Silver and Exact

I was talking to a colleague the other day about a student we both know. He was composing a letter of recommendation to graduate school for her and we both began to tell each other stories about having her in class. This particular young woman showed up at the college four-years ago lacking confidence and completely unaware of how much potential she possessed.

I had her in the honors seminar during the spring semester of her freshman year. She began the class unable to organize her thoughts, formulate an argument or write a paper. I knew there was something there, though. She asked intuitively bright questions and was always three steps ahead of the room in sensing when an idea was weak or lead to troubling implications.

Over the course of that semester I growled, I begged, I cajoled, I pleaded and even resorted to shameless emotional blackmail to get her to play my little academic game. When she finally did, I heaped praise upon her. Indeed, she wrote an absolutely wonderful paper comparing and contrasting Victor Frankenstein to Emerson's idealized scholar, Man-Thinking. What I loved best about that paper was not that she finally cited a damned source or gave me a clear thesis statement. No, what I loved was that the argument was uniquely her own. She was using the game I taught her to argue seriously about something that mattered to her.

During that spring semester, too, I happened to be standing in the hallway talking to two other professors. I mentioned that I had this odd new student in my honors seminar who had turned into something of a project for me. "Really," they said. "Who is it?" I told them and they both laughed. It turns out all three of us were making a project of the same student. Somehow this lost, clueless 18 year-old had wandered into our midst and all of us saw how wonderful she was behind her unformed skills and lack of confidence.

I really doubt that the paper she wrote for me four years ago was much of an "aha!" moment. That kind of thing only happens in Hollywood films. In reality students change slowly and it's hard to manufacture a transformative assignment, course experience or comment. The process of change is more like an accretion over time. An accounting major, for example, might take a life drawing course, and the professor will look at his work and say, "Hey, that's not bad." Without realizing it, that kid has subtly changed. He's gone from being an accounting major to an accounting major who can draw. He always could, of course; he just couldn't see it until the professor said it was there. In the end, my job often amounts to little more than holding a mirror in front of students to get them to see what's been there all along. And sometimes--but certainly not always--it comes into focus and they see it.

Yesterday, for example, I was handing back an assignment to a student who had done some good work in a paper comparing Plato and Milton on humanity's fallen nature. I asked her, "When are you going to give up this nonsense about being a biology major and get serious about studying literature?" She just laughed and shook her head. But I wasn't really trying to get her to change majors and don't expect she will. I just wanted her to see that she could.


Radostina said…
I am amazed and shocked (in a good way) how devoted you and your colleagues are to helping your students develop their full potential and how you really do care for them. And you are so proud of their achievments.
I wish my teachers had been that supportive. At my university they would just grade your paper and ummm...basically that was it. You never got a comment or anything. Nothing at all.
Professor Quest said…
Ironically I was just talking yesterday with two colleagues about writing comments on student papers. I probably wouldn't give so much feedback if it didn't work. But the students tell me time and again that it's tremendously helpful.

I also think it's what they should expect when they select a small college over a large university. I used to joke with our president that our institutional motto ought to be "We go to your wedding."

What kills me is that we invest all this time and effort into these students, and then they just leave! They don't call, they don't write... Poof, they're gone. It just breaks your damned heart.

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