The End of the Semester

As the end of the semester approaches, I have increasingly mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is the release/relief of the end of any set period of time during which a certain amount of work has to get done. It is the relief of closure. There is also the anticipation/anxiety of what comes next. For me, at this juncture, it is the opportunity to get some serious work done on my book, to move it from one-third complete to two-thirds complete perhaps by the end of May. There is also the mixed joy and sadness of seeing classes of students off: on the one hand, you (and they) have seen a lot of each other and you have come to know all the things about the other that annoy you; on the other hand, there is still so much to teach them, so much that could happen if classes were a year long and you had the chance to get past the three-month hump of annoyance — which, if you think about it, is also about the outside limit for casually dating someone and thus getting past the three-month hump is also a matter of getting past those initial annoyances and down to the more serious business of getting to know them as a person.

And this, getting to know someone as a person, is the crux of the matter for me. At this point in the semester, I am beginning to know my students as individual writers. I am beginning to understand their weaknesses and strengths, where they are lazy and where they are disciplined. I am really ready to teach them something, but there is no more time to do so.

Worse, the fact of the matter is that I do not document all of this as I should. I do not, I confess, keep careful track of who consistently turns assignments in early, who on time, who just at the last minute, and who late. I can tell you, if you asked me, but I do not record it anywhere.

Sadly, this is increasingly what the system wants to know. It is what is quantifiable, and as the systematization and normalization of all levels of education gradually transforms us — at precisely that moment when, as many experts tells us, we should be dispensing with such criteria — I find myself ill-prepared to answer the bureaucracy when it wants to know how I justified assigning a particular grade.

The irony is that primary and secondary education are more industrialized than ever before, and we seem to be well on our way, at least in Louisiana, to doing much the same with higher education. *The industrial revolution is over! Long live the industrial revolution!*

What we have then is a mis-match between the “blue ocean” proclaimed by one state bureaucracy and the red ocean strategy imposed upon the education system by another state bureaucracy. And I don’t think Louisiana is alone in this. What accounts for this mis-match between what leading industries say they want and what legislators say industry wants? Are legislators and bureaucrats that out of touch? Is it a function of Louisiana still being dominated by a very old, extractive industry like the oil business? Is it simply a cynical move by Louisiana’s status quo to keep its citizens “in their place” as some maintain? (That is, that the good old boy network, which resembles something like a twentieth-century plantation owner network, prefers its citizens to be focused on practical job skills rather than higher-order thinking.) Given the effect, conspiratorial causes sometimes seem like the best explanation.

(Let me be clear: I don’t think conspiracies are very good explanations. And, I think, everyone I know who actually works within a university or school is doing their best both to maintain the mission of the university while also serving this additional requirement by the state. It just seems like an oddity, an historical oddity, that we have to do both, and I wonder how we will consider this period in the future.)

Surely someone somewhere — someone outside the political and educational mainstream — is taking notes on these transformations and is doing some good investigative work. I don’t know that I am particularly suited to answering any of those questions. What I do know is that I really like teaching, and when my class size is small enough that I get to know students individually, I can teach them as individuals; I can offer them specific feedback on what they know and what they know how to do and what they don’t know and what they don’t know how to do … yet. The joy of teaching, I think, is seeing someone do something for the first time without their realizing, or really believing, they could do it. It’s like watching your own child’s face light up when they take their first step or when they go to their first competition.

It is the joy of being a parent, of being a part of someone else’s life. And, frankly, I just don’t see how you can quantify that in a way that will feed a spreadsheet properly.

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