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On the humane life of the academy

That’s the magnolia tree from my backyard in that picture, looking like in just a few days it might be fully splendourous in pink, or in the freeze of the next couple of nights might drop those petals to the ground in a browned mess.  Even now, there’s a sepia tone to the blossoms that leaves little confidence in the rebirth motifs of spring.  Something something lilacs something dead land.

IMG_0861I’ve had a packed few days in the life of the academy this week, full of fantastic experiences with incredibly promising students and colleagues.  In just the last eight days I’ve learned about a grant that I’ll be very enthusiastic and less vague about next week; I’ve sat in on interviews with the most promising incoming in-state undergraduate students; I’ve gotten to listen to and be a judge at the finale of our campus three-minute thesis competition; I’ve given a talk about personal statements to students on track for outstanding fellowships and scholarships like the Fulbright; I’ve heard news that tells me that we’ll have big news to report about this year’s WVU Fulbright applicants (I’m the faculty advisor); and I got to prepare and participate in the elections for our newest Phi Beta Kappa inductees (I’m the acting chapter secretary).  I also, significantly, got to teach my class, which is turning into one of the most wonderful teaching experiences I could have hoped for in this semester.  Nothing extraordinary–just a great group of students willing to dive in to almost any discussion.

But amidst all of this hope and celebration and joy, I’ve also worked in some way with three different students in crisis: friend and family deaths, accidents, traumas (I won’t say more since these are ongoing issues).  Another is trying desperately to return to school after years off fielding health and financial crises, so that she can earn the degree that she roundly deserves to earn. And for all of those astounding opportunities that I had a hand in offering to students this past week, there is the disappointment that inevitably comes with those not offered them and a strange ambivalence about being a gatekeeper in this way at all.

To round it out, I saw a student pedestrian hit by a pick-up truck yesterday afternoon (this story turns out ok).  The accident was hardly reckless negligence on the part of the driver (the pedestrian did not seem to be looking, was wearing earbuds, and was darting through traffic), but that pedestrian did not ask to be hip-checked hard enough to crack the truck’s fiberglass bumper, to be sent flying and rolling and sprawling, to feel the shame of having been laid low in public.

I was the first person to this student, and another driver pulled over to call 911 and assist. As is often the case with a shockingly unexpected injury, adrenaline had flooded his body and he really seemed to just want to skitter away to nurse his limping hip and his scraped hands, but I got him to sit down and collect himself, wait for the EMTs (who located nothing more than scrapes and bruises), and file a report.  I also helped calm the driver, who was understandably rattled, himself ashamed and upset, as the student drivers who passed by shouted “idiots!” out their windows: retribution for the traffic delay.

After the EMTs arrived, I just stuck around in case I was needed, offering sympathetic glances to the driver and pedestrian alike, though not speaking to either.  When I was free to go, I went home and told my kids about the afternoon’s drama, forging lesson from incident.  But how close I had been from witnessing something terrible yesterday afternoon!

I read something in passing last week that mentioned that it was very difficult to incentivize good teaching, because teaching as an impulse was largely driven by intrinsic motivation, a commitment to the business of serving our service, or maybe just to the business of making and conveying knowledge.  While we may say much about a college education being a kind of luxury, for so many of the students I felt connected to this week, this time felt like the blossoms on that magnolia tree: just on the verge of splendor, still at great risk of wilting in exposure to the elements.  Sometimes I’m thrilled to help them fully bloom, but sometimes it’s most important to help them to the side of the road.


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