Dylan wasn’t coming to class. He also hadn’t turned in any of scaffolding assignments for the assignment we were working on. I was teaching a First-Year Writing course and I know these required courses often take a back seat to other work, but this was odd -- Dylan was a strong participant in class and had written a good essay for the first assignment. As I do with all of my students, I sent emails to Dylan to remind him of the penalties of turning in late work. Then I prodded him some more. When he finally replied, he admitted that he was having personal problems that were getting in the way of his schoolwork. Why didn’t this guy ask for an extension?, I thought.
Dylan didn’t ask for an extension because he didn’t know he had that option. Once I started pestering him through email, though, he met with me privately to catch up. He started coming to class again. He continued on the plan we had worked out and quickly got his feet back under him. He finished the rest of the assignments on time and earned a good grade with his hard work.
Dylan’s struggles reminded me of my own as an undergraduate. A student of working-class parents who was used to having utilities shut off on a regular basis, I was never taught how to advocate for myself. And I had an excessive amount of pride -- I would have failed a class rather than reach out to a teacher with my personal woes. I made it through, but I was also fortunate enough to have a comparatively stable household and a good memory. I was lucky.
After my semester with Dylan I began to include a clause in my syllabus alerting students that they can ask for extensions on projects. There’s no guarantee I will grant an extension, I tell them, and they must ask for it before the due date, but it’s something they have in their pocket. Some semesters no one takes advantage of this option, other semesters I’m inundated with requests. But I never feel like I’m being taken advantage of; I often feel I’m giving a lot of students some breathing room. I almost made a mistake with Dylan. I almost wrote him off -- as busy instructors will do -- as someone who was just not invested in the class. I’m glad I had second thoughts.
My undergraduate background lies in the fine arts. Before I became an instructor, I found myself reading Andrew Sofer’s Dark Matter. Sofer’s study applies the concept of dark matter from physics to the stage of the theater, taking into consideration the offstage events of plays in order to arrive at a new understanding of them. These offstage events are the dark matter of the play, he argues -- we do not see them, but they nevertheless weigh heavily on the plot. Taking a cue from Sofer, I apply the concept of dark matter to my teaching. I may not see what is happening in my students’ lives outside the classroom, but it is nevertheless important to their education. This is especially true of underprivileged students. As a graduate of a community college, I am keenly aware of the special trials these students face in attempting to earn an education. The pressures of discrimination and poverty seep into every aspect of one’s life. Whether to go to class or pick up the extra shift at work, how to get a ride to campus, where to find housing and the impossibility of eating anything remotely nutritional, these are challenges faced by students every day. As instructors of these students, it’s our duty to be aware of these challenges and to make the effort to reach out to those who seem to be floundering.
This is what I strive for in my teaching: a balance between flexibility and rigor; a recognition that life happens without a dismantling of academic expectations.
So, too, I recognize that -- as an instructor in a field that is consistently under attack -- I am likely to encounter a lot of students who are just going through the motions, just trying to get that First-Year Writing course over with or that last humanities credit before they graduate. My job is to engage them. A key part of engagement, whatever one teaches, is to be personable and accessible. This also helps foster class discussions in an environment in which students are notoriously silent. For example, during a discussion about education in a First-Year Writing course titled "The Search for Meaningful Work," I pulled out my seven college IDs to show my students. They’re horrendous (as college IDs usually are) and showing my students this side of me -- my own tortuous college education -- helped them open up and feel more comfortable in our discussion. It knocked me off the pedestal on which our profession tends to place us.
What draws me to teaching is the ability to connect with my students -- not just to instruct them and send them on their way, but to understand and appreciate their experiences. For instance, when a local community theatre produced David Mamet’s Oleanna one semester, I suggested that one of the students in my drama survey class do a presentation on the play. This student contextualized the history of the play’s inception (showing clips from the Anita Hill hearings) and then provided her own experience of seeing the local production. I also informed the class of the discussion my English colleagues were having about the choice to produce this polarizing play. This sparked a lively conversation in which students parsed out the nuances of sexual harassment and the politics of producing a play that seemed so troublesome. My students used the controversy surrounding Oleanna to assess their own positions as victims and possible perpetrators of sexual harassment and to decipher the message behind Mamet’s work in this post-#metoo society. Even though Oleanna was not on the syllabus as a class reading, many chose to write about in their final exams.
There was no one lesson to be “learned” from the discussion on Oleanna, but it connected us as a class of respectful, thoughtful individuals in a way that transcends the typical college classroom experience. It is these moments that foster the transfer of critical thinking skills into other disciplines. And it is these moments that fascinate and motivate me.