Our students as inspiration

December 4, 2011, 10:01 pm

We professors take our classes seriously. We want students to do the reading, to come to class prepared, to engage with the texts and the problems we set before them, and to rise to the challenge of thinking critically and learning. When students fail to meet these expectations, professors often become frustrated, angry, and sometimes even hurt by what we can perceive as our students’ disregard. We may blame the students, castigate them as lazy or lacking commitment, and even rebuke the students. I have felt this myself. Every once in a while, I get to feeling grumpy because a student has written an annoying email, said something disrespectful, or blown off class for the third time with a lame excuse.

When that happens, I remind myself that students have complicated lives. The little slice of their lives I see in my classes fails to reveal most of what is going on for the students. Many of the students I have encountered in the past 10+ years have overcome tremendous obstacles to pursue their degrees, and when I learn more about them, I am impressed by their strengths and resilience.

I have taught students who have served jail time, been through rehabs, had or aborted unintended pregnancies, survived childhood sexual assaults, and witnessed murder, death, or suicide of family members and close friends. Other students have struggled with eating disorders, physical and learning disabilities, and debilitating health conditions. Even healthy students from privileged backgrounds who hadn’t yet experienced trauma face unforeseen challenges upon coming to campus, such as the student who was raped by a neighbor in her on-campus apartment building. Both she and her suitemates were traumatized and fearful as a result of the attack. Traditional college age is a common time for onset of serious mental health symptoms for people with diagnoses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; I have encountered more than one student living with these new diagnoses.

Even if our students don’t face personal trauma, mental illness, and violence, traditional college age students are experiencing a great deal of growth as they move beyond the confines of their upbringing to make their own decisions and face the resulting consequences. Ideas and perspectives they took for granted are challenged in courses and relationships with new peers, and basic understandings about the world and their own lives have to be re-evaluated. Students holding down one or more jobs, which includes most of our students right now, struggle to achieve a balance between work, study, sleep, and fun, with something usually falling off the scale. Students who are parents have to consider the needs of their children as well.

I was one of those students who frustrated many a professor. At different times in my college experience, I skipped classes, failed to do the reading, and ignored courses I hated. I was coping with the death of several family members in a short time, the culture shock of a new setting far from home, the challenges of being a first generation college student whose parents didn’t understand the rules and realities of university life, the stress of an assault from my youth that haunted me, and the challenges of coming out as lesbian. As I worked through these issues and came into my own as a more secure, centered person, my performance as a student dramatically improved. (I am still thankful that the school where I transferred as an undergraduate started my GPA anew. I am not sure I would have been accepted to graduate school if my undergraduate GPA had been cumulative.) When new problems emerged in graduate school, I was better able to cope with these problems and maintain my academic standing.

When I remember the full measure of our students’ complex lives, I know that I am just a cog in the wheel of students’ education… not just their formal education, but their life education. I am just Lesboprof, that professor they had fall semester who graded their papers so hard and gave them crap until they started coming to class on time. I am the one they talked to about their mother’s cancer diagnosis, the one who handed them a tissue and talked about her own father’s death from cancer while she was in school. I am the one who challenged them to think better and write better. So if a student fails the class, turns in a lame paper, or blows off the final, I don’t blame myself or rail about lazy students. I know that there are many factors that played a role in the student’s performance, and s/he still has many chances ahead to be successful.  The fact that s/he has made it this far is promising.

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