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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Jaysus, what a slog

It's rather miraculous that I'm in as good shape as I am in terms of the number of essays I have left to grade tomorrow morning. Between students whose appointments were on other days rescheduling into my open hours today, students from Nature in Lit taking me up on the offer of help in conferences, and students I ended up talking to for more than the allotted time, I really thought I'd be here until midnight, or would have to be back at eight tomorrow--or both.

I still have six essays to mark--but in a way I'm only obligated to mark five of them, as one was submitted so late, I told the student that I'd mark it if I could get to it. (She's an excellent student and she was dealing with a real life catastrophe, so I bent the rules for her. OK, I broke the rules. I will still take a whopping late penalty, even if I have time to provide comments.)

The last essay I graded today was one of two that I knew in advance would be seriously problematic--but, I hate to say it, they're the kind of problematic that leaves us without a lot to say. I'm knocking myself out trying to come up with something positive to say on every essay--and I almost had to fall back on the comment one of my grad-school professors noted having been the best that could be said about an essay: "Well, you certainly put a lot of words on the page." (A bit like Churchill's reported "compliment" when presented with someone's infant to ooh and ah over: "Now that's a baby!")

I'm falling over tired, of course--and I feel even more tired when I think about everything I have to do this weekend--but I do want to mention two particular meetings with students today.

One was with a student from Nature in Lit. He's been getting catastrophically low marks on his homework--what homework he's submitted--and I think I mentioned that after class one day he said that he couldn't figure out what he was doing wrong and wanted to meet with me. We sat down with one of the essays and with his notes, and I pointed out that his comment that the author (I'm paraphrasing) "used a lot of really descriptive words to paint a picture in the reader's mind" doesn't exactly indicate that he's understanding the points of the reading. It took several tries to get him to even begin to understand that the beige bilge that "we should appreciate nature" is not, in fact, the exact point of the readings.

We were looking at Richard K. Nelson's beautiful work "The Gifts," and I asked the student what the gifts of the title are. "We should appreciate nature." (Spare me.) So, I skipped over some of the--admittedly completely gorgeous--scene setting at the start of the essay and pointed to a specific sentence. "Watching deer is the same pleasure now that it was when I was younger, when I loved animals only with my eyes and judged hunting to be outside the bounds of morality." I think we had to go over it five times before he could see that Nelson is saying 1. He used to think hunting was wrong and bad, and that the only way to "appreciate" deer was to look at them, 2. Now he hunts--but he "appreciates" deer exactly the same way that he did when he used to just love looking at them. Eventually we went on to the next sentence, and the next: and all that took about 30 minutes. Finally, at the end of the conference, he realized that he needs to go back and reread anything he's thinking about using for his upcoming essay and pay that kind of attention to it. (Yes.) He also realized that he needs to read at home, where it's quiet and he can concentrate (yes) and that it's going to take a long time to get the reading done if he wants to really understand it (yes). But he was starting to get that feeling of finding one's way through a maze, or coming out of a fog: things aren't clear yet, but they're getting clearer. He said he kind of didn't want to go back to some of the things he'd read before, because now he'll realize how much he missed--but I pointed out to him that now he won't miss as much.

I don't know how deeply all this penetrated; I don't know how long this epiphany will last. But he's starting to get the idea that reading actually means more than just running one's eyes over the page. Yes.

The other meeting was with the bright young woman with the enormous anxiety issues who dropped last semester--and has to drop again. She told me she'd recently come to the realization that she is engaged in self-sabotage: as long as she keeps on being unsuccessful at completing the course (and others), she doesn't have to face her fears about what next. But she wasn't trembling with anxiety this time--and, after we talked for a while, she solidified for herself a plan to finish her degree at NCC, as well as how to manage the anxiety inherent in the fact that she now has to take four courses over the first two summer terms in order to graduate in August. I also sort of boxed her into saying she's going to major in psych at whatever four year school she goes to by saying her undergrad degree could be in anything: it's the fact of the B.A. that matters, and it will get her a job--but that her grad degree is what will get her a career, so that's really when she needs to have a sense of what she wants to do.

Moments like that are when my own history as a late bloomer comes in handy. It's nice to be able to tell students I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my 40s (slight exaggeration: when I started grad school, I was still in my 30s--but I really wasn't sure until I started adjuncting, which was around the time I turned 40, that teaching was my cuppa).

In any event, she wasn't in tears at any point: she's clearly found much more stable ground to stand on, which is wonderful to see. We even got into completely unrelated territory (the stories around her name, the names of my first two nephews, what she wants to name her children, how to tell whether a name "works"...)--and she asked for my phone number, so I gave her my cell phone number, and I have her now in my contacts. This is a kind of mentoring that doesn't go on the books--but it makes one hell of a difference. I imagine she'll be one of the students I keep in touch with for a long while, which suits me just fine.

Oh, and shifting gears abruptly and radically: I decided to replace one of the readings for Nature in Lit (which I had assigned but left out of the photocopied packet) with two little Le Guin short stories: "Mazes" and "The Wife's Story." I'll be very curious to see the responses. (And I put the students back in groups today--and yes, class went better.) I also have decided to assign Avatar along with The Word for World Is Forest. Essay topics still completely unclear to me, but I'm getting closer to ideas...

I could probably keep nattering about all this, but I need to get home--and before I leave, I need to at least make a few notes for myself of what I have to take home over the weekend. I've started yet another triage list--this one just for this weekend. (I still am not making lists of my lists, but I'm frighteningly close.) And I will be doing all I can to be here as close to 9 a.m. tomorrow as humanly possible, so I can--please god--get a running start at the remaining essays to grade, and still (maybe??) have periodic breathers in the parade of students in which I can tend to e-mail (which silts up the work in-box frighteningly quickly) and start sorting out the teetering piles of paper all over my work spaces, at least making nice neat stacks if not actually getting some of it taken care of and shoveled out the door.

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