Monday, December 12, 2005

Melancholy Monday: A Semester of My Own

I am one day away from my sabbatical. I have to show up tomorrow, collect final examinations, clear off my desk, and prepare my office for my replacement. I didn't get a moment to write anything until today, and I think that in itself is worthy of a melancholy monday entry.

I have worked straight at this job for 6 1/2 years with no leave. Most of my colleagues wisely take a semester off after pre-tenure, but I waived that option to plug away at tenure. For some reason, I wanted to get tenure over with rather than relish a semester of research only.

Now, I am finally getting an entire semester to myself to be a researcher again. And, I am absolutely thrilled. I haven't had loads of time to sit in a library and read, read, read since I left graduate school. If any graduate students read my blog, I cannot stress enough how precious and rare the time you have is. The minute I took this teaching job, I lost most of that time.

The other day, in a desperate attempt to clear things off my desk, I went to library to get work done. I had only 2 hours, but I got more work done in those 2 hours in the library than I ever do in my office. I loved the quiet, the open space; the thickly polished table; and, the comfortable chairs. Heaven.

So, why on earth am I making this a melancholy monday post? Because my students put me in tears today at the end of our final. I taught a Service-Learning course this semester, wherein I required all of my students to spend 30+ hours working in a social service agency. For their final examination this afternoon, I required each of them to present for 5 minutes to the community (which was whoever showed up) and share what this experience taught them and what they have learned about building stronger communities.

The forum lasted a full 3 hours. I give all the attendees a great deal of credit for lasting this long. And yet, I was utterly impressed and moved by what my students could do. They were poised and passionate. I watched these 19-21 year olds stand, fully self-possessed, and deliver meaningful, brilliant and wise presentations on what makes a strong community.

One student, who worked at a battered women's shelter all semester confessed, for the first time in her life, that she had been sexually assaulted when she was 14 years old. This semester had finally given her the strength to recognize that she was not responsible for this; she proclaimed she was not a victim but a survivor. I broke into tears and could barely speak for a time after this.

I think what was even more amazing was that her felllow students broke into tears as well and showed their love and support for her.

My students, quite simply stunned me. I gave all of them A's and I truly think that each and everyone of them deserved an A for what they did today.

I just opened my email and got an ubelieveable email from a student that I want to share here:

I just wanted to take the time (because a break from studying is rather nice!) to thank you for the semester. I wouldn't feel as ready to go abroad if it weren't for your classes. I learned quickly that investing time into getting to know you this semester made you expect even more out of me, and although some would run in the opposite direction, I instead appreciate that with all my heart. Although the semester was challenging, I am now sitting here looking at my work, grades, and feedback and I couldn't be happier. I never thought I'd see an "A" on a piece of work from you before I knew you well enough to know that you would make me do quality work. I hope if you've learned one thing about me this semester, it was that I am passionate about what I do for the sole purpose of the experience I gain from it. I'd rather pick challenges than the easy path; I'd rather take a class from you than an easy professor. I was scared going into this semester, but am ending it on such a high note because of the support you gave me and the confidence you had in me.

Student responses such as this are absolutely intoxicating. I genuinely felt for the first time this semester selfish for wanting all of this time for myself. Yes, yes, yes I know this is an absolutey pathological thought. I don't think that I can maintain this sort of pace without a semester of my own.

Yet, I am going to miss teaching. I don't know that there is anything more important in the world than preparing our future generation and ensuring that they are as smart and compassionate as possible.

I left campus today feeling, yes, optimistic about the world, because I was sending these students out there.

Alas, I must take this leave. If I do not refresh myself intellectually and spiritually, I cannot keep doing this sort of work.

I leave, however, knowing that ultimately my sabbatical is worthless if I don't keep in mind for whom I immerse myself in research and writing: my students. When I return, I will be a better student. Sure, I might get more publications, perhaps even more recognition for my work, but, none of this makes much sense to me if I cannot teach this to my students and make them smarter.