I really needed this day off. Caught up a bit on sleep (I've been running a terrible deficit), went out to lunch with my gf, went to the public library, finished watching a movie, puttered around. It was a really, really long & tiring week. Not so terrible in terms of what I had to do, but this was what I think of as Unravelling week. It happens every semester, around this time -- all of a sudden, the stresses of real life start showing up in the classroom. Some students figure out that they're not really going to make it through the rest of the term, and need to arrange for a "special case" withdrawal. Some just want to come and talk to me about their problems, because now they know me well enough. Some want to explain, to apologize, to let me know that it isn't my fault they're not in class.
In the past week, I talked with the following students: one woman who I've taught for 3 semesters needs to withdraw from class because her marriage is falling apart and she can't concentrate; a young man has to miss class next week because of a liver biopsy -- his kidneys and liver are failing and the doctors don't know why; another's car was totalled and he may lose his job without transportation; a young woman is having trouble with her citizenship application because she and her mother got evicted from their apartment; another is being stalked and is trying to arrange for police protection while traveling to campus. And these are the students who explain their absences and distractions. I know for every one who talks to me, there are others who don't, but are also dealing with sick children or parents, addictions, legal issues, health concerns, and all kinds of other things.
This is the week when the sobering reality of my students' very full lives always hits home. Where does studying literature fit into all of that? I had such an easier time of things when I was in college. I worked, and I studied. But I didn't have a full-time job, or a baby, or any of the other things my students are juggling. Yes, I want them to fulfill the requirements of my course -- that's the educational contract I've set up in the syllabus. But when they don't, or can't, I'm perfectly happy to grant them the withdraw-pass. And to wish them well.
Most of my students have chosen to be literature majors. That's an increasingly unusual choice at this urban university, in an age of professional specialization. They're in my class for a reason. I can't always see what it is, or imagine what my class might mean to them, given their life situations. But the same reasons that make teaching adults difficult or frustrating (they can't always come to class; they can't always turn things in on time) are also what bring some of the greatest satisfaction. Two weeks ago, a student I'd taught several years ago came by to ask if I'd write a lettter for her law school application. She said, among other things, that the novels I'd taught in that women's studies course helped her to think about who she wanted to be. Helped her finish college (the first in her family to ever attend college), become the manager of her retail store, and now seek a professional degree. Literature and the world of ideas can make a difference. I know that sounds corny. But I see it all the time in my students. And those are the stories I try to hang on to when the sadder stories seem overwhelming.