This is the season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. In the Episcopal tradition in which I grew up, and whose rhythms still influence my own, Advent is a season of lights — the Advent wreath, with its four candles (one for each week of the season), is its primary symbol. It is also a season of anticipation, of waiting, and of hope.
It is a season, in other words, entirely at odds with our current academic season, which is one of wrapping things up, of coming to conclusions, as well as of anxiety and stress and overload.
It is odd to be both beginning and ending at the same time, though of course in reality we’re always doing some of each. I met with my students today for the last time, and as they presented their work, I could see some of them making new beginnings, not just putting a final stamp on the semester. That was reinvigorating — I’m in the midst of grading their final papers right now, and they don’t all (as is so often the case) fulfill the potential that was promised in the presentations. Yet the optimism of those presentations is real: for all the students may be telling me what I want to hear — “I learned that children’s literature is more complex than I had previously known” — they also expressed genuine surprise, pleasure, and understanding of issues that, I can tell, will continue to inspire them.
One of the great pleasures of teaching children’s literature, of course, is that the texts are simple enough that the main meat of the course is skill-building. Because my students do not need my help in working their way through, say, Charlotte’s Web in the way that they would need help working their way through Paradise Lost or even Aurora Leigh, we can spend more time on the skills of close reading, historical analysis, gender analysis, and the like, than we might if we needed simply to establish the particulars of a plot. My students tend not to be English majors, so I walk them through the conventions of literary analysis, hoping that they will manage to make some connections to their other work. One student said so explicitly, making the connection between the analysis of a short passage as an exemplar of a larger work, and his own scientific research, which may be focused on the molecular level but has implications for the larger organism. Another talked about her new concern with literacy—though she hopes to be a science teacher, she realizes now how important reading will be to helping her students learn science. A third saw, with hindsight, a continuing preoccupation with child development in her work in the course, and linked it to her work as a psychology major.
The semester-review presentation is a new thing for me — I added it to my class this year in an attempt to give students some time to reflect on their learning. Too often, as I suggested above, the end of term is just a time to get through — exams, final papers, and final presentations pile up on top of one another, and while each assignment may indeed be an opportunity for learning, it’s hard for some students to do much more than the bare minimum when everything is happening all at once. So perhaps I did manage to build a little Advent into finals week — we shared some cookies, talked informally, and then listened attentively as each student explained how s/he had found some unity in the semester’s work. Somewhat to my surprise, we even managed to have a little discussion when two or three students happened to present about the same novel. We might not have lit a candle, but that did seem to bring a little light into the room.