I was nervous. Students don’t understand that teachers are often as anxious as they are the first time a class meets. It had been more than 20 years since I’d taught in a college classroom. I felt rusty and insecure.
My biggest fear? That I’d face a group of freshmen with their arms crossed and that vacant look on their faces, daring me to teach them. I was afraid I wouldn’t like these kids, and that maybe they wouldn’t like me back. It was a freshman seminar -- chairs circled up, pressure to participate, a set of readings that ranged from Socrates to E.O. Wilson. The students would write short papers, make several presentations, conclude with a final paper or project. Much of the class would be dedicated to free-ranging discussion.
The first day was pretty much a pass for all of us. We walked through the syllabus, went over course expectations and assignments, played one of those awkward ice-breaker games to loosen things up, briefly introduced ourselves.
I had the whole gamut, a microcosm of American culture sentenced to spend three months in each other’s company. Kids from town, kids from farms and ranches, kids from big cities, a young man from Saudi Arabia, a very tall basketball player from California, a rodeo rider. One guy blurted out that he considered himself agnostic, if not atheist. Several others identified themselves as devout Christians. There were a couple who could barely be coaxed to speak, and several others who spoke too much, too glibly. I was reminded more than once of my own children.
At the end of the first day, a student came up to me. I’d marked him as one to keep an eye on. He was disheveled, unshaven, seemed arrogant, perhaps too smart for his own good. “Look,” he said. “Don’t take it personally if I jump up and run out of class some day. I get these spontaneous nosebleeds that just start gushing. I’ll be back in five minutes, but I just wanted you to be prepared.”
Over the weeks, we traveled together into books, ideas, personal anecdotes. There were days where discussion lagged, others when things got heated. There were a few tears, some laughter. We covered racism, religion, the environment, education, social justice, personal responsibility, the individual vs. society, climate change. We regularly got pulled off on tangents, which sometimes weren’t the least bit tangential. I read their papers. They were the expected range, from well-crafted to pretty awful, but in every case they represented honest attempts to grapple with thoughts and issues. I listened to their oral presentations, marked by adolescent self-consciousness, fumbling and a few bits of blinding honesty.
Along with Thoreau, biodiversity and race riots, quite a lot of day-to-day college angst came to the surface. Roommate troubles, financial obstacles, how to change majors because you were flunking calculus, family crises. One day the nosebleed victim had to rush out. One young man revealed his estranged relationship with his father. Another confronted his own racism. Some days the class felt more like Dr. Phil on Campus than a discussion seminar.
During the mid-term evaluations, I was stunned to find that many of the students considered this class their favorite. I didn’t think I’d taught that brilliantly, and in fact, I hadn’t, it was simply that this approach to education was such a refreshing departure from the rest of their schedules. Schedules dominated by huge lecture sections, rote memorization of material, and courses in which students watched the professor’s back all hour while he or she wrote equations on the board.
What made it their favorite class had little to do with me, but everything to do with the opportunity to say what you thought, to have a forum to reveal your feelings and reactions, to state, however haltingly, who you were, and to tug at assumptions. How often does that happen in school? Unfortunately, not very much. More to the point, how often does it happen in our families, in our jobs and in our communities?
By semester’s end, I’d come to appreciate this group of students, flailing as they were on the edge of maturity, of figuring out who they were and what had shaped them so far. And it was clear to me that discussion seminars such as this would be a refreshing idea for everyone -- not just college freshmen.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.