Life as a backup plan

One thing I’ve learned from decades of teaching is perspectives that emerge from my students will never stop surprising me. At 20 years old, all older adults occupy the audience of the student on the stage, and we all ask the same questions. What are you going to do? This week a student told me of their plans.

When the student finished their story, they added, “But I’ve thought about your job, you know? Teaching something you love…Just, sort of, as a backup plan if I don’t get in to […].”

I nodded, surprised but trying hard to hide it, while an undergrad diagnosed my life as a backup plan.

But it got me thinking about paths unexplored, chances missed, other parallel universes where my life is different, rowdier, exciting, perhaps unequivocally not a backup plan by any measure.

Now, I’m pretty old and I’ve done a lot of things. Many of them I could not have predicted while still in college. I did not know I would run half marathons. Or earn a PhD. Or write novels and children’s books. Or learn to play piano at my half-life. Or bake two dozen pies in a year. Or blog for 80 consecutive Tuesdays about a pandemic that would not end. Or meet with my sisters and mom for an hour online every Saturday. Or coach Odyssey of the Mind. Or drive a boat for water skiers. Or swear like a sailor. Or leave my engineering job to teach impossible organic chemistry to thousands of students. I could not have foreseen any of these backup plans when I was very young.

And I have no idea what backup plans await.

Most students are laser-focused on one single goal. They have stated that goal so often, so loudly, with so much conviction to so many people they feel devastated when they change their minds, either by failing a course or admitting to an alternative passion. We must let them change their minds and expand their futures without feeling guilty or otherwise badly about themselves. The whole point of college is to change one’s mind.

TWL: Finally February to Already April to Mad May

I wake up an hour before my alarm almost every day. Before I even open my eyes to check the clock, I think, “What will happen today?” My brain clicks on and spills ideas like marbles: coffee, shower, it’s raining, gas tank is empty, out of fruit–wait, what? I get to teach today. That’s why I woke up early. I have the most fun job in the world. I teach smart students my favorite subject. I ask them to think and they do. They listen. They come to lecture. Some even put their phones away when I ask. They discuss hard problems. They try and try and try. I am so impressed by them.

Now on the tails side of the teaching coin we have the hidden tiring parts of the job: writing assessments, grading, meeting, proofreading, coordinating, never ever ever resting. (Well, actually the summers are lovely and restful.)

Like my students, I don’t have a five-day work week. Saturdays are work days. Evenings are for working, too. Lately in the evenings I’ve gotten outside to walk for an hour. And lately, on Saturday mornings, I’ve been stealing hours to bake. But every Sunday evening I preview the week, look over lectures, check the labs, answer emails, check the quiz, and get all the ducks lined up to march. The meetings. And grading. And office hours. And deadlines. And planning. And And And. Cramming twelve months of work into nine makes academic life grueling.

Last week I spent every second writing exams. This week I’ll grade them. It’s final exam time. Already. We climbed the mountain of April only to fall off the cliff. This slower-than-cold-maple-syrup semester blew by. It’s an impossible paradox how the days can feel so long while the weeks seem so short. I hope my students are ready. I hope they don’t feel too stressed. I know they can do it. I also know college is hard. And at this point, my biggest contribution is only hope. Like so much of life in a pandemic, it’s out of my hands.

___________________________

Good news: weekly US COVID-19 new infections lowest in seven months.

Bad news: India’s new cases at almost 400,000 per day. They will likely catch the US soon.

This is a GLOBAL pandemic.

TWL: 55 weeks

I added the 55th weekly data point to my spreadsheet today. COVID has controlled us for over a year. This is the first week since November 10 when the US had less than a million new cases of COVID. The number is still huge, but the numbers are coming down. We had about half as many new cases as we had the week ending January 12. We are approaching half a million dead Americans due to COVID as the world has lost 2.25 million. How can I be optimistic in the middle of such a mess?

Vaccinations are happening. My friend complained of a headache after her second dose. For a headache, she found a safe spot. The world still turns and whips around the sun. Students still learn and help each other. We still worry, but let’s hope too. Masks on. Two arms’ lengths apart. Reach out your hand, your friend reaches out her hand, don’t let the fingertips touch and stay that far apart. No hugging or handshakes. Smile those eyes. Nod those heads. Encourage a discouraged student. Keep the coffee coming. We can do this.

Covid and college

On camera monitoring while taking their online exams some of my students read the questions aloud and mutter to themselves, something they could not do on exams in person (face-to-face, we call it, and abbreviate FTF). In a giant silent lecture hall with fidgeting classmates, loud sighing, and incessant paper shuffling during in-person normal-life final exams, tension wafts like steam. Alone, they swear a lot; sometimes they look directly into the camera and let the bombs fly. They don’t cry quite as often alone on camera as they do in a group but one student declared bone-crushing sadness.

Online or FTF, one thing remains rock solidly consistent: obsession with grades. Give students a free response exam and they ask for multiple choice where they can “at least guess.” Give them a multiple choice exam and they ask for free response where “at least they can have partial credit.” So I give partial credit on my multiple choice questions. Seems a perfect compromise to me. The complaining continues. I also give 10% bonus questions on each exam. Still they are all consumed with the score instead of the learning, the study plan, or the effort to show up to class. It seems the best exam score comes from understanding the material. In such cases, question format and partial credit don’t matter. Hairs don’t require splitting. With their A tucked in their pocket, such students quietly carry on.

College is beyond odd in a pandemic. Surviving teaching a college course from the professor perspective during a pandemic feels surreal, so taking a course must be like living on another parallel universe to my students who did not sign up for this version of reality. Despite a pandemic that has wiped out 2 million humans worldwide including family and friends of my students, they continue the struggle to survive and succeed in their college courses, earn a degree, and get on with their lives. In normal times I carry them as much as my back can take–even the heaviest ones who just can’t get down once in a while and walk on their own. But damn, COVID, give my kids a break. They are trying.

Teaching gives my odd pandemic life purpose and a reason to get up every day. The spring semester starts this week. I will teach 250 students online again. I’m hopeful for the vaccine and a return to normalcy someday, and I’m looking forward to the sweet day when I can lecture to 150 students in a giant lecture hall again, to see their faces as I speak, to hear their questions and the shuffle of papers and sighs while they all take their paper exams together in that cloud of stress brought on by the little exam before them, and not by the instability of the outside world.

Syllabi for life

Imagine if someone handed you a calendar to follow for the next 15 weeks, noting days when you will be especially busy so you could plan ahead, suggesting reading and inviting you to come to them for help if you needed it. Imagine you thought of a question and the calendar was in a document that also answered questions because for years and years, since more than a decade before you cared about such things, others asked the same questions you have now.

With such a guide, an organized person could sleep at night. She could schedule days and nights packed full of tasks, make lists, check items off, know where to go and when to be there and what to bring and read before she went.

Imagine the author of the document containing the magic calendar put such care into crafting it because her goal was to help brave yet nervous humans achieve something very hard to do. And she knew a way through the coming storm to the other side. She shared tips and paths and encouragement. All for you.

Suppose you did not read the document with the magic calendar and the answers to all your questions before you thought of them. Suppose every time you had a question you shot off an email in the form of a text in sentence fragments with no punctuation or signature. Suppose two hundred other holders of the most helpful document did the same. Day after day. They waited for responses to their questions while they held the answers in their hands. They complained about the delay, the awful wait time, the indignity, the disrespect of being forced to sit without the answer. All while they had the answer.

If someone offered me a syllabus with a calendar of my immediate future, I’d bake them cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting. After I read every word. And made some lists. And marked up my calendar.