Saturday, November 15, 2014

In praise of half-assery

The good news: I haven't bailed on my Italian class yet.

The bad news: I continue to be doing a pretty half-assed job, since doing a full-assed job--assuming that's better than a half-assed one, which I guess depends on how you feel about asses--would require way more prep time than I have available. (My instructor is great, but I think she hasn't fully thought through the fact that, in a conversation-based class, the fewer students there are, the more homework we each have to do.)

But you know, whatever. So my presentation winds up being seven minutes rather than fifteen, and my PowerPoint is merely functional--and in rushing to get it done after a department meeting I didn't have time to double-check and correct the past participles of a few irregular verbs or think about which constructions might take the subjunctive. I'm still spending an average of 12 hours a week reading, writing, and speaking Italian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay about what it feels like to haul oneself through language study as an adult and embrace one's own ineptitude captures some of what I'm feeling, though our experiences aren't exactly equivalent (on the one hand, Italian isn't my first foreign language; on the other, I'll probably never have the chance for the kind of immersive study he's done both in Paris and at Middlebury).

What's hardest for me is just letting myself be a crappy student, and being okay with it. As I've written before, it's not that I was a star student in college or grad school, but I desperately feared being a bad one. Appearing stupid, not being thought capable--those were among the most shameful things I could imagine.

Teaching has taught me a few things. One is that showing up actually does matter. And doing the work--even late, even badly--is better than not doing it. It means learning is still happening or at least has the potential to happen. (Officially, I don't accept papers later than about a week, but in practice I usually tell students to just turn in something: I can give them a 50 rather than a zero, and doing some version of the same assignment as everyone else means they're still in the game.)

Another is that the work I do or don't do isn't just about me: the classroom is a community that I'm either contributing to or abdicating responsibility for. When I failed to talk much in a particular college or grad school class, I felt self-conscious, but it never occurred to me that by not talking I was taking something away from others. Now, though--when I consider skipping Italian because I'm badly prepared and already running late--I realize that not only would I be cheating myself of the opportunity to learn something, but I'd also be cheating my classmates of the work I'd already done (and putting a huge burden on them to boot: one absent student out of four = 25% more airtime to fill!).

So, fine. I'm a crappy student right now because being a crappy student is all I have time to be. But being a crappy student is better than not being a student at all.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I might give this to students to read.