Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stop all the clocks

On Friday the semester comes to a close, which means I have reached the end of another academic year, my 25th to be precise.  Next week the Board of Trustees and the president will give me a desk clock.  Tick, tick, tick.  Not that I'm ungrateful, mind you.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we mark these little milestones.  Still I might prefer something more germane to the job: a course release for a semester, a few extra bucks in my faculty development account.  Heck, I would even go for a few stiff drinks on the house.

It's been that kind of semester.

The biggest challenge was teaching a course made up of academically-challenged and at-risk students.  Even though I adjusted the course and scaffolded the hell out of the assignments, I just could not get all of them over the finish line.  Two disappeared and a good number will likely have to leave as the result of consecutive semesters of academic probation.  Many days I just felt like I was tormenting them more than helping them. 

Add to that transitioning my mother to assisted living, selling her house, getting her to various doctors for her cancer treatments (currently in remission) and managing the sturm and drang of a son with a major case of being thirteen and, yeah, a stiff drink might do nicely.  But I will just have to settle for that clock.  Like I need another reminder that time is passing.

Tick, tick, tick...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


My old undergraduate German professor once began waxing on about Faust after our class had done poorly on its last examination. To be specific, he was talking about Faust, Part II, a work seldom taught even in German schools.  It's apparently complicated and difficult to understand without an extensive knowledge of classical philosophy and literature.    

Anyway, Herr Professor told us how Faust--grown very old now--had become a high-ranking minister for a powerful king.  In this role, he finds himself engaged in a massive engineering project using dikes and dams to hold back the sea.  Beset by obstacles and setbacks, he is discussing all of his plans to improve the lives of his people and it is at this precise moment that he realizes he is happy.  Big mistake.  Happiness was the payoff Mephistopheles had promised in return for Faust's soul.  And so the old man promptly drops dead.

"You see?" My German professor said. "It is in the struggle, the work, the toil.  Only there do we find bliss."  Then he shook his head and muttered that the translation was impossible. "English lacks the strength, the vigor," he groaned. "It cannot communicate the true meaning of Bemühen!" 

Later I looked up this word in my German/English dictionary (er, Wörterbuch), only to find the following: Sich Bemühen
to try
to bestir
to bother
to strive
to attempt
to struggle
to take pains

to put forth an effort 

Now, some 30 years later, I think I am just beginning to understand what bemühen actually means.  And, appropriately enough, it has been teaching a group of academically challenged students this semester that has brought this most Germanic of words to mind.  More than once I've been stymied, exasperated and flummoxed by this class.  More than once I've had to back up and go over the most basic of concepts again (and again).  Gains have been incremental, breakthroughs rare.

For the past two weeks I have been helping them write a paper that synthesizes multiple sources--a basic first-year task--and we've worked in class to accomplish one paragraph each day, which they then send me and I critique and have it back to them by 6:00 pm so they can revise it and be ready to start the next paragraph in the morning.  I've helped them hunt sources, explained tirelessly the criteria for judging sources, explained the value of topic sentences, reminded them that proper nouns need to capitalized...  

Often I have corrected the same misstep four, five, six times.  I don't think I've ever worked harder to make so little progress, but I damn well made some progress.  Today the paper was due and I just glanced over them.  Not great, but not gruesome.   Also today I had them analyze their effort.  I gave them a worksheet with four boxes.  In each box was a question they could answer anonymously:
  • What project or assignment this semester was your greatest challenge?  Why?
  • How did you respond to the challenge?
  • Was there ever a time you felt like giving up?  What did you do?
  • What academic accomplishment are you most proud of this semester?
They wrote for a while and then I scrambled their responses and put the class into small groups of four so they could share what was written on the worksheets.  On the board we made a list of Grit Hits, stories that showed perseverance in the face of challenge. One kid wrote this:
  • My test scores were low and I kept getting low scores.  I called my mom crying, wanting to give up and drop out because I felt so stupid.  My self-esteem went down.  My confidence was crushed.  I responded by getting a tutor and doing every assignment over to boost my grade.
I confessed to them that this course had been challenging to me too, especially giving them timely, detailed feedback every single night for the past two weeks.  I had originally planned to spend the last week of class watching and critiquing a movie--you know, bring the semester to a soft landing.  But I said if they were willing to work, I would give over the last several classes to helping them revise earlier assignments and making them better.  If they would work hard on a strong finish, I would work hard.

They voted on the reverse side of the anonymous Self-Analysis Worksheets.  Final tally: 13 for gritting it out; three for the movie. I've been moaning to my wife about this course and these students all semester, but today they almost made me happy.

I say almost.   Don't want to drop dead just yet. 


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...