured in many a future post.

I also indulged two pleasures today. Time that I probably should have devoted to reading the selection we'll go over in 281 (Nature in Lit) tomorrow--that or marking more 102 logs--I instead spent on reading a pretty nifty article about Le Guin's works. The author is looking specifically at how religion or religiosity, reason and Reason, are presented in her writings--and he's got some very useful ideas. I found it last semester, looking for any critical pieces other than my own that address the novella "Paradises Lost," and he does (albeit briefly, at least so far), but there's so much going on in the article that I find interesting, I'm having a blast reading it. The other pleasure was just sitting in the hall talking with a colleague about what we're enjoying reading. She's also interested in SF/Fantasy, so we share some common ground--but we also have areas of interest that are completely separate. I could develop a hell of a reading list just from our 15-20 minute chat. Talking to Paul as I did is also a pleasure in which I indulged--but I indulge in that one regularly. The other two are more rare--and I'm reminded how much I enjoy both.

At this juncture, however, I'm going to take a calculated risk and leave the office without having done any further work. I do need to finish reviewing the reading for tomorrow's 281, and I do need to finish marking those logs--and I have a morning doctor's appointment that will almost certainly make me late for tomorrow's meeting (thank god for a very accommodating alternate, who will cover as much of the meeting as I miss, which may realistically be the entire thing). So the only chunk of time I'll have to finish up prior to tomorrow's classes will be the time that will become my office hour, once office hours are officially being held. But I think I can do it--and probably still have time to eat lunch. I know full well that I haven't got the brain right now to accomplish anything anyway, so I won't pretend. I'll simply fling this post up on the blog and begin the evening packing of tents prior to stealing away.

We'll see what the morrow brings. I hope for good things.

1 comment:

  1. I just re-read this post, as it seems to be one that people end up getting directed to one way or another (I don't know what kind of search terms lead people here but it doesn't really matter). In any event, re-reading it, I realized that for my own purposes, perhaps I need to put in a few more details--or make notes somewhere else (so as not to bore the bejesus out of my three faithful readers). for instance, I now can't think of a single title from that conversation with the colleague about SF, nor do I have any clue where I might have put the article about LG that I was reading. Damn and blast and hell. And oh well....