At this point in the semester, my students – who once seemed an amorphous blob of Kaylas, Kyras, and Karas — have emerged as distinct, complicated, and often intriguing personalities.
As always, the courses I’ve carefully planned on paper fail to take into account the living, breathing people who comprise them. And while I challenge myself to design courses that engage and inspire every type of student, it is of course the students themselves who define the course’s identity.
I’ve often wished that we could meet with our students before the semester begins, before we select our texts and plan the syllabus. That way, we could learn what the students already know, their strengths and weaknesses. But I get to know students in a random, haphazard fashion and I can’t predict which ones will emerge as troubled, brilliant, wise, engaging, or all of the above. Some students seek me out, some respond to a stray comment or email, and others a chance encounter.
As an example, this semester has been immeasurably buoyed by the presence of my teaching assistant, Melissa. An enigmatic, charming, and intellectually vibrant young woman, Melissa’s presence in my large general education courses has tempered the atmosphere, making it more personal and welcoming. Our conversations after class sometimes veer away from pedagogy to personal matters and before I knew it, we’d become friends.
However, getting to know students can be heart-breaking as well. This week an outgoing, vivacious young woman came to my office to explain why she had (uncharacteristically) missed classes. “I’ve been dealing with some grief and apathy,” she stated in her email. I prepared myself for a story of a recent breakup, or the loss of a grandparent, but I what I heard instead was a narration of unimaginable sorrow, calmly told by someone who had clearly come to terms and accepted more in her 19 years than I’ve experienced in 45. I had little to offer her, and she clearly wasn’t asking for anything – not an extension on her work, not advice, not even sympathy. Perhaps she told me her story in order to be real in the classroom, be known.
I realize that a power imbalance exists between teacher and student, and that careful boundaries have to be maintained. Certainly professors do not need the extra burden of being students’ counselors — nor are we qualified to do so. However, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that students don’t respond to us as people, or that teaching exists outside of the personal, the human.