(Sing joy spring)
A rare and most mysterious spring
(This most occult thing)
Is buried deep in the soul
(Its story never has been told)
— Jon Hendricks
The end of spring quarters past — before the University of Cincinnati this year made the semester conversion — had left me euphoric.
No more slogging through piles of badly written student papers.
No more listening to lying co-eds who lie as a diversionary tactic to distract me from their lethargy, disorganization and laziness.
No more second chances.
No more middle-of-the night emails filled with all manner of co-ed melodrama.
No more endless mornings and afternoons of prep; no more handing weekends over to reading and editing student work.
The thing that made me happiest was the freedom from worrying about how some students had gotten to third-year university writing classes without remedial understanding and utilization of basic grammar, spelling and syntax.
Teaching college is rewarding as hell.
Teaching college is worrisome as hell.
At the end of past spring classes I’d spend weeks in a thick-headed fog, obsessing over the state of America’s education system; I was confused by our simultaneous political demonization of China and our dependence on Chinese students to grow and improve our science and technology departments.
Meanwhile, many lazy American students neither exhibit the work ethic we ascribe to the Chinese, nor are they interested in tips or assistance to liberate them from bad habits and even worse academic behavior.
Wow, I used to think.
Then in spring 2009 — after three years of teaching it — I realized how piously I had been thinking.
Oh yeah. If they knew all this stuff, they wouldn’t need us.
Oh yeah. College is more than what a student can be tested on or expected to remember about Associated Press style.
Yeah, college is about character, choices, responsibility, communication and I realized — and thank God I did — college-level instructors don’t always tell these young adults what the specifics of real-world expectations of them will be.
Further, some (enough to make an impression) hadn’t been spoken to or treated like adults until they’d encountered me.
I know this because they told me so.
The anonymous course evaluations bear them out.
My gruff, profane, brusque, scabrous and racially and socially verbose teaching style takes getting used to, but we get to know one another, and along the way they make their expectations of me clear and I do the same for them.
Some do not make it through, and they slowly disappear as though bowing out of the light.
I have tried to identify those people very early in the class and lock eyes with them and tell them I am available to help. And I only give them my Come-to-Jesus conversation when they come to me, usually to “see what I can do to pass this class.”
It is usually late in the course; they are usually superficially contrite; I usually let them talk.
Then I raise a hand — which, in Universal Sign Language, means “Stop!”
Then I carefully and lovingly and, with great directness that is killing me on the inside, deconstruct their bad behaviors, their lying ways and their feeble attempts at charm, swagger and manipulation.
And I tell them I was just like them once.
I tell them I still am like them sometimes.
I tell them how difficult their lives — their real lives and not their working lives — will be if they do not straighten themselves out. Then I lay that miserable grade on them and tell them specifically what they can do to get the hell out of my life, to pass, to get the grade they want or even feel they deserve.
And it all became too much.
But just when I was down for the count and crawling toward daylight, it’d be time to post grades and to scrounge for work until fall rolled around.
And I realize now I’ve taken all that dysfunction for granted. Because after seven springs of teaching journalism at UC, the end of this quarter marks a bittersweet end and beginning. Budget slashes require that class offerings and, therefore, teachers be cut, so I have no classes for fall/winter semester.
Maybe none beyond that.
It’s a strange irony because this semester I was blessed with two advanced writing classes — reporting and magazine writing. It was my first time teaching either class as well as my first time teaching two classes in journalism.
Some of the students ran the usual gamut.
But this isn’t about student assessment. Teaching now for me has shifted from traditional ideas and distractions to a higher ground, to validating personal experiences; helping students leap the chasm; separating old-school expectations the world holds for them from whom it is they’re dying to be.
Then and only then can we write about anything, I tell them.
And so I am asking them to come on and grow the fuck up.
And to get them to trust me to do it I format the classroom into a playground of freedom and creativity and critical thought for the malleable mind.
Still, no matter how much I prep and make sure they understand the parameters of respect I expect, I’m never fully prepared for what someone’s going to say about their childhood, their parents, their social cliques, other professors and instructors, their drug or alcohol habits or their self-esteem.
This spring semester was a glorious 15 weeks of frustration, exhaustion, challenges and education.
Mostly, I learned.
I learned to listen.
I learned to extend myself to the lengthiest point possible.
I learned to keep giving without the expectation of reciprocity.
I learned to especially teach the students the least willing to be taught.
I learned there are American families turning out some hard-working, talented, capable and bright writers, and I learned how patriotism doesn’t always revolve around guns and flags, that intellectual might is a form of national pride.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org