I remember being a student. The last exam on the very last day of classes was always a mix of dread, exhaustion and elation. Suddenly you are free of the work, the judgment and the uncertainty that built up over the course of the whole semester and you are standing on the brink of a long and much needed holiday. Now that I’m a professor, my feelings on the last day of classes are largely the same, with a slight additional twist.
This semester I tried something truly wild: I made it up as I went and put enjoyment of the class above the need to force knowledge into my students’ brains. The result was unbelievable. I got to know my students on a personal level. I asked them to think about things together with me and I made it my policy to never ever tell them they were wrong. Of course, when they were off point I would steer them back. That is, after all, what teachers are supposed to do. But I would never say to them that they were outright dead wrong. I think there is nothing more destructive to the development of a young human than to be told that they are unsalvageably wrong.
I got to hear stories about their families, their own experiences traveling abroad, their dreams and their opinions on the world. I got to hear them tell me what they really think, and to me this was the greatest achievement I could hope for. After spending nearly four months together just reading and talking with each other, I got to hear them say that they didn’t like what they had been told, that they didn’t understand why things had to be a certain way, that they wanted to try and discover their own path for themselves. That’s not something you get to hear when people are afraid of being judged. No, that is something that only comes out when people truly feel that they are safe to express themselves. This is my job as a professor.
Now, on the last day of the semester, I am actually sad to say goodbye to this group. We all grew together over these cold months. I know they are grateful to me for a good class, but do they know how grateful to them I am for the chance to learn and discover and think together? Probably not. But that’s ok. Being a professor also means that there are some things I cannot teach them.