Already it’s almost October, a month or so into my first-year students’ brand new college careers. Whereas my friends with children get to watch those children grow up, I see something different. Every year, I watch batch after batch of young women and men beginning and beginning and beginning again. Every fall semester, I get older, but every fall semester, my incoming first-years are just as young and tender as they ever were, earnestly asking where their classes meet, where the campus shuttle bus stop is, or where on campus they can hang out in between classes.

Autumn mushrooms.

After more than 20 years as a college instructor, I’ve learned that teaching first-year students is only partly about teaching. One of my colleagues refers to first-year writing as “Self Confidence 101,” and she’s only partly joking. First-year writing instructors encounter students right when they are their most vulnerable: we’re the ones who hear about roommate troubles, bouts of homesickness, and long-distance breakups. Few of us went into teaching to become confidants or counselors, but by default this seems to go with the territory.

Pokeweed berries

“Emotional labor” is the official word for this kind of tending, and it is both a thankless and essential job. I’m currently reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened, and she talks about emotional labor in both the private and public spheres:

[Emotional labor] describes all the unpaid, often unseen work that people–overwhelmingly women–perform to keep their families and workplaces humming along. Organizing office birthday parties. Arranging the kids’ summer camp. Coordinating visits with in-laws. Helping the new employee feel welcome and included. The list is endless: all the little details without which life would devolve into chaos and misery. Not all women take on these tasks, and that’s fine, and some men do, and I salute them–but it’s largely women’s work. Finally, someone thought to name it. (pp. 132-133)

Rainy day mums outside @traderjoes

Clinton describes how emotional labor works in the political world: someone has to pour the coffee, organize the meeting, or be the first to reach across the aisle. “It’s often women who handle constituent outreach, answering phones and responding to letters and emails,” Clinton observes, and she notes it’s often “women [who] make those calls and write those letters to Congress” (p. 134). It’s not that women necessarily care more about their families, workplaces, or countries than men do; it’s that women have been conditioned to be caregivers. “We’re not just the designated worriers in our families,” Clinton argues, “we’re also the designated worriers for our country” (p. 134).

Sprouted after Jose, on an outcrop of white quartz.

What Clinton has observed as a public servant, I’ve lived in academia. Someone has to notice (and worry) when a student starts missing classes, looks depressed, or fails to submit assignments. Someone has to show up, pay attention, and actually mean it when asking a student “How are you?”

Emotional labor has traditionally been women’s work; traditionally, emotional labor has been undervalued. But while the big and bombastic make grand moves on the global stage, I sometimes think the quiet, overlooked work of emotional labor is the only thing holding the world together.

This semester in review

Today I asked my first year writing students to look back on their first semester of college as a way of brainstorming their final essay. After they’d listed the new relationships they’d made, the things they’d learned, and the triumphs and challenges they’d experienced, I asked them to draw a comic strip illustrating their first semester in college.

Those comics captured the gamut of the first year college experience, with solitary stick figures arriving on campus and soon making friends. One strip captured a gradual increase in the complexity and rigor of college assignments (“No Wikipedia”), while another focused on the cycle of procrastination, with an optimistic stick figure proclaiming “Today I’m going to get a lot done,” only to be sidetracked by distractions. “Oh well,” the stick figure cheerfully proclaims before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

To show my students that you don’t have to be an artist to draw a comic, I drew my own version of the semester in review: a series of panels showing the tasks I juggle on a typical day, with never enough time for grading papers. “Oh well,” I proclaim every night before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

Ship from shore

It’s the third week of the semester, so the dust is starting to settle from the start of another school year. Because I teach first-year students, the first few weeks of fall semester are inevitably spent getting everyone acclimated to college, college schedules, and a college workload.

Do you know the ropes?

Right now my students and I are discussing Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which is this year’s common reading selection at Framingham State. In the second chapter, Philbrick describes the bumbling confusion new crewmen, or green hands, feel as they set sail on their first whaleship. Ordered by their captain or first mate to unfurl the sails, the green hands nervously look around, realizing they haven’t yet learned which ropes go with which sails, much less how to man those ropes. Newbie whale men need to (literally) learn the ropes before they can work together as a well-organized team.


This morning my students peer reviewed rough drafts of a narrative they’re writing: their first experience reading their writing aloud to their new peers. As my students sat with their desks huddled into small groups, I stood at the front of the room, eavesdropping as my students read and then talked about their writing. Listening to the quiet murmur of students reading and commenting on one another’s work is one of my favorite tasks as a teacher: on good days, I feel expendable, my expertise needed only if something should go awry.

With the story of the whaleship Essex fresh in mind, I imagined each huddled group of students as the crew of a whale boat, my students diligently clustered around their laptops like whale men plying their oars. Three weeks into a four-year voyage, these once-strangers are unifying around a common task.

I first blogged these photos of the Charles W. Morgan–the last remaining wooden whaleship–in July, 2014, when she visited Boston Harbor during her 38th voyage.

Viewing through

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.

Stokes Hall

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.

Between the acts

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.

Stokes Hall

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.

New mums / not yet blooming

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.