• September 20, 2014

A Campus Christmas Carol

Campus Christmas Carol

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

This fall my wife and I both seemed to be circling around midcareer crises. We've each been teaching full time for about a dozen years in our respective positions. We've made minor changes: I have added a part-time administrative position to my teaching and writing, and she has shifted from one school to another in the same district.

But those changes don't feel like much in comparison with our early years, when it seemed like we were always on the move: I followed her to her graduate school in one city, and then she followed me to my graduate school in another city, and then we moved to the East Coast for my tenure-track job. And here we have been ever since.

"I need a new job, a new city, and a new hair color," I heard my wife say to a friend at a party last month. A few days later I came home and found her and one of my older daughters dyeing each other's hair.

"Did it help?" I asked her the next morning.

"Not really."

I know how she feels. Last week I was deep into a stack of end-of-semester papers, grinding away. I looked up in the middle of one paper and thought: I've corrected these same mistakes on this student's papers three times already. What am I doing wrong here? Does all of this time I am spending really make an iota of difference?

I suspect we all ask ourselves such questions at some point. They arise in spite of the gratitude my wife and I feel for the very fact that we have jobs. And while those questions may stem from moments of frustration, sometimes a better impulse animates them: Perhaps I could better serve students, or the profession, or the world in some other capacity. Most of the time, I feel a good fit between myself and my work. But how will I know for sure if I don't look around every once in a while?

A long night of grading and reflection on this question left me needing to clear my head. I woke up the next morning and decided to make my two-mile commute to the campus on foot. After a vigorous 30-minute walk, I got to my office with a resolution in mind and opened up The Chronicle to the jobs section. I started paging through it, looking for openings at teaching centers or for administrative posts in some of the cities we have left behind and still miss. I knew my wife wouldn't take much convincing.

Before I got very far, I heard a quiet knock on my door, and looked up to see, standing on the threshold, a student who had made an appointment with me. She wanted me to write her a letter of reference for the Peace Corps; this was our meeting to review her credentials and gather the information I would need to write an effective letter.

But today she was upset. After a conversation with her parents the night before, she was no longer sure she should apply. Her parents were first-generation college students, and had spent their careers in the same, stable jobs. They had worked hard to afford her education, and they wanted to see her continue into a graduate program that would secure her a better life. Her father had warned her that taking off two years to save the world would hurt her chances of getting into graduate schools or getting a good job.

"Forget about your parents for just a second," I said. "What do you want to do?"

"I want to go abroad and help people," she said. This student was both adventurous and capable. Last year she spent a semester abroad in South Africa. "But I don't want to do it if it will hurt my future," she added. "Maybe my Dad is right."

As the father of five children, I try to remain as respectful as possible of whatever advice students get from their parents. But in this case I knew that the father was working off some bad information.

"Pull up here to the computer with me," I told her, "and let's look at the Peace Corps Web site together."

We found what I expected: plenty of information on programs the Peace Corps offers to help students make the transition into both careers and graduate schools. She left my office with a plan. She would sit down with her parents and review with them the information we had found online; she would continue with her applications for service opportunities, since she could always say no later; and she would reach out to some alumni she knew who had completed service years abroad and ask them about their transitions into careers or graduate school.

Before I could turn back to the job ads, another student poked her head into my office, a senior major in my discipline whom I had recommended for a Fulbright application.

"In case I don't get the Fulbright," she said, "can you take that letter you wrote for me and tweak it for my graduate-school applications?"

"Of course," I said. "Come back after class and we'll talk about what I should cover."

I followed her out into the student lounge next to my office to make a cup of tea.

"Professor Lang," I heard from a voice behind me, "do you want to hear about my GRE's?"

I turned around to see a political-science major in our honors program, who came from hard financial circumstances. He was an extremely talented student and wanted to go to graduate school, but both of his parents had recently lost their jobs, and he could not afford the fees for the required exams. I had asked for, and received, approval from my administration to cover the cost of his exams from my budget.

We went back into my office and reviewed his scores, and then the list of possible graduate schools within his reach. Money was still standing in his way—this time in the form of application fees. We spent 20 minutes together strategizing about ways to minimize the number of programs he would apply to while maximizing his chances for admission. His step was lighter on the way out of my office.

If the universe was sending me a message (via those students, instead of Marley and three ghosts), it was not quite finished. A first-year student immediately replaced his shadow in the door frame.

"I really liked the sound of that program you talked about in class yesterday," she said.

The college was introducing a new program for sophomores that would provide them with special opportunities for housing and academic experiences. "If you're interested," I told her, "I will be happy to nominate you. I think you would be a perfect fit for it." She was interested. We talked for another minute or two, and she dashed off to class.

And I closed up those job ads.

The semester's break has arrived for most of us, and I share this story simply as a reminder to myself and to all of those, including my wife, who have ever felt weary and frustrated at the end of a grading period, wondering whether we make a difference: We have the potential to affect the lives of our students in more ways than we sometimes realize.

Each of those four students I spoke with that morning had, at one time, been a blank face sitting in a desk in my classroom. Each of them had written papers that lay in stacks on my desk, standing in the way of my own writing or time with my family. But in the course of our semester together, something had changed for the better in our relationship. That change doesn't happen with every student, for sure, and it may not even happen in the first course I have with a student. But when it does, it makes a difference—to me, to them, and perhaps even to the world.

It doesn't take much to lose sight of that during the sprint to each semester's finish line. The race starts up again in a few weeks. Happy holidays to my fellow teachers, and enjoy your break if you have one. They'll be back before we know it.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College.

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