What You’ve Taught Me: Semester Wrap-Up for Fall 2016

Today marks the thick of another finals week here at Penn State University. As comes with the end of all semesters, there is a whirlwind of questions about exam materials, stressed students coming and going from my office, and papers to grade.

Despite the whirlwind that is finals week, I find it edifying to take a moment to reflect on the lessons the semester brought for me. As the old adage goes, my students teach me every day.

I love my job–every Fall and Spring I’m presented with the opportunity to meet, connect with, and learn from 400 new individuals as we meet in classrooms across University Park campus and discuss topics I find compelling and fascinating. Seriously–what could be better?

Reflecting on Fall 2016, I have only become more enamored with my job and with this cohort of students who represent the future of our culture and our world. Here’s what I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. My students are Resilient.

It’s an unfortunate statistical likelihood that, given my large group of students, I will work with men and women who are coping with a variety of tragedies and traumas as they pursue their studies. This semester was no exception–death, grief, sexual and physical assault, and mental health crises all crossed the threshold of my office. And yet, even as these students coped with their trauma, they demonstrated such strength and  determination. They sought out support from friends, family, and faculty. They pursued treatment from mental health professionals and counselors to heal their psychological wounds without shame or  embarrassment. And they actively sought to advocate for themselves and other students coping with similar situations in their own lives. Although these students suffered, they refused to be victims, and their personal power inspires me every day.

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My HDFS 432: Developmental Problems Class (and the first selfie of the day, as you can tell by my less-than-composed expression). My class, though? They look fabulous!

2. My students are Kind.

I cannot count the number of  times I noticed students sitting with each other before class, sharing notes or readings, and asking each other relevant clarification questions about course material. Within class discussions, especially when we would cover topics that ranged into the personal (e.g., mental health struggles, histories of peer victimization, parental loss/grief), my students showed each other not just respect, but empathy. In one discussion, where the topic was Attachment in Adult Relationships, one student shared her experiences with maintaining her long-distance relationship with her significant other. Immediately after, another student raised her hand to comment on her own experiences with her long-distance relationship, and to offer support and commiseration to her classmate seated across the lecture hall filled with 150 students. Even when we don’t ‘know’ each other, there is a shared knowledge and compassion inherent in humanity that my students express regularly with each other.

I can also add, from my own personal perspective, the kindness students have shown to me. E-mails they’ve sent to express their enjoyment of a topic of the course sit in a special folder in my inbox, where I sometimes go to read them when feeling stressed and less-than-competent (as we all do at points in our careers). Students thank me for holding review sessions, answering e-mails, answering questions, meeting with them to go over study tips. All of these are activities embedded in my job, and yet my students take the extra step to thank me for it. It’s certainly not necessary, but it does bring a brightness to my work that sustains me.

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Second Selfie with my HDFS 229:001 Infancy and Child Development course. Getting better. (Can you spot the students taking a photo of my photo–how meta!)

3. My students Care.

Today’s university students are often maligned for being focused entirely on grades, and not on growing as thinkers and professionals. My experience, though, is quite the opposite. My students regularly asked questions in class that delved deeper into material–not because they were worried about being tested on it, but because they were genuinely curious. My meetings with students after exams and papers were returned often involved students coming to review what they missed in order to edify their knowledge-not to argue over points.

As one example, a young woman stopped by to review her paper–which was excellent already–just to discuss the two small issues noted on the rubric about her paper. Not to argue for points, but because she sincerely wanted to improve her scientific writing skills further. After she left, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. The Millennial generation, however often maligned in the media for its lack of accountability and determination, seems to be doing just fine from my perspective.

Students ask to borrow books for further reading. They ask to sit down and chat about career options, volunteer opportunities, ways to give back to populations and organizations whose missions they value. They are not afraid of hard work and they are not afraid of challenging themselves. If there is one thing my students seem to be afraid of, it is of not challenging themselves enough to grow during their college experience.

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Selfie #3 in HDFS 229:002–look at all those smiles! What a great semester we had.

So, for those in our country worried about the next generation of professionals, parents, and thinkers–don’t be. We are in good hands.

In Detritus Do We Trust

I live in a small college town that cycles with the currents of student life. This means that Fall is a busy time, with football games and the return of students to campus, and that Summer is a quiet time where the locals of our town enjoy pedestrian-friendly streets rather than the ones populated by texting undergraduates during the academic year. It also imbues August as a month of special significance:

Move-Out/In Month

Moving through the neighborhoods of my town during the month of August, you will be met with piles upon piles of furniture, carpeting, and various other home furnishings (not to mention the seemingly requisite mattresses) which have been deemed unusable by the oldest and/or newest tenants of a student rental.

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If we zoom in a little closer. . .
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Yes, an amateur nude. Yesterday’s semi-erotica is tomorrow’s dumpster dive.

The exchange of goods is staggering. Lined up curbside are numerous pieces of furniture, still fully functional if not fully modern, appliances, student artwork, and yes, as I already mentioned, lots and lots of mattresses.  Buried deep in the rubble are other offerings to the landfill. Items of clothing no longer preferred, decorative pillows, and boxes and boxes of student life de rigeur: air purifiers and dehumidifiers.

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If there’s one lesson I am confident to have taught my children, it’s to never pick up a mattress on the side of the road. Never.

I often wonder at the process of this material overflow. What are students thinking when they cast a pillow they more than likely spent at least $20 on into a curb-side pile to be ruined by the elements? Why stack towers of books and line up upholstered furniture indefinitely until our beleaguered garbage carriers have enough room in their normal routine to pick up the overflow? Why are bundles of seemingly clean t-shirts cast off into the street? Better yet, I have to question the logic that requires every piece of furniture be discarded and replaced by a newer version when moving.

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Can you spot the decorative pillow? It’s next to the Brita Filter box.

Overall, the abundance of discarded objects littering my town right now saddens me. It seems so clear that simply a touch of care, an extra few seconds of packing, or a single trip to the Good Will drop-off only minutes away, could have found another use for much of this supposed ‘trash.’It begs the question:

Must a clean slate always come with a rejection of the old?

If our next generation finds gently used pieces so distasteful, I can’t help but wonder what they will do with us, those older and wiser than them, when we lose our shine. Will those past the point of modernity be deemed disposable?

Moving through the streets of my small town, past guitar cases and dusty milk crates, next to formica tables and computer desks,

I cannot help but hope we will learn one day to treasure the imperfect for the past it holds.