December looms. The last month of the year. I can only wonder how it is that 2013 has just over four weeks to go.
The months have flown by, the year has evaporated. Like the contrails of planes which soar overhead, all that’s left are lingering impressions of passing through space and time. I know I started there and I know I’ve ended up here, but I’ve lost the texture of the days and won’t remember all the details of my experiences along the way.
Time’s not going to hesitate in its relentless march to give me back the days or weeks or minutes or seconds I wasn’t able to enjoy or forgot to savour.
Time doesn’t care, but I do.
Because the end of the year means the end of the semester at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and while time may not care that it’s left me breathless with its bruising speed, I do care about having to say goodbye to the students I’ve been working with since the first week in September.
There are any number of reasons for me to be ecstatic. Once exams are over and grading is done, I won’t have to contend with the agony of marking. Once the last book has been read and the last office hour held, I may be able to reintroduce balance in my day to day activities. Once the demands have lessened, I might be able to capitalize on a few extra hours of sleep.
I have many reasons to celebrate. But here’s the thing. All of those reasons and more are trumped by this one truth: I treasure working with undergraduates even if they hand in papers late, even if they won’t contribute to a class discussion, even if they haven’t done the reading, even if their writing skills are still in development, and even if they don’t care as much about the course as I do.
Based on concentrated interactions over 12 to 13 weeks, even if it’s just for 50 minutes each week, a connection is established although not with every student and not always successfully. A rapport grows among the members of each tutorial group, a sense of common purpose.
And for me the most rewarding moments are those times during a tutorial session when I can actually see the students thinking. When it seems like they are puzzling over a new idea, a new concept. Of course, they may just be squinting at the clock in anticipation of being released from the torture of sitting in yet another classroom with yet another TA droning on about something or the other. Maybe. But more often than not, I feel they’re giving serious consideration to the material at hand. They are learning and their horizons are expanding.
My time with these students is rapidly coming to an end and I’m incredibly appreciative of the time I’ve been privileged to spend in their company.
It may be brief, it may be over all too soon, but it’s time well-spent.
In today’s opening essay for Q, the CBC radio show, host Jian Ghomeshi remembered Roger Ebert and the interview he conducted with the famed film critic a year ago.
Jian described how concerned he’d felt about his ability to connect with Mr. Ebert in the studio given the latter’s health challenges. “I needn’t have,” he said.
His words this morning paid tribute to the man, but they also served as a testament to the power of connection.
Listening to Jian made me reflect on my own feelings now that the spring term at SFU is drawing to a close. I’m not completely disentangled from my teaching obligations yet: I’m expecting final essays from my students next week.
But there are no further lectures for the course and no remaining tutorials. And that makes me wistful.
Because the end of the term represents a loss. The connections I’ve forged with my students after thirteen weeks of working together are now tenuous if not severed. I may have gained back time for my own work and my other commitments, but I am no longer a part of these particular journeys, the unfolding lives of these particular individuals.
Since my first stint as a TA, I’ve connected with approximately 120 students. 120 students from a variety of faculties and departments, given the way course requirements are structured at SFU, and 120 students who represent the gamut of undergraduate experience.
Aside from the occasional encounter on campus, I don’t know where they are now or what they are doing or how they are faring.
When I walk around the Burnaby campus now, a movie reel of sorts plays out in my mind: momentary flashes of memories, frames filled with faces, snippets of conversations, disappointments, and noted accomplishments.
The characters of my movies are students: those with strong opinions, those with a sense of humour, those who struggled, those who exceeded their own expectations, and those who were observers yet offered so much when they found the courage to voice their opinions.
The plot revolves around classic texts of Western civilization and delving for insights into the human condition, then and now. Work on writing, developing critical thinking skills, and trying my best to impart the importance of questioning.
A few students have reconnected via LinkedIn and others lurk on Twitter, but these electronic tentacles, in my mind, pale in comparison to the strength of the collective experience of an in-person weekly seminar or a personal visit during office hours.
My experience at SFU has strengthened my belief that the most critical factor in teaching and learning is the personal aspect. Technology may carry us forward into a brave new world where the nature of human interaction is fundamentally altered forever, and learning is transformed into something which I am not yet able to imagine, but for now it remains as it always has been.
The value of educational experiences rests predominantly, as it does for radio interviews, on human connections.