Last week I celebrated two years since my PhD graduation. It’s hard to believe that after pre-K through doctorate, with only two short breaks (one year between college and masters, and six months between masters and PhD) in between, I am forever done with my formal education. In fact, it has now been over four years since my last PhD seminar. I thought about this fact recently as I assigned to my senior British Literature students a 4-7 page literary essay on either George MacDonald’s Phantastes or C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Up to that point in the semester I had assigned remarkably little homework all semester, but I still began to consider how easy it was for me, removed from being a student in the classroom for nearly four years, to fail to sympathize with my students. The longer I am removed from the classroom context as a student, the more danger I think there is that I will fail to have compassion on the students in their struggles, and the less I will remember how much work goes into such an assignment. It struck me that an important aspect of teaching is my ability to sympathize with my students’ weaknesses; indeed, one of my favorite promises in Scripture is that we have a Great High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way as we are yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
I determined that in this case I would incarnate myself among the students and submit to my own assignment as a means of solidarity and perspective so that I might better sympathize with my students in this challenge. So I told them I would be writing the same paper that I had assigned them, that I would turn it in on time, and that any student who wanted to read and “grade” it was welcome to do so. What I learned through this experiment was remarkable. I found that the accountability of a deadline is a major motivating factor in productivity. I was reminded that talking about my ideas out loud with others and jotting down ideas on paper are immeasurably valuable tasks in the writing process. I reinforced the notion that the earlier I began thinking about a topic, the longer I had to stew on it in my mind, so that when it came time to write, my thoughts were already “marinated” and ready to be “cooked.” I learned that talking about other people’s papers, far from being a “waste of my time,” was one of the more valuable ways to keep my particular paper in proper perspective. And, by forcing myself to write the paper, I explored an aspect of MacDonald’s phenomenal work that I may otherwise have left unexplored.
Finally, I gained perspective regarding reasonable expectations. I have a PhD and have written probably 1000 pages of academic work. I have had a lot more experience than my 12th grade students. I had also read the novel one more time than each of the students. With all of these factors in place, I still found myself dissatisfied with my final product by the due date. I am not even convinced my paper will be the best. If despite all of my experience I found this assignment challenging, this process was certainly taxing on my students. I expect a lot from them, and they regularly deliver, but I am also keeping in mind as I grade them that an “A” paper may not need to be as “perfect” as I sometimes expect.
I certainly will not complete every assignment for every class that I assign, but putting myself in my students’ place and completing the assignment I asked them to complete was a valuable reminder and bore much good fruit. I will certainly do this again.