Monday, December 01, 2008

Day 45 (Round II) "In the trenches" (farewell-looming edition)

Coming to the end here: farewell looms. The kids just got back from Thanksgiving break (most of them no more than 8 hours before their first class), and they are as burned-out as one might predict. And they respond as you'd expect: this is the week when the tears, the threats, the ridiculous implausible excuses, the academic dishonesty, and the physical breakdowns brought on by all of these, really come to a head. Our task as teachers is to flow through all of the peaks and values, all the shock-trauma, and make smart and compassionate choices while the young'uns negotiate this last brutal couple of days. Some lucky few will have managed their time realistically, knocking off one advance deadline after another, and so even if they're fried, or scared about exams or juries, they're mostly able to see the light at the end of the tunnel without major freakouts.

Some larger group will not have managed the time so well--or will have massively oversubscribed themselves--and so now the hammer is really coming down. There are two types in this group: the ones who didn't say "no" at the right time to certain options (the hardest thing there is in college, for a good student, is accepting that you can't take on everything), and the ones who knew their options way far in advance and opted to blow them off anyway.

You can't save any of 'em, especially from the consequences of their bad (or unrealistic) choices, but you can run a degree of interference for them--as professor, most notably by realizing that the ultimate priority is not to jam the most work out of them, but rather, to get the most constructive work of the most lasting value. That may very well mean ramping down the total amount of data, in order to enhance retention and comprehension . There's a virtually direct relation between overload and brain shut-down: at this stage, the more burnout they're experiencing, the less they're going to be able to retain.

So, whether you like it or not, in these crazy, meagre three days between the Thanksgiving break and the last day of the semester, your job as their teacher (not their "professor", but, in these crucial last days, a person who can have a pretty damned direct on both their experience, and on their ability to next time better manage their experience) is to help them survive. And to learn. They need a balance of ass-kicking and cutting-of-breaks. There are those who in the throes of panic make bad choices--cheating being principle among them--and those who are working so hard, and (sometimes) feeling so bad that they're not keeping up.

The former need the ass-kicking--but then, the recognition that failing some kid out of a class because of a stupid, dishonest choice he made in a moment of panic is not the best use of a "teachable moment." I'm not going to flunk such a kid if he cops to even the most minimal regret, apology, or capacity for intellectual or emotional growth as a result of getting busted. I'm going to kick his ass, and then I'm going to let him scrape out a way to survive, even if the penalty is inescapable.

The latter need the compassion--but they also need to be booted into making better choices next time. Part of college life is not only learning the ethics that (any more) too few of their parents bother to teach them. The other part of college life is learning the maturity to understand that life, energy, and time are all finite: that there are times and situations to which you have to say "no", because otherwise all the other work suffers. It took me literal decades to learn this: that taking on all the tasks or projects that others asked of you was not a recipe for success. So the job as a teacher here is to try to catch 'em before they take on too much and help them see that it is not necessary to do this. And then, if you catch 'em too late, to cut them some slack, let 'em (partway) off the hook and help them get through it--with, ideally, the lesson better learned for next time.

We have a saying 'round here, which we mostly employ for the bad students: the ones who are lazy, or don't do the work, or whine, or come in and complain about it being "not fair" that they can't do infinite extra-credit to make up for all the work they didn't do in a timely and mature fashion. But it's probably equally relevant for the good students: the ones who do the work, and try to excel, but maybe have made some not-so-smart choices about overall load.

"Choices have consequences."

Our job is to help them make good choices. And to keep the consequences bearable.

Below the jump: snaps from the high hills:

Billy snoozes in the sun.

The Instrumentarium.

The heart of the home: pinon and adobe.

If Hiroshige had seen the mountains of the Sangre de Cristos.

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