Today I spent four hours in my office at Boston College meeting individually with each of my students from one of my First-Year Writing Seminars. (On Wednesday, I’ll meet with students from my other section). I once had a professor tell me that he didn’t really get to know his students’ names until he sat down with them face-to-face across a desk to discuss their writing, and there’s a lot of truth behind that statement. When you teach first-year writing, you learn a great deal about your students as you read papers describing their experiences and opinions and perspectives, and sitting down to talk with each of your students individually provides a different dynamic than interacting on paper or in a group. You get to associate a face, personality, and entire person with the words on the page, especially as you listen to each student describe what he or she is struggling with in their writing.
When I first started teaching first-year writing as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College twenty years ago, I was terrified to give my first round of student conferences. Standing in front of a classroom of students felt a bit like acting or performing stand-up comedy: you could hide behind a persona, filling the class period (if necessary) with silly stories and anecdotes. But when you sit face-to-face with someone across a desk, there’s a heightened level of expectation. The knowledge that students had dragged themselves out of their dorm rooms and trudged across campus to meet with me for fifteen precious minutes—time they could have spent sleeping or studying or doing homework—made me wonder if I had anything helpful to say. I worried that my students would show up at my office expecting wisdom and guidance, only to realize I’m as clueless as the next person.
Today’s conferences felt far less fraught than the ones I held when I was an earnest young Teaching Fellow just starting out. Back then, I thought I had to have some sort of wisdom to share: if I failed to hand each student a profound, neatly packaged nugget of insight, I’d somehow failed my job. Now, however, I see student conferences differently. Not only do I have more experience working with lots of students over the years, I also have experience answering questions as a Senior Dharma Teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center. Meeting face-to-face with a first-year student to talk about a piece of writing isn’t that much different, I’ve discovered, than sitting in the Zen Center interview room answering questions from fellow meditators. In both cases, you can’t ever predict what sort of situation you’ll face when you ask the next person to come in and sit down. All you can do in that split second between one meeting and the next is take a breath and quietly promise to be present with whatever question, situation, or scenario walks through the door.
When I first started giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) gave me a priceless bit of advice I’ve thought back on every time I give consulting interviews. Zen Master Mark said the purpose of a consulting interview isn’t to answer a person’s questions but simply to share an experience. Consulting interviews aren’t about explaining Zen practice in tidy terms that tie everything up in a neat little bow: the mysteries of human suffering are too complex for that, and no teacher can ever digest your life for you. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing (or saying the thing that will amaze and impress), teachers should focus on being present with their students. It isn’t a matter of giving students the answers as if from on high: it’s about sitting alongside students while they figure things out for themselves, offering whatever gentle guidance and feedback you can while being attentive to what’s being said on the page and between the lines.
Over the course of the semester, I’ll meet with my First Year Writing students at least three more times: one conference for each of the four essays they’ll write this term. I know from experience that when you meet individually with a student for that many times in a 15-week term, you end up covering a lot of emotional as well as intellectual ground. If you’re strong enough to stay present, you’ll see a combination of breakdowns and breakthroughs, frustrations and failures. Writing is hard work, and it doesn’t always proceed in a tidy line from “good” to “better” to “best.” Sometimes it feels like you’re writing in circles, and some of the sweetest successes are the ones that took the most effort to achieve.