All Greek to me

It’s very primitive when you think about it. Someone takes a stick-shaped piece of rock and scratches it against a big, flat rock. Okay, chalkboards are no longer made of slate, but chalk is still made of chalk. In a day and age when many students–including many of my own–study online, the brick-and-mortar technology of a classroom with chalkboards seems downright archaic.

After architecture class

You might recognize these chalkboards as belonging in the Keene State College classroom where there ain’t no chalk. This past semester, I’ve taught a section of my first-year “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History” course in this particular classroom, where the class before ours is studying architecture. For an entire semester, I’ve entered this classroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays and found the most inscrutable scribbles on “my” chalkboards: diagrams, drawings, and technical-sounding words I’ve encountered only in print, if ever. My Thinking & Writing students have made drawings of their own in nature journals they’ve kept over the course of the semester–my attempt to get them to use the practice of natural history to make a memory all their own–but most of our hurried scribbles of leaves, trees, and the occasional squirrel look like scrawled cave paintings compared to even a lazy architect’s sketches.

I snapped these pictures last Thursday, in between small-group essay conferences with those same Thinking & Writing students. In pairs they came at appointed times to discuss my last set of draft comments on their semester-long research projects: one last bit of feedback before final portfolios are due next week. When you get down to it, it’s funny how primitive teaching really is. My students and I spent some 15 weeks staring at one another in this very classroom, and much of the time I worried they just weren’t getting it. How can something as seemingly primitive as simply communicating, one human to another, be so difficult?

Architectural remnants

And yet semester after semester, the “A-has!” don’t start happening until the 13th, 14th, or even 15th week, when some sort of connection seems to happen. Students who had merely stared start listening. My comments about thesis statements and arguments start making sense. “You actually want me to say something in my paper?” one student asked in a pre-Thanksgiving conference, incredulous. I nodded, emphatic. “Oh my gosh,” another student exclaimed after this past week’s conference, after reading another set of draft comments from me. “I totally know how to write my paper now, but only after I’ve already written it!” Yes. That’s how it works. Sometimes you have to write a whole 15- to 20-page paper before you actually “get” what you’re trying to say…and yes, it’s all about having something to say.

I shouldn’t be surprised that it takes my students almost 15 weeks to “get it” since I too seem to forget every semester the most basic tenet of the writing (and teaching) process. Most of the time, you slog on without having a clue what you’re trying to say; even if you think you know what you’re trying to communicate, you’ll struggle for a way to get your message across. Having made your point one, two, or even more times, often you’ll realize only after the saying’s done what you should have said from page one. What applies to the process of first-year students writing a 15- to 20-page paper applies as well to the professor who cheers, coaches, and sometimes coddles them through the process…and every semester, I somehow forget that fact. For a professor, it’s surprising how very primitive I am.

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Primitive. I’m still laboring under the grading glut of two semesters ending while another lingers on, so blogging will continue to be light this week. So many papers, so little time.