I don’t even remember when I got into the habit of requiring “post-semester” conferences with my composition students.
The final assignment is a big one, the thing we’ve been building to all semester, and along with the final draft of the essay or article, they turn in portfolios of their research and work product, thick stacks of material that take me hours to sort through and assess. Like every other teacher of writing, I dread grading, except that when I dig into these final projects, I often find myself lost in their work, tracing the story of how the materials made their way to the page, the journey from initial idea to finished product.
Each essay or article has a story attached to it, the story of that essay’s creation. Sometimes it’s a love story, the student being ignited by the subject and doing by far her best work of the semester. Sometimes it’s a thriller, the end result in doubt up to the last moment, but with a final push, the student manages to get the assignment over the finish line.
There’s the occasional horror story as well, or worse, tragedies, but let’s not dwell on those.
Before requiring conferences, I would work through the portfolios and prepare a long, typed summary comment, in many cases topping 1000 words. Upon finishing, I would stack the portfolios outside my office door and tell students to pick them up at their convenience.
Maybe 50-60% were claimed. The rest would get tossed a week into the next semester. This was beyond irritating, so I decided to start requiring students to come talk to me for a 10 minute conference. I figured at the least I wouldn’t have to look at that pile of unclaimed work.
The benefits have gone far beyond lowering my levels of irritation. I soon realized the value of having a little conversation and reflection once the heat of academic production was over. From the student perspective, the end of the semester seems to be a headlong sprint into a brick wall, after which they collapse to the ground, rousing themselves to consciousness just in time to start it over again in a few weeks or months. To meet outside that dynamic has been very enlightening.
Questions I have while grading the assignments can be answered? Why did this go so wrong? Why did this go so right? Often, the horror stories and tragedies are rooted almost entirely in external factors that make school an afterthought. The love stories teach me a lot about my own teaching, how the messages I deliver are in turn received.
I now often solicit suggestions for the upcoming semester, asking them about certain readings or policies or changes I’m considering making. The students are thoughtful and honest – school’s over, there’s nothing to lose. The talk is more like two colleagues mulling together, rather than student/teacher, both of us considering the problem of teaching composition.
It’s really fun and interesting, but I also find myself with a tinge of melancholy this time of year as I experience that particular and peculiar “end of camp” feeling.
Remember camp? For two or four or eight weeks (if your parents really wanted to get rid of you, or you be rid of them), you find yourself in a separate world with its own rules and rhythms and language and jokes. The bonds form fast and in the moment feel permanent.
But at the end of the summer after the hugs and tears and promises to write (or Snapchat now, I suppose), we know, deep down that it’s time to head our separate ways, that any attempt to prolong the experience is doomed to failure.
The end of the semester feels that way. If the course has worked, the class has forged a bond, something meaningful, but also something that is ending, and all we get to retain are our memories of the experience.
I am a Midwesterner, so melancholy is an emotion that feels comfortable to me. It is appropriate to that final moment student and teacher will sit across from each other. We may give each other a head nod and “what’s up?” when passing on campus in coming years, and some of them will seek me out for additional counsel or recommendations, but the odds say that our paths are unlikely to cross again.
Which is okay, better than okay, actually. It’s the way things should be. As we confront a “future” of education that increasingly seems to find little value in these experiences, I’m trying to be even more appreciative, as there’s a time on the MOOCy horizon where these experiences no longer exist.
My favorite part of the conferences is the end, as we wrap things up and the student stands, and almost always they offer a hand to shake, a gesture of fellowship for which I am both grateful and humbled.
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