Today was the first day of classes at Framingham State, so I spent the break between my morning and afternoon classes in my office writing, as I did last semester. Last semester, my office was beastly hot, so I’d open a window to keep from sweltering; this semester, my office is a bit chilly, so today I found myself wishing I’d brought a sweater.
We got a dusting of snow overnight—just enough snow to cover everything with a thin film of white, like the powdery bloom on raspberry stems—so I had to brush off my car before commuting to campus this morning. It’s cold outside—in the 20s, and windy—so I took an abbreviated walk around the block and back, just far enough to take a handful of pictures.
The first day of any semester feels a bit like a first date, or at least what I remember first dates being like. There’s a certain amount of nervousness all around: you’re trying to decide if you like your students, and they’re trying to decide if they like you. Everyone is nice on the first day—everyone is trying to make a good impression—and you can’t yet tell whether that good first impression will last. Despite all the niceties, you can’t help but think ahead with a bit of trepidation to that point in the semester when your students will get sick of you and you will you get sick of them, in turn.
The first day of any semester is full of promise and potential: a fresh slate. When my department chair gave me my course assignment for the term, she mentioned that teaching second-semester freshmen is different from teaching first-semester freshmen, as the students are no longer fresh and dewy, eager at the prospect of starting a new phase in their lives. But although the mood among second-semester students might be different from the students I taught last term, I still sense a feeling of new beginnings, perhaps because spring semester starts so soon after the New Year and its associations with self-improvement and new resolve.
Second semester students might be a bit wilier than first-semester students—they’ve been around the proverbial block, having discovered that boring college classes are a lot like boring high school classes and allow the usual methods of shirking work—but such students often want to redeem themselves from the previous semester’s indiscretions. Second semester freshmen have survived their first term—they have gotten their initial rebelliousness out of their system, and they’ve watched their less-conscientious peers fall and fail. Second semester freshmen aren’t as dewy as the students I taught last semester, but they also aren’t as naïve. Having discovered their own limitations, second semester freshmen are willing to revisit the lessons they didn’t master last term, having learned from experience that those aforementioned tricks for shirking work will get them only so far.
I find myself wanting to promise my students on the first day that this class will be different, that we’ll avoid the pitfalls and traumas that make so many of them dislike reading and writing. “This will be a fun class,” I want to gush, “because I’m a fun teacher.” I don’t say this, though, because I know it’s only partly true: there will come a time when the novelty of a new semester, a new class, and a new instructor will wear off, and all that’s left is the unavoidable reality of nausea: Peter Elbow’s term for that stage of the writing process when whatever you’re working on seems hopelessly awful, far beyond the reach of revision. I can’t promise my students that reading and writing will always be fun: I love to write, but I’m the first to admit that writing is hard work. But even if I can’t promise that my class will be a constant source of fun, I can promise that I’ll try my best to treat my students and their writing with respect, I’ll try my best to make writing a bit easier for them, and I’ll try my best to give the most helpful feedback I can.
So that’s my vow as we start this optimistically named spring semester: I can’t promise to be perfect, but I promise to try my best. Whenever J and I are out walking and get stopped by a passing motorist asking for directions, J reminds me of the goal of any good direction-giver: even if you can’t give flawless turn-by-turn instructions from Here to There, at least get the driver closer to their destination so they can ask another person to guide them the rest of the way. I think a similar goal applies to teaching: no one instructor can teach every lesson, but each instructor should try to move her or his students another few steps in the right direction.