Learning Curve

Sometimes things are hard and that’s good. My students and I seem (so far, knock wood) to be gelling pretty well—There’s something in a spring semester that just seems to guarantee a better rapport for me with my classes.

But I’m convinced that this semester’s rapport has nothing to do with ease. Instead, it’s a direct result of challenge.

We are all of us confronting changes in the university’s standards. The students are expected to write something called a rhetorical précis, which is a great analytic tool for evaluating a given piece of writing. Trouble is, about half my students have never even written a paper requiring a thesis statement. Trouble is, some of those students have never even written a paper, period. And further trouble is, some of those students have scarcely touched a word-processing program in their lives until a few weeks ago when the semester began.

None of this is supposed to be the case at the college level, but we work in the real world with which we’re presented. In this case, this means I’ve slowed things down some. I’ve been having them do some remedial exercises and really working in-depth with the nuts and bolts of good writing in a way I’ve done in no semester past. It’s been a real challenge for the students, at least half of whom are returning to school this semester after years or decades in the workforce. But bearing witness to their dedication and even the stress and frustration that sometimes results from it—and responding to this in the classroom, is a freaking joy that always surprises me. I leave campus each night exhilarated from having worked hard myself, and for that work having, maybe, in some small way, paid off.

Honestly, it’s a challenge to me, too. My own background is in journalism and creative writing, and thesis statements and transition phrases are just not matters I habitually think about on a conscious level when I think about writing. I have worked with these concepts for years, but on subtle, more complex levels. Now I have to find the language to explain them and deconstruct them and even to conceive of them myself. It’s an exercise in clearing away everything but the scaffolding of writing, and to my own surprise, I’m enjoying the work.

We all need a little challenge. Marshall, for example, goes off once a week to this masochistic bar trivia night with a few dedicated friends. This is not that Team Trivia business with questions about Beyonce lyrics; this trivia night is run by one neighborhood man whose idiosyncratic questions lean towards minor points of Eastern European history, number-one radio hits of the 1950s and early baseball legends. I’ve accompanied Marshall and his team before, but the trivia man’s questions are mostly so distant from my own areas of expertise (Phil Collins lyrics and public radio personalities,) that I always end up serving as more of a cheerleader than a player and feel guilty sharing in our second-place prize money.

Marshall’s team always wins second place. There’s another team that always wins first. The trivia guy has built this up to a legendary rivalry to keep both teams coming back week after week, and it’s worked. There was a period of time in which it wasn’t even clear any longer whether Marshall’s team was having fun; it had moved beyond a Tuesday evening at the bar and into the realm of gritted teeth and fists slamming the table when they missed yet another tortuously-worded question about some Oscar-winning foreign film of the late ’60s.

But now Marshall’s team has evolved. I don’t know what happened, but they’ve reached the point at which they enjoy their French fries and beer, and they tend to shrug rather than curse when they don’t get a question. Still, they rarely miss a week and they rarely win outright.

When he comes home, he tells me about how they achieved second place that night. He fills me in on the questions asked as we get ready for bed—the answers they got, the answers they missed, and the answers that no one got, the questions that were flat-out unfair or misleading, his voice moving from exasperation to resignation to reflection as we move from flossing to face-washing to dozing off under our mountain of blankets, neglecting to cut out the light as space yawns between our utterances.

I try to guess the answers myself; every now and then, I get one right. “You would have won it for us,” he says kindly. I tell him about my classes that night, about the example I used that worked or the exercise that bombed. The student who made the amazing observation or the student who asked which keys to hit on the keyboard to create a new paragraph. It’s nice to have him to share this with. I mean, at least she asked, I say, half asleep. It’s better than not trying at all.

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