Mothering at Mid-Career: Gratitude, Anxiety, and the Residential College Experience
November 12, 2012 - 6:46pm
Last week I received my daughter's last college tuition bill. When I started writing this blog, she had not yet graduated from high school -- can it be? I looked at the tuition bill with a mixture of anxiety and gratitude.
Gratitude, that we have the means to pay it. Anxiety, that it is still a little more than we're comfortable paying.
Gratitude, that she has had such a wonderful college experience. Anxiety, that the next step is not yet clear to her.
Gratitude, that she has the tools now to make a good decision about that next step. Anxiety about the world she is stepping into.
Gratitude, that she will be home soon for a visit. Anxiety, that the visits soon may not be on a regular schedule.
Gratitude, that we won't be paying anyone else's tuition bills for a while. Anxiety, that we still have a child to shepherd through high school.
While so far I've been balancing the gratitude and the anxiety, I really think the gratitude wins out. What a pleasure to have been along for the ride on another college experience! (And with no assignments, no papers--just tidbits from the interesting classes.)
I am writing this blog post just after watching the Epic2020 video in a faculty learning community meeting. I am not yet sure I'm willing to say that the private residential college is about to become (or has already?) a "maturational holding pen for the children of the wealthy," as the video has it. I've seen the value it's added to my daughter's life over the last four years, the value it has added to my own students, many of them far from wealthy or privileged, who have found in community the kind of learning experience that I did as well, thirty years ago. For my daughter, the classes have been combined with singing in an a cappella group, volunteering at the radio station, late nights talking about books and movies with housemates, paid and unpaid work off and on campus, and probably far more that I don't know about or can't remember. It's not that one can't get those experiences elsewhere; it's that the residential college accommodates, expects, and prepares for them. I can see my students in class and in the library, in cafes and at music performances. And every time I do, they and I get a fuller picture of each other, thus giving us a deeper, richer context for our discussions of books and ideas. So far online learning seems to offer some terrific ways to impart information and even to teach some skills, but I'm still missing the depth of the college experience in them, the encouragement to collaborate and test one's ideas against not only those who are also enrolled in the same course with you, but those who wouldn't come near it. My daughter spent her first year in college in a dorm with a higher than usual proportion of engineering students--folks she never would have met if they had not lived together. Knowing them sharpened her ability to defend her study of the humanities, and (I hope) gave them a new perspective on what they were learning as well.
Last year I ran a workshop for prospective first-year seminar faculty, as I do every spring. This past spring I had some wonderful co-facilitators who brought in exercises and ideas I hadn't thought of. One, telling a story about pre- and post-testing in introductory Physics, posed the following question to the faculty group: If A and B are in two cars heading towards each other at the same speed, should A swerve to hit a wall, or stay on the same course and collide into B head on? The physicists in the room laughed at our near-universal preference for swerving, knowing as they did that in terms of the damage done to A (both driver and car) the results would be the same. But as we continued to talk, their response changed, as they saw how many of the humanists took this to be an ethical problem rather than a physics problem: you swerve, they said, to avoid hurting B, even if the result is the same for A.
That's what you get in a residential college: a recognition that questions have different answers in different disciplines. A synergy, at its best, among students, faculty, and community. It doesn't always work, of course. But when it does, I'm far more grateful than anxious.