Today I began conquering the pile of grading on my desk. I have been conquering this pile since about October, and it is finally coming to an end. As I reflect upon the end of a semester, I think about what I have learned. I have not learned much, research wise, this semester, because my hours of writing (I could tally them up, I keep track) were primarily dedicated to revisions and small bits of critical interaction. I am thankful that I went to a conference but the most memorable part of this conference was about yak studies. I heard many great papers, but somehow, it’s the moments with friends when we are all to exhausted already that we connect, talk about literature, and make plans for one day when I will dedicate my life to tacos. That will be retirement. For now, I am excited to begin my new project and continue teaching.
As I reflect upon teaching I think about my students. Most days, I feel privileged to teach the students I have. Last week was our final week of classes and I had my freshman seminar class discuss what they had been learning this semester, and how that related to something they perceived to be a significant problem. The students mentioned problems that to me, stem from fear. Fear of people who speak other languages. Fear of being killed as they walk home. Fear that other people would make terrible parents. I think this speaks to a broader issue – that people, particularly white people in the rust belt, live in a world that is profoundly different from their ideal, and don’t know what to do about it. Rather than acknowledging that it is no longer possible to have a partner, children and a reasonably prosperous life, or perhaps more radically, acknowledging that this reality was only ever achievable by a small fraction of the population, people lean towards fearing a context they do not quite understand. And people with significant political and economic power exploit this sense of fear.
Beyond learning about fear, I have learned about how students feel isolated on what I consider a cozy (and very small) campus, and how they light up when we talk about something that relates to their own life experience. I have had students write me such beautiful reflections in the freshman seminar class that I want to copy them word-for-word and affix them to my bulletin board. Sometimes I do. Other times, I tie their words as symbols to my hands and bind them to my forehead (Deut 6:8). Then, when I look down or into my mind’s eye, somehow, the grading, the class prep and the research that one day someone besides me and my cheering squad will care about, becomes smaller, more manageable, in perspective.