Early in my teaching career I noticed that every semester had a similar rhythm to it: first the heady, exhilarating weeks at the beginning of the semester when all things are possible, the topic is fresh and exciting, and the class dynamic is beginning to form. Then you have the ten weeks or so in the middle: the first bit of grading has been completed and the hard work of learning is going on. This is an especially important part of the semester for instructors as well as students. Too often the terrific dynamic established at the beginning of the semester can crumble if instructors disengage or lose their awareness of how difficult it can be to learn the material for the course. Thus, this is, perhaps, the best time to try innovative techniques, to ask for frequent feedback, to encourage students to come to office hours, to listen to them as they ask questions, to maintain a sense of empathy in order to ensure an effective learning environment.
As with all things, though, semesters eventually end, and the last week or two often sees a re-establishment of community and a collective farewell.
I can’t help but always feel a sense of loss at the end of a semester, particularly during the final class. It’s not sadness so much as it is a bittersweet realization that the group of us will never be in this particular classroom having conversations about literature ever again, that it is now time for us all to continue on the diverging paths laid out before us. It is bittersweet, though, because it is tinged with the hope of possibility too. I am genuinely eager to see where my students’ futures will take them. I feel this exact same way when I attend graduation ceremonies.
Wednesday was the last class for my English 203 course. I wrote last time about how much I enjoyed the class, so this final day was no different than other last classes, with the ever-present sense of an ending lurking at 10:15. We happened to be discussing excerpts from Milton’s Paradise Lost on this day, largely because I wanted students to read and reflect on those moving last lines of the poem:
They, looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
–Book 12, ll. 641-49
I think these lines are wonderful, not for their discussion of the fall of Adam and Eve, but for the sheer humanity contained within them. There is a beautiful, heroic sense of looking back and then looking forward to the world that “was all before them” with indefinable possibilities for beauty and for despair. The fact that the two then march out into this future together, not knowing what will happen but ready to face whatever comes, strikes me as an apt metaphor for the end of the semester.
As a teacher, the reality is that I will rarely see many of my students ever again, especially because I teach only one undergraduate course per year and because I work at a big university like George Mason. I won’t know, then, what will happen to many of these students, but the spirit of these lines is what I hope for them–that they embrace the opportunities presented by the future, that they use what they have learned in their college years to make the world before them a better place, that they navigate life’s joys with happiness and its despairs with stoicism.
On every final exam I have ever given, I have written a note expressing my thanks to students for their work over the course of the semester. In this note, I also include quotes from two movies. The first is from Back to the Future, one of my favorite comedies. Towards the end of the film and after many hijinks have ensued, Marty McFly says to the 1955 versions of his parents, “It’s been…educational.” I use this quote to inject a little levity into the generally high-stressed atmosphere of the exam and hopefully also to emphasize the ways in which we have all learned from each other.
The other quote that I use is from Dead Poets Society. Love it or hate it, the movie has some powerful things to say. The quote that I borrow from the film is not the over-used “Carpe Diem,” but instead the line that follows it: “Make your lives extraordinary.”
Most of all, this is what I hope for each of my students, and I wish them all the very best.