Last week, our talented intern, Christine Lengle, posted a lovely account on what goes on inside the Newton walls. Since she offered a current student’s perspective, let me give you a little bit of my perspective as a professor.
When you approach our building, you will invariably see students clustered in the airways between the Newton wing that hosts classes and the wing that holds offices. That little strip of concrete is softened by benches and corkboards announcing events, club meets, rooms for rent and sundry opportunities. There are a few benches and two sets of stairs leading to the building’s upper level. Between classes, you will always be welcomed by the cheerful chatter of students taking a short cigarette break before they run to their next appointment, or walking a professor back to her office still discussing their ideas: for a next story, or for a project they’d like to get involved with, or sometimes just to have something else to say about the discussion in the class that just ended. There will always be a cluster of smokers huddled just far enough from the building to respect our non-smoking ordinance.
Visible from the airway are a zigzag of pathways crossing the zero-scaped gardens, students in flip-flops and shorts almost all year long in spite of the fact that the weather isn’t always ideal. Everyone is walking with purpose to their next destination, some wile talking into a cell phone, others engaged in conversations with each other, while others still seem fixed and focused on their destination, the wheels of their thoughts churning, etching intensity on their expressions.
When I walk into Newton building to start my day, it cheers me to see so much purpose and so much congeniality. I go to my office knowing that no matter what some of the drudgery of the day may be (the life of a professor is filled with meetings, emails, forms, paperwork, etc.) my purpose here is to help these young people achieve their dreams of becoming writers, and in light of the objective, there is really very little that can persuade me to miss a day. And to be perfectly honest, I look forward to walking into the classroom, seeing the familiar faces of my students, laughing with them as we discuss our day’s reading and find that our tastes, our hopes, our ambitions aren’t all that different after all.
By the time we’re into the second or third week of the semester, we have all already shared enough writing and enough discussion time to feel like we know each other well. Many of my students develop close friendships outside of class from the bond begun there. One of the most delightful moment of my teaching was receiving an FB message from my class, late at night, with a picture attached of them working on a group project due the next day. Pizza hung half eaten from opened containers. There was clearly more fun going on than the project warranted, but I was glad they were thinking of me even at that hour.
For me, the relationship that I have with a student can last years beyond the last time I see them in class. I hear from them through email, stay in touch in Facebook, sometimes get solicited for a letter, and that’s fine. I like all of that. The fact that a student still thinks of me years after she’s moved on is a privileged thing.
Our writing classes are intimate, and this raises the stakes for me: having only 15-18 students to interact with, I am keenly aware of the differences in style, personality and learning process of each of my students, and I try (admittedly, not always successfully) to personalize the process as much as possible, to make everyone comfortable while also encouraging hard work, and to cater my teaching style to the chemistry of each particular class. Almost every semester, by the time I get to the last day I feel that the class is the best that I ever had the pleasure of teaching. Almost every semester, I go into my new classes worrying that they won’t be as fun or as stimulating or as enjoyable as my last semester’s classes, and every semester I’m proven wrong.
I also teach some advanced classes. That means that I get to see students who are on their last semester, only weeks from graduating, ready to leave Statesboro and go on to bigger and better things. And as I teach these inspiring sets of seasoned writers I try to guess their futures: this one will become an academic; that one will go Hollywood; and that one, I’ll see her bestseller in the papers some day.
The level of talent that I encounter in these classes is often intimidating, from the knowledge that these young men and women have already accumulated, to the lyricism of their prose, to their eclectic and expansive reading tastes. Some, I admit it, are better writers than me. Many have already reached a maturity in their style that would have changed the course of my career had I possessed it at their age. Every time one of our “wonder” students graduates, I am certain that there won’t be another like him or her. But every semester that a new set of freshmen and sophomore come in, there she is, the next honored student in the major, and there he is, the next award winning writer of our little program. There seems to be a secret, inexhaustible source of talent pouring into our classrooms. We have an unusually high level of awards, publications and honors in just our small pool of creative writing majors.
We meet in the hallways, we professors, trying to take credit for the success earned by our students, hoping that their next publication, award, or special honor is a product of our class. And you’ll hear lots of this in the mailroom:
“Hey, do you know X?”
“Oh yeah, she was in my class last semester.”
“Oh, yeah, you should read some of the poetry she writes.”
“Does she even know how good she is?”
Don’t get me wrong: teaching isn’t always so inspiring and smooth. Sometimes, a student and I just won’t see eye to eye: whatever I try to suggest will be discarded as useless, and every piece of writing she turns in will cause some frustration between us, on my end, for not being able to get through, on his or her end, for feeling misunderstood or under-appreciated. Or sometimes I may be certain I am being helpful and encouraging, but find out belatedly that the student thought I was being too critical or uncaring. Coming into a class is a little bit like coming into an arranged marriage. You have to work at it. From both sides. It takes a lot of communication and openness. Sometimes it can be the most effortlessly productive relationship; more often than not, we all have to work at it a little bit: Give and take. Adjust. Make room for errors. Try to learn from them and move on. Always look forward to the next day. And most of all, try not to take it personally.
But that last bit of advice has one exception. When you graduate, no matter how much time has passed, I’ll be thinking about you. What ever happened to Jenny P? I wonder if her book’s come out yet. Wish Patrick S. would let me know whether he’s in grad school or…what is he doing? He should be in grad school. And Rucker M. I don’t want to be a stalker on FB, but I wonder what kind of movies he’s written. Did Johnny S. ever finish his detective novel? Would love to know how it’s going for him.
So, here is a note for you, current student: your professors are like your old, forgotten distant relatives. We don’t need a phonecall every week, but we’d like to get a note from you once in a while. Just to let us know you still remember.