The Week Three Clean and Jerk
I have been meeting one-on-one with my new baby freshmen for the past two weeks. Every year I am assigned 20 new ones and they are required to be in my three-credit First-Year Seminar for fall semester (and for the one-credit follow up course in spring). The first question I ask each one goes something like this: "So after X many days in college, what do you think?"
The answers vary, but the one I fear is "It's not really as hard as I thought it would be."
Very few of my students have been aimed at higher education like cruise missiles. Most amble in with a vague sense of what college is and, often, an even vaguer sense of who they are and where they want to end up. They're here because they have heard that you need a degree to avoid a crappy job, or they wanted to keep playing a sport, or their high school somehow lacked a 13th grade. This is just the next place you go when you are done with what came before.
Not a few of these kids swanned through high school blowing off reading, turning in the bare minimum, memorizing just enough to pass an exam. High School was for many of them pro forma, a joke, a mug's game. I've got two weeks--three tops--to convince them college is different. After that they know it all.
And they really do arrive here hoping it will be different. They want to change their approach. I have them set goals for themselves in a paper due at the second class meeting, and these goals are honest and earnest in the way only an 18-year-old can be earnest.
- In high school I never really read. I want to read and really understand things at a deeper level.
- I know my writing is bad. I want to strengthen it.
- I kind of blew off a lot my senior year. I sure don't want to do that in college.
Add to that meeting four times last week on a hiring committee for a new Admissions Director, and this week standing in for a colleague with a father in the last stages of life, and it's been a nearly impossible lift. Up every morning at 4:00 am to read, grade and prepare, grading every night after dinner...
But these two or three weeks are the most crucial weeks in my baby freshmen's college experience. They have to get the message that the same old approach will yield the same old results. So I growl, I cajole, I sweet talk and I bluff. Whatever it takes. I found myself writing this on a kid's paper last night:
Ahem, a few words about turning in your best effort. This looks like it was dashed off and given a once over with spell check. That won’t cut it. You are in a university now and the expectations are higher. So let’s slow down, read your paper aloud before hitting print and catch the little things. You are paying for an education and I’m determined to give you one, but you have to step up. So this is the last time you hand in work with un-capitalized proper nouns. This isn’t a text message. Let’s get in the ball park. Show me what you can do. I’ll shower you with praise when you do. Promise.Yesterday in my 100-level Humanities section I found myself explaining the Greek idea of a kairotic moment. This is a moment when an opportunity arises that must be seized or rejected. You have a choice, but once the choice is made the outcome is determined and the opportunity will not come again. Think Oedipus at the crossroad. That way lies Corinth, that way lies Thebes, and who is this disagreeable man in my way?
And I do promise.
And I do promise.
The first three weeks of a kid's freshmen year is a kairotic moment. It will not come again. And it is the great tragedy of life that we seldom recognize these things when they appear.