Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Saying Goodbye

Many thanks to Paul Larson, whose blog on goodbyes got me to thinking about this topic. 

The end of the semester is always a good time for me. By this point, many students have learned to think analytically, or write with a little more panache, or have found a favorite writer, poet, or literary work. Maybe they've learned to love reading more than they did, or maybe they've found a voice they didn't know they had.  If any of those things have happened, I feel I've done a good thing. 

Teaching writing and literature usually leads students to "confess."  This year, I taught an autobiography class, which of course led to a lot of sharing.  The book my students connected to more than any was one called Paula by Isabel Allende, a beautiful true story of a woman trying to write her young daughter out of a coma and into existence once again.  One of my students had to excuse herself from the discussion, since she was currently spending her evenings next to her terminally ill father, going through the exact stages of grief outlined in the book. Another had coached her abusive, meth-addict father through the end of his life just recently. Another had never known his father, except for a fleeting glimpse of him in the street. Another had made the decision to pull the plug on his dad's life-support machine and was still angry at himself (and, as a result, the book) for telling his father it was "ok to let go."

So, the point is that I got to know a lot about these remarkable people in a short amount of time, and just yesterday they turned in their papers and left. I'll grade them as fairly as I can, attempting to block out any connections I made with that class while I do, and then I'll post the grades and begin teaching the intersession class that looms ever closer.  But I can't shake how anticlimactic that end-of-year  -- or any -- goodbye can be.  I never have been able to, not in 7 years.

My way of dealing with goodbye as a teacher is usually just to awkwardly smile at the students as they leave and pretend this is all just part of teaching, or part of living, or maybe a little of both.  Goodbyes are on my mind quite a bit these days, really. So if I don't make a big production out of leaving you this summer, when we begin our trek east, don't think twice about it. It just means I'm not ready to let you go. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Abandoning an Agenda

Most professors will tell you they never teach with an agenda, that they don't try to push their beliefs onto their students. But the truth is that any teacher in a classroom does this to a certain degree. It's rather hard not to do so. Let's say you're faced with a room full of racists, and you're reading a book about empowered black women. Would it be wrong to encourage your students to rethink their stereotype of the African-American community so that they can approach the book in a way that allows them to appreciate these characters?  Let's say you're faced with a room full of homophobes, and you're all reading a book about a lesbian who refuses to apologize for finally finding the one person who makes her happy.  Would it be wrong to encourage the students to be open to this literary character's admirable strength in the face of oppression, despite the students' reservations regarding what they do not understand?

I find I'm faced with this delicate balance every day.  At what point am I teaching them to think for themselves, and at what point am I encouraging them to see the world as I do? I'm constantly faced with people who say things like, "Homosexuality is an aberration of God," just like I might casually remark, "That's a very nice lamp you have there."  As if they haven't just shunned an entire group of people based on a narrow reading of one Biblical passage.  And I have to struggle each time with how to respond. Do I take the expansive, professorial role and say, "Oh? And what informs that opinion?" in an effort to get them to examine their beliefs? Do I point out that their profession of intolerance could've just isolated 1/4 of the room? Do I shake them by the shoulders for their close-mindedness? I'm happy to say I have never chosen option #3, though getting a little riled up has its benefits.