For me as a college teacher, an academic semester follows a strange trajectory: It always begins with high expectations - goals set for the students and demands made for the quality of their work - but it ends with mixed emotions. There is a sense of relief at a course having been completed; but I am nagged by the unevenness of my students' understanding of the material and whether or not they have internalized anything that will be of value to them in the future.
Despite the precipitous decline in students' writing and reading abilities over the past 15 years or so (book learning having been supplanted by video learning), I persist with the tenacity of a nostalgic in requiring that students submit a series of written essays based on their laboratory work in biology.
When I prescribe the format at the beginning of the semester, I go about it with the zeal of the idealist, admonishing my students in matters of punctuation, grammar, the use of a dic-tionary and typewriter or computer (I would include handwriting, but there is no such thing anymore). But when the first papers come in, I am so overwhelmed by the collective deficiencies that I can correct no more than five or so at a time before I need to take a walk or lie down to recoup my stamina for the next volley.
But I do persist, as I have for 10 years now. I was once told by a friend that "allegiance is general adherence to an overall idea." And teaching is an idea that I dearly love. I gain further inspiration from the words of the poet William Stafford, who once wrote that on those days when he is not writing up to his standards he simply lowers his standards. In teaching this is not easily done, but something resembling this act is possible. When I cannot bring an entire piece of student work into line, I tell myself, "With this essay I will concentrate on punctuation and grammar. Next time I will go on to style and complete sentences."
I usually tackle this task at home where I have the solace of familiar surroundings. My 10-year-old son seems to sense that I am engaged in some great work, for he instinctively and generously entertains himself while I am immersed in my corrections.
The other day I was performing an activity as removed from the correction of student essays as one can get, but it would teach me that the temporary lowering of standards has valuable domestic uses as well. I was unloading 80-pound sacks of concrete from the bed of my pickup. My intent was to sink a steel pole in the backyard and put up a basketball hoop for my son. I expected to get the entire job done in one afternoon.
As I hefted the dusty, heavy sacks, Alyosha hovered about me with a sense of urgency. "Can I help?" he pleaded. "I wanna help!"
With a grunt and a sigh I demonstrated to him how heavy the sacks were. "Why don't you go water the grass?" I suggested. He jumped to the task and left me to the concrete, which I piled on a pallet in back of the house.
I went inside to tend to other matters. A while later, as I passed by the kitchen window, I looked out and saw Alyosha serenely watering the concrete! I dashed outside, but it was too late. He had soaked them well. "Why," I demanded, "did you do this?"
My son rolled his lower lip out and stood there, as stiff and formal as a lawn ornament, still holding the hose, water weeping in heavy drops from the nozzle. I was so angry that I needed to count to more than 10. I stormed inside, walked past a stack of students' essays waiting to be corrected, and sat staring out the window until I had calmed down.
THAT night, while tucking my son into bed, I explained to him why I had been so upset. And I asked him again why he had watered the concrete. "Because," he said, "the sacks were dirty, and I wanted to clean them for you."
I have always been unmanned by an honest response, especially when it is steeped in a generous intent. I kissed my son good night and told him he'd get his basketball hoop, but he'd just have to wait a little longer.
In the stillness that reigns between a child's and a parent's bedtimes, I picked up my dose of five essays and found myself handling them with a care I may not have shown earlier. I didn't attack them with the vigor of a social reformer, but once again lowered my expectations for the moment.
With this one I concentrated on sentence fragments; with that one I pointed out the correct use of scientific terminology. I noted progress where it was apparent and recognized that, on the whole, this batch was better than the last. Not by much, but by a little. I realized that this approach would allow me to live with my students and with myself.
As for my son, the new day brought a reappraisal of his attempts to live up to my expectations as well. We awoke bright and early and went out to look at the now-hardened sacks of concrete. They would never do for sinking a pole, but the next batch would. As for these, I was convinced they'd make a fine retaining wall for our compost pile.