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 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?
- 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.
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.