For the past week, I’ve had students come in for conferences, talking one-on-one with them about their research essays. As they arrive at my office, I hand them the draft I’ve commented on. I ask them to sit in the chair outside the door, read over the paper and comments—it’s been a week since they’ve seen their own papers; often they’ve forgotten what they’ve written—then come into the office for a chat. As we talk, I get a sense of their intelligences at work, as they try to make sense of the points I’m making regarding their essays. This usually happens twice a semester, and generally gives students guidance to revising what will become a successful analysis or research essay.
But yesterday, the last day of conferences for this term, I suddenly became more aware of the students as people. An odd thing to say? Maybe. And yes, they’re always “people,” but this time I could feel the “who-ness” of each of them: boys with scruffy new beards signifying their youthful masculinity; girls with interesting eye makeup, shoulder-sweeping earrings, and most with very long hair; some students with disheveled clothes that look like they’ve not been washed in a week, and others with a tidy sense of fashion; some easy with chatting and others reticent, unsmiling and slightly remote; and many with Stony Brook regalia – the red sweatshirt, the black sweatpants, the backpack. I see each of them walk into my office, drop their things, take a seat in the nearby chair, and settle their presence into engagement with me. And we talk.
Several are grateful for the guidance I offer, like suggesting ways to contextualize their topics, as they argue for better education for the poor, for media to cease displaying objectified women, for autistic children to experience theatre programs, for preferring arranged marriage to “love marriage.” I hear them explain what they mean in a particular sentence, what they think an unexplained quote says, or how they might better structure their conclusion by converting it from a summary of what they’ve already written to a real conclusion, i.e. “This is what I conclude from what I’ve just said.” We talk about the sources they’ve used to learn about their topics, and several students realize that the general audience websites they’ve used for information haven’t really supplied them with thoughtful commentary or credible conclusions to add sufficient complexity and depth to their own thinking.
And here is Beverly, a Long Islander in her 20s who works full-time and attends school part-time. When she tells me she is only person in her whole family ever to attend college, I ask if her family is supportive of her efforts to get an education.
“Oh yes,” she says. “They are so proud of me. But they really don’t understand what college means to me.”
From the start of the semester, Beverly has been struggling, unfamiliar as she is with what academic papers do, how they present material, how they are written. Her sentences have gone on for ages, with the beloved comma here and there to give some sense of breath to the runaway thoughts, though even amidst the ungrammatical sentences she managed to get out some rather clear thinking.
As we moved into the last section of the course and started to develop topics for the research essay, she wrote a proposal arguing the value of the death penalty. Her proposal sounded like a script for talk radio: highly biased language, oversimplified thinking, and a general sense of haranguing. I was not at all sure what I’d be reading when she turned in her second draft.
And there it was. She had changed her mind. Her paper argued to get rid of capital punishment, and argued rather well. I could hardly wait to speak with her about the essay, and by chance, hers was the last conference of the week. As I occasionally do with students who seem to be writing beyond their demonstrated abilities to date, I asked a question about one of the claims she’s made, and she launched into a discussion of one of her sources that suggested the point to her. She’s completely at ease talking about the sources, and how her mind started changing after reading what the research showed. She herself was surprised at the shift in perspective, but felt quite happy with her current position.
At that moment, I’m embarrassed to say, tears welled up in my old eyes. I looked at Beverly’s long hair, her chubby cheeks, broken fingernails and the sparkle in her eye, and thought: “This is what we work for. This is why we stand in front of the classroom, earning a pittance, with this silent benefit of having an effect on the life of young people” (Do not think for a moment that I am happy with the pittance. And know that the powers that be do not value our work as we do, and indeed must, in order for us to keep doing it). It was a Buberian “I-thou” moment, when the duet of our engagement ignited the mote of fire as we talked about the writing.
I am on the eve of retiring from the profession, if not this year, surely next. But there is no doubt my life is enriched beyond knowing by the meaningful work I do, shoulder to shoulder with colleagues who, I am sure, feel the same way. It is through this work that we repair the world in some small way.