Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sitting in judgment

The strangeness of finals week was incapsulated in the day's activities. In the morning I answered e-mails, worked on an encyclopedia article that's due on Thursday, and wrote a letter to send to applicants to the Honors College who are being put on an alternate list. In the afternoon I sat in a staff meeting, then in a committee to pick the outstanding thesis award winners from thirteen nominees, then in a meeting to revise the fall freshman curriculum. This evening I went out with my family to eat Chinese food, gave my daughter a bath and put her to bed, then chopped apples, halved grapes, sliced bananas, and mixed them with pineapple, grapefruit, and orange slices to make fruit salad for my freshman exam potluck tomorrow.

Sitting on committees that judge student work, then coming home to make fruit salad to serve to other students the next day -- those are two extremes on the odd continuum of the faculty member. I confess that I don't feel perfectly comfortable in either role. The first sets me over the students as the gatekeeper guarding the world of scholarship, where only the best gain admittance. The second positions me as the students' servant, perhaps, or a host, offering them gifts and hoping that they'll enjoy my party.

Where I prefer to be is somewhere in the middle. My mentor Norb used to be fond of saying that we ought to be "a guide by the side, not a sage on the stage." And what I love to do is accompany my students on their journey.

At this time of the year, I find myself stepping back as the students take the reins. I work overtime setting up the structure of the collaborative writing/editing final project for the class, appointing student managers, social-engineering teams, and exhaustively describing the process. Then the class takes over completely for the last few weeks. I have little to do but marvel at their ability to teach themselves.

That can lead to a bit of a lonely feeling. Am I really needed? But that's what we all want, eventually -- for our students to grow up and out of our orbit. The more than can do it before graduation, the more confident and able they will be when they no longer have us at all.

No comments: