I passed another milestone of middle age last week: new eyeglasses with progressive lenses. And, as everyone told me, it’s taking me some time to adjust. So I’m feeling a little off-kilter as I begin the week. I look at my computer screen and it takes me a little while to find the right combination of distance from screen/angle of head/direction of vision so that I can actually read what I am writing. I get up and have to shake my head gently to refocus and manage the distance vision. But I must say, it’s a joy to be able to look down from whatever I’m doing and read — my cellphone, a recipe, a book — without having to search for reading glasses.
It will be a while yet before I retire all the reading glasses, of course. I keep a couple of pairs in my office, one in the kitchen, one or two scattered around various other rooms in the house in case I walk into one and need to read something. It happens more often than you might think. And I’m not quite ready to get rid of the crutch that has helped me for so long.
I’m thinking this off-kilter status is a metaphor. This semester I’m teaching a non-majors class, an introduction to children’s literature, and my sense is that so far most of my students are feeling fairly off-kilter. They are all juniors and seniors, well advanced in their college careers, and many of them are taking their first college English class. They are accounting and finance majors, psychology majors and biologists, and they’re not really used to writing about books. So they sit down to do their work for class, and it takes a minute (maybe more) to focus correctly, to find the right lens for what they’re doing. It’s not transparent.
Although I’m on my own for getting comfortable with my new lenses, when you take a class, it’s someone else’s job—mine, in this case!—to help make that work transparent, to help find the proper focus. I like teaching non-majors for just this reason, actually. It’s a challenge to lose my “expert blind spot”—to figure out what it is that my students find difficult when so much of it seems like second nature to me. There’s a pleasure in teaching more advanced students as well, of course, but with these non-majors I get unexpected questions—and sometimes, therefore, new insights—almost every day. And as the lenses click into focus for them their contributions to class discussion get richer, their blog posts more pointed, and both they and I can see the progress they’ve made.
That’s at its best, of course. Some of them will remain off-kilter all semester, despite their and my best efforts. Right now, as I struggle to adjust to my new lenses, I sympathize with them; I share their fear that it may never come clear, may never be easy. But, oh, that moment when it all comes into focus! I can only hope we all get there, eventually.