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The Class That Never Ends
July 13, 2010 - 7:10pm

My graduate department gave particularly brutal comprehensive exams. For our major field, we were expected to answer three questions in a 24-hour period. Our advisers claimed that it was never intended to be an all-night exam, but for hyper-competitive and insecure graduate students, the tradition was to prove your mettle by staying up all night, writing erudite, thoughtful and, by four in the morning, incomprehensible essays. I recall quipping to my adviser as I prepped for the exam “when you’re a professor do you often get calls in the middle of the night to solve some emergency surrounding the difference between defensive and offensive realism?”

Now I’m a professor. And it turns out, yes, you do.

Of course, the calls (or rather, knocks on the door) have nothing to do with whether Huntington’s thesis was misguided or brilliant. They are of the emergency variety: a kid who thinks his roommate is dying of malaria (food poisoning), calls to help a student who is having a seizure, hugs for another whose fiance who has gone MIA in Kabul after an attack, tracking stolen cameras, calming severe homesickness, culture shock, broken hearts and academic freak-outs. I have become accustomed to my students seeing me not at my best, as I morning-stumble to the dorm bathroom we share, struggle with my own queasiness at meal times, trying to teach class while suffering from typhoid, become snappish from exhaustion, or (gasp) they see me dance at a club.

Such is the life of the professor who leads international short-term faculty led programs. It is a month-long program where you are on stage 24/7. It is the class that never ends.

I have been leading these programs for over five years, to a variety of countries: South Africa, Thailand, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, India and Indonesia. My programs all center on community development and social entrepreneurship, where students spend an intensive month devising solutions for the problems they see around them. The program is by no means a vacation (although we do have fun), and I am by no means simply a tour leader. I am teacher, adviser, first-response medical team, disciplinarian, friend and, admittedly, sometimes the mommy. I plan the curriculum, make all the contacts and oversee the budget. I am responsible for every detail of the program, and it takes months of planning. I sometimes question my own sanity.

The work fits in well with my own research, and the field research the students conduct during the program serves as a convenient survey of community organizations, future research contacts and real-world data. Time is always precious, but I’ve come to realize that I will never be happy sitting in a library or alone at my desk, pounding out articles that no one will read. I have to get my hands dirty, to listen to people talk, and I need to feel that sense of dislocation that helps me push myself to my limits. My academic life has been expanded in ways I never thought possible–that I can accomplish all of this while teaching is definitely a bonus.

There is something wonderfully satisfying in getting to know my students on such a personal level. In a regular class I wouldn’t know that the kid with the goofy affect and a complete lack of writing skill was actually a talented community organizer. I wouldn’t have heard a student tell me her hopes and dreams if it weren’t for that starry night on a remote island. I wouldn’t really know how much students do care about their work, and how much they struggle to impress professors. I wouldn’t know that they are just scared kids sometimes.

Academia, if we simply think of it as discrete sets of activities – teaching, writing, researching, service – can be a job like any other. But academia, if we think about it in terms of an ongoing process – a class that never ends – with limitless possibilities for connecting us to people, ideas, ourselves, and yes, even incredible adventures, can be fulfilling and deeply satisfying. It can be that emergency call in the middle of the night, to step up to the challenges we always secretly hoped for when we were students ourselves.


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