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Life after marking

The halls have become eerily quiet down on Faculty Row. The college students have left for the summer with the high school students soon to follow. It feels strange to say, but I miss the crowded hallways, the hubbub of lunch period, and the wonderful sense of possibility that I get each morning I come in to work. This is the life of a college professor in many ways, but also the life of any teacher. Yes, the semester is intensely busy with the work of teaching courses, grading papers, doing research, meeting with students, and other such things, but there is also a contagious energy that is strongest at the start of term and tends to diminish as the term finishes. 

So, it is an odd time to be walking the halls of the building as someone who has spent the last 8 months working hard to prepare lectures, grade assignments, meet with students, deliver lectures, answer panicked last minute emails from a student worried about an assignment, or any of the many things a teacher does. The semester often feels like running on a treadmill set at a pace that is just slightly faster than you can manage. You feel like you are about to shoot off the end spectacularly unless you get a few more things done before the end of your day. 

But now that I am lucky enough to have all my grading in, there is a strange period of weightlessness. Those things I had been doing for endless weeks are now done. There was a moment this morning where I thought, “I must have another assignment to mark somewhere on my desk,” knowing that there was not. Yet it is also a kind of annual naiveté, where I think that I have all the time in the world to do everything I didn’t get done during the school year. I make bold plans to read stacks of books, to write multiple articles, to revamp entire courses, and it all seems possible. Yet in a few weeks, that conference paper, this Professional Development Plan, that book review, and other demands will be far more tangible.

While enjoying this weightlessness, I decided to reflect on what I do as an English professor. Allow me a few moments to share some of what happens in my classroom. Each student who comes to Briercrest College and intends to graduate with a degree is required to take two first year English courses. This is a common requirement for any liberal arts education. Briercrest’s English 100 and 101 are designed with two goals in mind: to teach students how to be better readers and better writers. We believe that these two tasks are vital tools for our students as they leave here and enter an increasingly complex world. Most jobs will require some level of written communication and being able to effectively and clearly communicate is an invaluable skill. Being able to read well is not just a helpful skill in one’s work life, but also in each student’s spiritual life as reading well deeply enriches our encounters with Scripture. 

I have the privilege of teaching a section or two of English 100 and 101 each semester, and as I think back on four years of teaching, it can be easy to get discouraged. Our English department has adopted a writing intensive approach to English 100 and English 101, meaning that I read lots of writing from each student that comes to my class. This means oodles of marking, often on paper, so my desk near the end of term is covered with small mountains of marking (and sometimes an assignment can be hidden away for a period). In fact, if you had asked me a week ago what the summer looked like, I would have said, “Far away.”

There is a strange tension involved in grading student work, in whatever form it takes. I constantly try and put myself in the student’s shoes, arguing for the assignment before me, while also playing the opposite role of ‘invisible critic’ that notices each mistake a student has made. As a result, I have to navigate this tricky balance of playing for both teams at the same time. Put differently, I am both the defense, the prosecution, and the judge in this trial of sorts. It is not an easy role, as any teacher knows. I want my students to learn and succeed, but it takes criticism and correction to help them. If a student does not know what a comma splice is, how can I expect him or her to avoid them? Similarly, if a student’s essay misses out on a crucial piece of evidence from a short story, it is my job to gently point this out to them. After marking the final essay drafts from 48 students in my two first-year classes, it can be easy to feel like it does not matter in the end. Students still have not learned how to use punctuation well or what the point of a topic sentence is. They missed what seems obvious to me, overlooking the fact that I have had many years of specialized training in reading and analyzing stories. I sometimes despair that no one, not even myself, will ever be able to write a clean and effective sentence that makes one clear point about a poem or short story. 

But this is not the end of the story. While most students might be developing their writing abilities, they can still catch me off guard with astonishing pieces of wisdom or insight. One of the joys of teaching English 100 and 101 is precisely that students do come at it from a different angle than I do. I teach students from Business, Music, Christian Ministry, Biblical Studies, and all the diverse faculties a student could be part of. This does mean that there are students who come to the class uninterested in or hostile towards reading poetry, fiction, or drama. They drag their heels on the first day of class and make it clear that they are not choosing to be there. I completely understand their reaction as I grumbled at having to take courses in psychology, political science, and math in my undergraduate degree. But I also work to convert them over the course of four months. This course has value for them even if they don’t know it yet.

If I am honest, I am not really interested in whether a student can recite for me the correct uses of a semi-colon or an apostrophe from the top of their head. While I do think using punctuation and grammar well is essential for effective communication and a very practical skill, what I am more interested in is helping students discover things about themselves, the world they live in, and the faith they hold to. If I can make space for a student to have a transformative encounter when reading a poem or a short story, then I feel like the course has been successful. And sometimes, I am privileged enough to hear about these discoveries. In fact, I often hear about these discoveries in the long hours of marking at the end of term. And it is these moments which will stick with me for many years, not the seemingly never-ending hours of grading.

I want to end by sharing three of these small moments: in a final assignment, one student explained that partway through the semester they rediscovered a love of reading stories that they had lost in high school and the years that followed.  Another student explained how a short story in the course has helped them understand their relationship with their father better. A final student wrote something which I am going to quote from their assignment: “I think spending time with characters who are facing certain issues or living through different experiences forces the reader to confront those things in his or her own life. Literature can help put readers in someone else’s shoes and can enable them to think about things that they wouldn’t otherwise think about.” Though I had been preaching this from the front of the classroom, to hear it repeated back with genuine feeling was deeply encouraging. I hope that this sentiment was true for any number of students in the class. 

These moments, small though they may be, are reassuring to me that, in the end, all the work I put in does matter—though maybe not as I imagined it, and thanks be to God for the mysterious ways that He works. Though they may not have realized the import of what they were saying, these students reassured me that the work I do does matter. I am playing some humble role in equipping them for life in this wondrous, complex, and various world we live in. And that gets me excited for when these halls will be full once again, when I will have to shut my door to preserve the peace and quiet, and when the marking will start to pile up on my desk. So let September come, just not for a little while yet.

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english humanities education
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My classes bring out things in my own life—they're very applicable and they mesh well, always reminding me why I'm here.
Brette Elias (College)