It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.
Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.
Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.
It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.
I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.