18 Jan My Mistake!

Today I made a mistake I’ve never made in my 21 years of teaching. Before I tell you how it went, let me give you some background. These past few years, I’ve been worried about what seems to be a new breed of students. Demographers call them the “millennials.” Generally, they’re characterized as thoroughly pampered, underprepared, and naively over-confident, a combination that guarantees their disappointment in the real world and, more to my point, makes them difficult to teach. They seem to need a lot more care and cultivation than their predecessors. Apparently, they’ve been encouraged to think that they are wonderful no matter what they do or don’t do; and this often comes crashing in on their heads in college, where teachers are less inclined to lie and pamper. The height of irony is that the baby boomers, the most iconoclastic generation, has produced this generation of most conformist and coddled children. Still, I love them and love to teach them.

That’s why, this year I decided to redouble my effort at fine-tuning my teaching to address these students’ needs. Does that mean I want to coddle them? No, I do not. But I can’t teach them if I can’t reach them. So I’m making time for more one-on-one conferences and, like a high school teacher, I review the syllabus every class — something I vowed I’d never do. And I repeat, again and again, the aims and objectives of every class. And I appeal to their self-interest in more pointed ways, viz.: you want power, don’t you? If you write well, you gain power: you influence people, you make things happen. Oh, and one more thing: I ask all of my students to write me a letter about themselves, which they email to me a couple of days before the semester starts. This pulls them in more quickly and perhaps makes them more receptive to teaching.

Generally, it’s more work keeping the fires stoked in the second semester. Our winter break is short and students return already a bit bruised and jaded. But this semester I was readier than ever: I’d done all my prep work and had had all of my material down. I’d spent most of the break writing an online text book for a new class I’m teaching, about publishing and editing. So today, the first day of spring classes, I was doing well. Walking to my last class of the day, in fact, I was congratulating myself on having started this semester with more good will and careful preparation than I had in many years.

My last class of the day, publishing and editing, is a lab class. I’ve been teaching in the university’s media lab for four years. No big deal. But today, as the hour neared, I was puzzled. Nobody was showing up. Then, right at class time, one student did. He introduced himself. i invited him to sit at the computer next to me. After he checked his email, he said, “Oh, no — have I made a mistake? Class was at 3:00.” It was now 4:35. I felt my face burn with the realization that, for the first time ever, I had missed a class. Missed it by a mile. Every department has a professor who does this routinely: the feckless, marginally competent oldster who miraculously has managed to keep his job despite his laughable reputation. But I’m NOT that guy. I’m Mr. Reliable. I’m the guy who gets things done, the guy who follows through. But not today. No, right here, right now, I was, I am, that Mr. Clueless.

Later, Jill tried to make me feel better by reminding me of other lapses I’ve made when overworked, like the time I showed up for a radio interview a day early (that’s more my style). Buy I’m NOT overworked. I’m not distracted. I wasn’t unprepared. And I didn’t forget. I just assumed that this lab class, like the six others I’d taught, was scheduled for 4:30 PM. Was that hubris? Ironically, it appears that my chair was trying to do me a favor by scheduling the class earlier in the day.

Years ago, a mistake like this would have freaked me out; I mean, I’d be due for a week of sleepless nights. I’ve learned that in making mistakes, there’s not much to be learned from dwelling on it or picking at it like a scab. I sent a note to the students. It was a funny note and an authoritative note — you can’t let something like this shake you. It’s like discovering your fly is down while you’re making a speech. Just zip it up and carry on. So I’m carrying on.

But here’s the rub. In order to teach well and exact as much work from students as possible, you can’t make a big mistake like this. Now, the advantage is theirs. Whether consciously or not, they know it and they will use it. In short: I OWE them. So I have to make the best of it and take what comes and hope that I teach so hard and so well that these gentle souls will forget all about this first day, when — unbeknownest to them –I was in my office eagerly prepping for a class I would not get to teach.