Attritional Phase of the Semester

by I.A. Isherwood

Now we are past the mid-point of the semester and have moved into the attritional phase of things. You can see it in students’ eyes – they’re tired and though they know the end is in sight, there are many hurdles to jump before reaching the goal, which is winter break.

My First Year Seminar is going well, I think. It has been something of a challenge for me since it is the first time I have taught this course and the students approach the material with very different levels of background. I am also feeling their first year frustrations a bit more acutely than I normally do, for some reason or another. Here is what I mean.

I remember two very difficult things about my first year in college. The first was the social adjustment and the renegotiation of relationships between people back home and my new peers in college. For me, this trumped everything else, because I am something of a creature of comfort and the instability caused by the newness of college made me very anxious. And I sense that in them, which gives me pause, in particular, because I teach at the same institution in which I went to college, and their ways were once my ways in nearly all ways.

The second thing is that college was a wake up call for me that I wasn’t as good at certain things as I thought I was. Though I teach writing now, I did not come into college a particularly strong writer (though I thought I was) and I did just about everything wrong with my papers. I screwed up lots of footnotes, I proofread poorly, I did lots of research and writing at the last minute, and in general, I though I could get away with things that I couldn’t. I was fortunate to have some people who helped me.

I bring this up because sometimes when I give writing tips to a classroom (or ask about their writing habits), I see my students lively faces turn gloomy, and they retreat into their notebooks. If ever there is proof that theirs is a generation of perfectionism, it is in that look: the one where they realize that the stuff they’ve been force-fed about achievement is not enough to sustain a real flesh and blood human trying to navigate uncharted social and academic waters. For some reason, these feelings come to a head when we talk about crisp topic sentences.

I am not sure what I want to say in this post except to tell my students that I have seen the look and it causes me great waves of empathy. I don’t know if it helps, but I’ve been in your shoes and walked the paths that you walk. Hang in there. The social experiment that is first year dorm life is almost half over. You are still afloat in your classes, though some water might be coming in through the seams. Keep focused, stay grounded, and beyond anything else, know that there are many in our community who are manning the lighthouses to keep you away from peril. So stay the course.

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