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.

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.

Spontaneous Semester

Spontaneous Semester

At the beginning of the semester a student occupies an energy state called READY. Rested, fed, and hopeful, full to the brim with anticipation, skis locked on, goggles on tight, poles dug in. She crouches, eager for the push.

The first week is misleading, like a bunny hill. A slight downward grade. Still sufficient hours to sleep, eat, and laugh. Lectures don’t seem like time wasted when she should be writing a report or studying for a test. Even the professors smile.

End of the second week: activation energy gets sharply and suddenly steeper. The climb out of bed and into the flow of the day is exothermic. Labs start, homework is due, that first orgo quiz looms like dread in the closet. The universe demands your tithe of entropy. No time to fold the clothes. Just let them rest where they land.

Third week. Lectures no longer seem bright and shiny. That cute guy smells unwashed and hasn’t shaved. Professors pile on new material every damn day. Skipping a lecture isn’t worth the hole it digs that you’ll have to climb out of. No time to eat. Just grab a coffee. No time to exercise. Just lug the heavy bag half a mile across campus. No time to brush the hair. Just pile it on top and jam on a hat. No time for make up. Just wear yesterday’s mascara.

Fourth week. First round of exams. Why do they all schedule them at the same time? (Do the math. It’s logical.) Someday in your real life after college, the baby will puke on you and the tire will flatten when you’re late for a flight while time shrinks to a pin-prick. College is life training; it’s a preview to show you how much you can take while your choices lead you to the life they all told you you wanted.

Fifth week. Are you kidding me? There’s still a month until Fall Break? You climbed the activation energy required for that first round of exams, did your best, blamed each exam for the one-letter-grade lower you scored on every other one, called mom and cried twice but then talked her down and begged her not to come to campus. You tried to find that blue shirt that matches your eyes. You tried to find two matching socks. The universe has shuffled the world. Instead you found half a granola bar and ate it anyway.

Week ten. You count 40 chapters of material learned in five courses so far. Well, maybe “learned” is too strong a verb. That much material cannot get in and actually stick. You glossed over most of it. Hoped the harder parts wouldn’t be tested and maybe you could guess your way on the multiple choice. If only your dog was here to hug.

Fall break blooms like four dizzy days on an oasis. You will eat. Laugh. Play. Catch up on everything. Instead you sleep like the newly dead. You do not shower. You hardly speak. You take energy in to try to climb back up to that READY spot. You can see it but it’s too high. You rationalize there are only six more weeks, so you only need to get halfway back to READY. You fall asleep on your mother’s clean rug, exhausted from thinking about it all. You awake hours later under a blanket someone has draped over you. You smile and drift back down to sleep some more. On the Sunday before you have to go back, you decide to drag your bags of laundry out of the trunk, a bit worried about the odor you’re certain to find there. Instead you find clean and folded clothes, socks matched, towels fresh for the first time since August. Mom.

First Monday back you go to 8 am lecture and the room is full. You’ve never seen these people before.

By the second day back, you have decided you’ll make less laundry if you just wear the same clothes until they must be changed. Most of your clothes are comfortable enough to sleep in anyway. Wednesday morning 8 am goes by without a thought and you miss a quiz. You email the professor asking if there is any way you can make it up but never receive a response. You email a second time and craft a mild catastrophe, an excuse, a cry for mercy. The notification dings on the email response: read the syllabus.

Four weeks rush by with no notice of the passing of time, with no day-by-day plan for survival. You simply fight each fire. Another round of reports and exams leave you wobbly and weak. Sleep and food are for wimps. You’ll sleep in December.

You lift your eyes to the horizon on the Friday before final exam week. Before you stands the highest mountain. It is your own personal mountain and must be climbed alone. You hoist your brick-laden pack while cold rain pelts your face and the only rations are Ramen noodles and coffee. Gotta get to the other side with your soul and some sanity still stuck to your core. Buckle up, buttercup. A college degree is printed on hefty parchment in indelible ink for a reason. You are here because you are smart, so smart. And determined. And worth all of this effort. Ask your mother. Ask your dog. Heck, even your professor sees it.

college math

college math

Welcome to college math!

No, I am not referring to calculus. Or tuition. For this college math, let’s look at how long it takes to learn college level material.

Remember high school? High grades. “Never had to study.” Remember that?

In high school your teacher presented material, organized the textbook topics into an outline, gave you some practice, some homework, retaught, gave a quiz, allowed you to retake the quiz…all before the test. That repetition that the teacher did for you was the “study” part that you thought you never had to do.

Well, in college, your high school teacher won’t be there to reteach and reinforce and make you practice. In college, it is up to you to study.

So many college freshmen don’t know how to study because they don’t think they ever did it. In college you have to do all the things your teacher did for you in high school. Outline the chapters. Complete practice problems, plus do some extra ones. Organize your time. Pre-read before lecture. Re-read after lecture. Over and over as many times as it takes until you know it.

So here’s the math. Let’s say it takes 10 hours to “learn” a chapter of material and there are 10 chapters of material in a certain course. Assume in the 15-week semester that 100 hours of total exposure are required for the course. Well, kids, it’s not a secret: there are only about 36 hours dedicated to lecture meetings for an entire semester, and some of that is taken up with quizzes and other activities, so your professor has about 30 hours total to present 10 chapters of material. That’s 3 hours per chapter. In some of your classes it will take you more than 3 hours just to read a chapter once through. You should plan on your own time to spend at least twice the length of time you sit in the lecture hall in order to really understand the material, and in some classes for some chapters it’ll be more like triple the lecture time.

That’s assuming you actually turn off your phone and Facebook and engage in lecture. If you don’t do that, you can take those wasted hours and add them to your out-of-class effort.

More math: you’ll probably only be in classes about 20 hours per week. That leaves 40 hours to do what you must to succeed. (Yes, college is a 60 hour work week. So is a typical salaried career in America. I didn’t invent this. I’m just the messenger.)

So, yes, you do know how to study. And hopefully this little math lesson explains why the homework questions (and exam questions) are so much harder than the introductory ones presented in lecture. A college degree is an amazing accomplishment because it must be earned. Acceptance to college is the first step, offered only to those qualified based on how well they kept up in high school. Don’t waste your chance.


Hating goodbyes

Their heads are down, knuckles white and gripping pencils too tightly. Necks bent, foreheads almost to the desk as they think and write and erase. I watch them and think, “I made this happen.”

I’ve taught these kids, these oh-so-almost adults, for a mere three months. Yet we know each other so well. They get my jokes, or just laugh at my delivery. They laugh at my facial expressions. They eat cookies that I bake for them. They study SO hard and for so long, together and apart, day after hour after week. One student was asleep on the couch in our study room on Monday morning–he’d spent the whole night at the books. Finals week does this. It makes them stay awake and wrench their brains into pretzels.

Some are sophomores. Some are seniors. All need organic chemistry to move on in their academic pursuits. I am the gatekeeper. They must leap very high to make it past me. I want to lace my fingers and invite them to step into my hands so I can boost them over the hurdle. But I have to let them do it so they will each own their success. And they did succeed. Beyond my hopes. They did it. I just cleared the path.

Tomorrow my last group will take their last exam at the crack-o-dawn and scoot out triumphant and free for a month of well-earned rest. Few will even glance back over their shoulder, they will be so thrilled to escape from college, from the dorm, from their books. And, yes, from me.

But they are coming back. Many voluntarily. They are coming back in the spring to take the second half of this incredibly challenging course.

Today, I got a hug. I’ll be back, too.