Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.
The end of the any academic semester is never free of its small human dramas. A few students show up after weeks of missing class and desperate to undo the damage they've done. There are also anxious grade grubbers who begin to argue every point or cajole you for extra credit. All this is not to mention the general miasma of student stress that hovers over the campus. Indeed, nearly every conversation with students is now about one thing: THE FINAL GRADE.
So constricted is the focus on the grade that it's easy to forget I'm not really in the grading business. I'm actually in the human growth business. And the key term here is human. So here were some dramatic human moments that happened in the course of business over the past few weeks.
- I sent out an email to students staring down the barrel of mathematically certain Fs. I told them that their grade neither defined them nor said anything about their potential for success. I encouraged them not to give up or check out. If they completed all remaining assignments and wrote a sincere final reflection paper analyzing what they could have done differently (and what they would do differently were they taking the course again), I would elevate their grade from F to D. Not sure if this is the right thing to do, but I hate to see students give up on themselves. If they keep at it, that says something to me. So this past Monday a kid I haven't seen since early November walks into the final and sits down to write a heartfelt analysis of how he gave up on the course and grew so ashamed of himself that he couldn't bear to face me. I told him I didn't give a damn about his grade. I cared about him and admired the heck out of his willingness to face his anxiety and come for the final.
- I also got a late-night email from a C student who just wanted to apologize for not doing as well in my course as he wanted. Again, I had to take the focus off of the grade. I emailed back that that no one will give a rip about his GPA ten seconds after he graduates. What matters is his growth and development and I've seen plenty of that this semester. We talked after class one day and I learned that his life story is more complicated (and heartbreaking) than I realized. It's amazing he's hung in there this far.
- Last Friday I sat down to write end-of-term cards to all of my first-year seminar students, congratulating them on completing their semester. I always try to personalize these cards, noting how someone grew or overcame a difficulty. One young woman in my FYS has had her fair share of family and financial issues this fall, but she has hung in there and completed the semester. I told her how much I admired her grit and that--as we discussed in class--grit was often the most important ingredient for success. And she has it, by god.
- Then, at the faculty meeting last Thursday, one of my colleagues took me aside and asked me how long I had been at the college. Twenty-eight years, I told him. He kind of shook his head and said "How do you do it? I don't know how much longer I can keep going." There was such a weariness in his voice that it took me aback. This is one of the most upbeat, positive people I know. I didn't really have an answer, so I just mumbled something like 'I know it feels futile at times and you start to wonder if it anything you do really makes much of a difference, but it does matter to the students.' This guy is a good professor who cares deeply about his students and I told him so. His good teaching matters. Despite all the crap of higher education, he still makes a difference. He matters.
So these have been the small human moments of the last few weeks of this semester. I have not done a single thing that will show up on my annual update or my vita. I haven't been published in scholarly journals or pioneered any nifty new teaching strategies. Truth be told, I haven't even been teaching all that well.
It's just been business as usual.