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Thursday, November 10, 2016

38 appointments--all kept!

That's a real triumph: not a single "no show" among the lot. One student withdrew today (a smart move on his part, hard though he was trying), and I know I'll lose at least one or two more, those who apparently are not going to do this second essay at all. But I'm keeping a surprising number--for me. The raw numbers look pretty alarming: my official rosters (combined) had 52 students; now I'm down to I think 40--officially, including the ones who didn't submit this essay. Also, one of the 38 appointments was with a student who has never been in any of my classes but became my mentee from our open house a year ago, so he doesn't count in the 102 rosters. But still: often by this point the attrition rate would already be close to 50%, so the conferences seem to be helping.

One conference in particular stands out. There is a young woman in one of my classes who has seemed very switched off all the way through the semester--until today. She showed up for her conference early and was clearly eager to get in and talk with me. Suddenly, today, she was smiling and talking and filled with enthusiasm--simply because I had said in my written comments that her essay was an improvement over the first one. That was all she needed, it seems: just that little bit of confirmation that her efforts are doing something.

And how often I forget that these students walk in the door absolutely convinced that they cannot do well in English classes, that the work is beyond them, that they are incapable of learning. And simply to say--as I did several times today, in addition to the comment on that one student's essay--"you are learning" or "but you do understand poetry; you just wrote a whole essay about poems and you did fine": that's enough. That's what they need. One of the students from last semester's 101 was among the "I can't handle poetry" crowd, but as soon as I made clear to him that the problem he'd experienced was a problem with the topic, and that every single student who had chosen that topic had the same problem, he was almost giddy with relief.

"You can do this. You are doing this. You're learning. You're improving." Magic words.

I had a lovely time talking with one of my students long after the end of her appointment--the same student I ended up talking with at length last round of conferences. I found out a little more about her (Russian emigre parents, she's the designated achiever in the family, surrounded by working class conservatives), and we talked about the election and our fears for the future. She also asked me if I could see any good coming out of this, "Like, maybe financially: we won't have to pay as much in taxes...?" And I said, "I want to pay my taxes, because I want the things my taxes buy. If you want cable TV, you have to pay the cable bill. I want good infrastructure, a strong military, federal support for higher education--so I pay my bill." (Cue effects: bell rings, lights come on!) "Good point!" But then I said that the main benefit I can see to the current upheaval in our nation is that we cannot pretend any more that we do not have a deep and profound problem that is connected with racism, xenophobia, gender discrimination...

And I talked about what we get from a liberal arts education: the ability to consider sources, weigh evidence, understand the merits--or flaws--of an argument. It feels good to periodically get the chance to speak in praise of this process.

Class went well, too, though that feels a bit odd to say about a day when I showed a movie. But the students were rapt: I showed the beginning of District 9, and when I stopped it near the end of the class period and asked them what they thought, across the board, they said they liked it more than they were expecting, wanted to watch the rest of it--and they were picking up on the important ideas as well. Cool beans.

So, all in all, a pretty good week. All that remains before I head for home is to pack all the essays I have to mark over the weekend, along with the rubrics, and my beautiful folding editor's desk (have I mentioned how much I love my editor's desk?), and water the plants before I head out the door. I should have written my letter for Kristin's sabbatical application, but I'll have to do that on Monday--along with looking at the rest of the sabbatical applications. (We're to have reviewed the applications and written drafts of our support letters for Tuesday's P&B meeting.) None of which am I going to worry about right now. I'm going to take the triumphs I feel--minor though they may be--and allow them to float me off into the weekend of work at home.

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