Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Darren Deadwood from Des Plaines Finds the Secret to Student Motivation. (And the Pathway to This Confession.)

Confessions? You take those, still, right?

I'm deadwood to most of you, 36 years in the career, careening toward retirement in 20 more teaching weeks. It can't come soon enough.

I admit freely that I no longer have the ambition I had once. Tenured forever, etc. Hate me. Hate my pretty office. I can't control any of that.

I teach in a fairly static field, where my "longevity" is not as harmful as it might be in a quickly-evolving field. That has likely saved me some.

As a sop to the Vice-President, in addition to my grad courses, I teach one freshman level course a year, a writing intensive version of our basic intro course. I've done it for 20 years now and it's always been a bit of a kick. Students get to study something I love AND they get to write about it, feeling their way, sorting out their own ideas alongside classical ideas from the field.

Usually it's a kick.

This semester I've come up against a brick wall, and I have to confess I handled things horribly.

We meet on Friday afternoons to discuss rough drafts of papers-in-progress. It's 90 minutes for me and my charges and in past years it's been the best meeting of the week. They bring drafts, read them aloud, we take them apart, celebrate the good stuff, weed out the bad. Usually we're still there 95 minutes in and I have to make them leave. Their papers get better, they get smarter, and I know from experience that they go into the sophomore course more able to contend with the workload.

Not this semester, though. I've been unable to get them to understand that this time is for them. Friday is the one day I walk into class with nothing, no notes, no books, no pen. We sit in a circle, a trick I learned years ago from a kindly composition instructor who - despite being 20 years my junior - mentored me skillfully.

Each Friday this term has been a trial. I wait for volunteers. Nobody bites, not even the better students. I call on some folks and they beg off - they have a right, I think. We've had a couple of 45 minute Fridays and it started to irk me.

This past Friday was the breaking point.

After ten minutes of near silence, a few requests on my part, nothing was happening. I could see some folks had drafts, and finally I said to Dean, a very good student, "Would you mind reading yours?"

"Uh, I'd rather not. It's not ready."

"Well, that's fine," I said. "I'm sure it's not ready to be turned in, but this is rough draft day, and I'm sure we could help you some. I know you could help some of the rest of us."

Dean pulled his paper out, looked at it for what seemed like minutes, and then said, "No, I don't think so. I'm going to pass." And then he folded his paper and put it in the bookbag at his feet.

Whatever it's been that's been bugging me about these scenes just got the better of me.

"What if I gave you 20 bucks," I said. "Would you read it then?"

And there was an alert glowing of eyes around the room. Dean contemplated the offer. I kept looking at him, my face - I hoped - still and serene.

When nothing happened I pulled my billfold out and brought out a 20, putting it on desktop. "I'm dead serious. Would you let me and the rest help you if I paid you 20 bucks?"

"Okay," he said, and he reached for his bookbag.

I stood up, quicker than I wished I had. I balled the 20 in my fist and dropped it, crumpled and obscene on his desktop. "Good luck with the paper. I've already heard enough."

And I walked out.

I sat in my office for an hour after that, just playing it over in my head and hating myself and hating the whole scene.

I didn't see any of my freshmen the rest of that day, and not today on campus either. I don't have the foggiest idea what I'm going to do this coming Friday. I have a sick feeling in my gut that I can't get rid of.

Darren's a hero!

Darren messed up.