Saturday, October 14, 2006

On loving one's students

I'm on a much-needed fall break out here (only two days off, but my teaching schedule makes it a sweet six-day weekend), catching up on some reading, some grading, and some essential relaxation. But as I'm doing all those things I've also been mulling over an experience I've been having these past few weeks with an erratic intensity.

Because despite the various problem students I've been highlighting on this blog, and despite the fact that I am (I admit) a relatively impatient person prone to fits of vexation over the littlest things, what I've been noticing is the irrational love that I feel for my students at odd moments--and not only the smartest, most talented, or most personable among them. I'll be administering a quiz, taking those 10 minutes to figure out what the hell I should do for the rest of the period, and I'll look out across their bowed and earnest (or frustrated and confused) heads, and I'll be overcome by an irrational wave of love for them both individually and collectively--even, briefly, for the whiners and the fuck-ups.

I felt this way about my first class of INRU freshmen, but that was more explicable. It was the first class I'd ever designed and taught entirely by myself, and I was in love, partly, with my own creation. I also had a truly awesome collection of students--and those students were, after all, first-semester INRU freshmen. I'd been an INRU freshman myself only 11 years earlier, and much of my overwhelming feeling of love for them was bound up in my recognition of myself in them and my complicated, tortured, but still-enduring love for my alma mater. I felt excited for them and protective of them, and I felt that I got them, and I know that they enjoyed the fact that I could relate to them as a (relatively) recent alumna, advise them, and make the occasional institutionally-chauvinistic joke.

But my students at Regional U are not very much like me. They're from a part of the country that's culturally different from most places I've lived, and although most of them are "traditional" students--in the sense that they're in their early 20s and live on campus--there's a sizable minority of commuters, or transfer students, or significantly older students. I would guess that the majority of our students are first-generation college students and I know that most grew up in communities no more than a couple of hours away. They'll probably stay in this state, and possibly even this part of this state, for most of their lives. They may have high ambitions, but they are not, in any self-conscious way, "elite."

And I don't know exactly what it is that I love about them. I love that they're from farms, or that they're single mothers, or in ROTC. I love that they have brothers and sisters and cousins nearby. I love that they're in college. I love that they came to RU because of the creative writing program or the dance program. I love that they're so hard-working and that they'll be better thinkers and writers when they come out. I love their promise and their hopefulness.

That kid who swung by my office hours just to tell me how crazy it is that the Wife of Bath is just like his girlfriend (and they even have the same astrological sign)? Love him. The student who shyly told me that she liked Henry V so much that she was going to write a paper for her Poli Sci class on the play? Love her. The fact that my freshmen, when told to come up with their own topics for an op-ed style paper, wrote essays investigating local industrial pollution, Indian land claims, and campus sexual harrassment policies? Love that.

I love the fact that they're so different from the people I knew in college, and yet so much the same. I love that they allow me to see more of what it is to be a college student in America, and what it is to be a professor.


Terminaldegree said...

I love this post!

jo(e) said...

What a great post. I too love my students.

kfluff said...

There are lots of good things about students who bring a wide variety of experiences with them to the classroom. My previous SLAC had a tuition bill of $25,000 a year, and I found that the 18 yr. old students were encouraged to have the "so what? I pay your salary" attitude. My current SLAC may as well be a regional U--low tuition, many first gen. college students. And I find them, generally, to be as earnest as you describe above; when they love a text, they LOVE it.

All of this makes me, and perhaps you, a different kind of professor--one invested in making our own beloved books relevant to these students' lives.

Delightful reminder of good things, Ms. F!

BrightStar said...

I am so guilty of loving my students. I love when they work hard. I love when they express regret for not working hard enough. I even love it when they come to class on time, or apologize for not making it on time, saying that they'll do better next time. Students are cool. They are the reason why we can get jobs like we have, right? Sure, we're hired partially for scholarship, but without students, universities wouldn't have the structure that they have or the funding they have, etc. Students. I dig 'em.

muse said...

Beautiful post! I'm starting to feel the love, too-- before it was just general happiness that they were catching on and thinking for themselves. Now it's more for the individual personalities.

Like you, I'm happy to learn about students experiencing college in a different way from the way I did, though in this case the differences are not so much economic as they are political and religious-- many of my students come from conservative christian families. Pretty much the opposite of my own college experience, which was big on activism, art, theory, and campus-wide intellectual debate.

Here the atmosphere is completely different and yet I'm seeing a lot of the same eagerness and excitement about the text as I felt 8 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes! I've been meditating on the idea of love in the classroom lately as well, because the love that I feel for my students has really deepened this year (interestingly, I think this has something to do with repeating courses, as though I've let go of some fear and that's allowed me to connect with them.)

Anyway, I sort of blogged on it here but this is just to say, I know what you mean. There really is no other word but love.