For the last two days, I conferenced with the students in my composition courses (at least with the students who took the time to sign up for a conference and actually show up at the time they signed-up for). I walked away from those eight hours of conferences with two distinct impressions.
First, some of my students have got it together – they have drafts or complex outlines; they’ve looked up sources and are working them in as support for their own ideas; they’re thinking deeply and creatively about their topics.
Second impression – less positive. These students don’t have it together at all. They didn’t make it to a conference – first major problem. They didn’t have a draft, second major problem. They had one page of a draft but no thesis or support and, therefore, no shape for their ideas. Or even worse, they had a draft, but there was no way in the world that their draft was going to pass.
As I sat with these lovely people – and all of them are lovely, at least when they try to be – I could see they were fried, little smoldering embers of the fires they were at the beginning of the semester (albeit for some of these guys the fire they are about education is very tiny and weak, like a campfire built out of wet wood – mostly smoke, little flame). But now they’re almost nothing – so tired from taking classes, working jobs, raising kids that they can barely function.
And yet, I expect them to function. They signed up for a class, and now they need to finish it.
But some of them won’t – come the end of this week when their research papers are due, I will probably only get papers from two-thirds of them, the other one-third giving up on this class and maybe on their education.
While this resignation on their part will make me sad and feel like a failure at some level, it also grieves me because I believe that if someone cannot make it through an eight-to-ten page research paper (as much as I recognize the academic challenge in that work for my students) then they probably will not rise to much greater challenges like doing the right thing in the face of an injustice, or even keeping a job that isn’t perfect in any way. I fear that if they quit in this, then they may quit at a lot more important things than a research paper.
So, I beg and plead with them, cajole and work with them, because I want to see a paper from each of them at the end of this week. I won’t, but that’s what I want. I only wish it’s what they wanted to. I’ll just have to take heart that some of them do.