Derailing the Train of the Perfect Semester

Welcome aboard, students and friends, yes welcome to
The Train of the Perfect Semester. I’m your Engineer,
Conductor, Coal Shoveler, and the Happy Waving Guy
In the bright red caboose.  See the circus animals?
I clean up after them and feed them.  (And unlike
SOME professors, no, I don’t think my students
Are animals. Or vice versa.) See the tracks
Below us, flying past? Learning outcomes
Set by the department.  Or wait, no,
The learning outcomes are our destination.
Yes, that’s right. So those rails, well, they must be
The syllabus. (I thought the train might be the syllabus,
One car per week, but that doesn’t work.
Why would you move through a moving train like that?
And I need the lounge car more than just one week.)
I’m in constant contact with other trains,
Most are far ahead of us, a few behind,
And we are all converging on the station,
The depot with its train-font, “Finals Week,”
Where you will disembark and I’ll post grades
And tend to the train for a month or so until
We load her up again in Spring and head for May.

Except, oh Christ, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It never has. And even there, in that happy stanza,
I fucked it up—the destination was “Learning  Outcomes,”
Not “Finals Week.” The hardest thing for me
In everything is how to keep things straight.
So yes, it would be lovely if you’d climbed
The folding step and taken your seat and toured
Each depot along the way in an orderly fashion
Set up by me, “Here is the town of Paraphrase,”
Imagine my having said, “Next stop, Quotation Sandwich.”
Only those stops required, in order,
With me as your energetic tour guide.
(Oh great—engineer, conductor, shoveler, happy guy
animal wrangler and tour guide. I needed more work.)
And I guess your ticket for each stop would be a quiz
Or an essay. Your luggage is all your prior learning….
How much grit did you pack? You’ll need a fair bit.

Let’s talk about those circus animals.
They’re well treated, of course. They’re escapees
From other circuses, if you really want to know.
I thought you might enjoy them. I thought you might
Even learn a little from them, but no,
They aren’t exactly on the syllabus.

So here’s the thing. I lied when I gave you the schedule
For the semester. I should have told you then
“Here’s where we’re starting out, the first few weeks,
and then here’s a list of everywhere else we’ll go,
but no, I’m not committing to exactly when.
I promise we will get to the destination. On time.
And we will stop at all the absolutely necessary stops.”

Beyond that, I should have told you, who knows?
Will I ever be brave enough to say that?

Will I ever be brave enough to say that
If I see a pond I’ve never noticed before
And it occurs to me we could go fishing there
For topic ideas or movie reviews that bring up
What we’re reading from the 19th century,
We’re stopping. We’re always going to stop.
We might even abandon the train. Don’t freak—
I promise we’ll get where we’re going. We always do.
But I will not promise by what conveyance.

If you’re the sort of student who needs the train
To run on time above all else, my class will make you nuts.
But if you’re focused on the destination,
(I will give repeated updates about how close we are),
and able to be a traveler, not a tourist,
and able to enjoy the scenery and the side trips,
I can promise you  a punched ticket in 16 weeks.
You might even get the opportunity to shovel coal!
Or animal shit! I’ll even let you wave from the caboose.

Also there might be small robots or sushi or kazoos.

Here at the Sunday morning gathering of Zen Baptists at my house (Today’s Attendance…1), the reading was from St. Anne (Lamott) about the prayer of “Help.”

I came away thinking–why do I persist in seeing my semester as a mess when the weekly schedule I set up becomes something fictional? Why not work on making sure we hit the necessary stops but otherwise just say to students, why not say TO MYSELF, “Sure it’s a mess. But it’s a GLORIOUS mess.”

Because that’s what life is. At least that’s what my life is.

(And yes, I was thinking of those leaders who were praised with “at least the trains ran on time.” It isn’t logical, of course, to equate an on-time train with evil, but it’s also not logical to equate a meandering journey with educational malpractice, which is what those EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS in my head say to me. I’m telling them hush. I’m telling them, enjoy the freaking ride, and here’s some herbal insect repellant. “For what?” say the EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS. “For the bugs up your collective butt,” I say.)

4 responses to “Derailing the Train of the Perfect Semester

  1. Dear Marnie…
    Of course the department, and perhaps also the college, have a set of objectives and desired outcomes for any particular course. I recently designed a course for which I was required to layer three sets of same: First Year Experience, General Education (Quantitative Skills), and mathematics department specifics. I even got to teach it once…

    But to me there is something behind all of that; a “something” which I suspect is no longer trusted, else we wouldn’t be seeing all these lists. What it is that is at this behind is all the desired outcomes which lie in the heart of a teacher who loves h/h students as much as s/h loves mathematics (errrr ___.) My high school mathematics teacher grandmother and my CUNY philosophy teacher father had this “heart thing” down so far that while they lived this kind of life, they couldn’t have explained it. Since they didn’t “profess” in the days ruled by Desired Learning Outcomes and Measurably Assessable Objectives, they never worked out any articulation of their hearts’ harmonies. But I, who bridge these two worlds, will try.

    In any course I teach I find myself with fifteen weeks in which to honor my professional covenant to attempt the wooing of the hearts of my students into recognition of the beauty (or maybe just the beautiful utility) of mathematics. From the outside this might look like a losing proposition, and somewhere in the faculty lounge we might have the freedom to moan — only to equally committed teachers, of course, but deep deep in my heart I never lose the thrill of the battle of love waiting to be engaged.

    So. My own list of objectives??? (of course these are measurable!):
    to make every student understand that the only path to a good grade is to forget their worries about the grade and engage with the subject;
    to provide every student who is willing to engage with me and with mathematics a taste of course-relevant success;
    to provide every student with a lasting image of a teacher who loves them enough to demand (and require) their engagement with mathematics;
    to send each one out with a sense of having learned some (course relevant) mathematics and especially Of How They Managed To Learn and Do It;
    and at the very least, to have 100% of my students leave (whenever they choose to leave) with an awareness that I love to do and to think about mathematics.

    For the most part, if these are my primary concerns, it becomes reasonably easy to use the course requirements as avenues to accomplish these deeper objectives. In time, I come to see the streams of required math courses in each of the majors as subject to the overarching goal of guiding my students into a confidence with their own quantitative literacy — and of the relevance of this literacy to their now-educated lives.

    (Note, this post took two glasses of wine to recover from the icy trek to and from church in my not-yet-snow-tired car.)

  2. Lots to process here, but let me say thanks! immediately. Love the emphasis ON love. And I’m very glad you made it home through the ice! You’ve earned that wine.

  3. I love this. And it comes as I spent some time this weekend thinking about major changes to my course…I would love to be able to ride a train like yours again. Many of my undergrad courses were like this…destination known, but through what thickets of reading…

  4. Warning! Warning! We’ll be getting off the tracks at some point! (Have you seen “The Titfield Thunderbolt?” I’m picturing the scene where the train goes cross country, completely off the rails.

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