Friday, February 16, 2007

A Student Gives a Gift

In class on Wednesday, I was going over a quiz, and a male student started arguing with me over an answer. He thought that he was right and I was wrong. He made some good points, but failed to see a nuance of understanding that this quiz question was intended to bring out. So I told him that I appreciated the points he was making, but that it was important to also take into consideration the other factors I was describing. His inability to agree that my answer was right showed me that he wasn't really understanding these new points I was trying to make. We went back and forth on this. He wanted full credit for his answer. I insisted that I could not give full credit, because his answer was based on a partial understanding, and full credit must be reserved for those who have a full understanding of the all the factors that play into the answer. He fell into an angry silence. I reaffirmed that I was glad that we had this dialogue -- I respected the points he made, and our discussion brought out the new points more clearly for the class. I affirmed that it was important to have these kinds of honest exchanges. But it was clear to all that I was not to be swayed into giving his answer (and hence the answers of about half the class) full credit.

We moved on.

Today I found myself unusually reluctant to face that class, and I realized that it was because I still felt uneasy by the student's angry silence at the end of our exchange. He is a student I like very much. I was content at the time to let him deal with his frustration -- often that is an important part of the learning process. But now I was uneasy because today's class session would help show whether or not he processed his frustration well, or whether he had written me off as an unreasonable bully.

Before class, I collect questions that the students submit electronically. This student had submitted a question that continued our discussion, and I was glad -- it showed that he was still thinking about things. In the intervening days, I remained convinced that my interpretation was right, and that I was right to have stood my ground. So I was a bit encouraged.

And then I read a question from another student: a young woman who sits next to this young man and is clearly good friends with him.

She thanked me for standing my ground. "I am in three classes with this student," she said, "and he does this over and over again, and professors always cave in. It was so refreshing to finally see a professor stand up to him. You were right, and you held your ground. Thank you."

This note had an amazing effect on me. I have been under a lot of pressure from many sources, coming at me from all directions, and I have felt so alone (see recent postings). For this student to have taken the time to say, "I noticed what you were doing, and I was inspired to see you holding your ground," meant a lot to me.

It helped make visible to me that I'm not alone; that what I do matters to others. I've had the faith that it does, but having a real affirmation from someone else every now and then is so tremendously reassuring and supportive -- because without it, over time, we really can start to doubt ourselves. We can start to develop the fear that what we call "faith" is some kind of delusion after all.

I do know about myself that I listen well, and am willing to admit that I'm wrong if I come to realize that I am wrong. I value these characteristics in myself -- so well that in fact I can be vulnerable to giving way too quickly and easily. I fear the accusation of being a rigid bully, and in this fear, I am vulnerable too. But there are times when a person has to stand strong in what he or she believes.

I needed to see in myself that I can hold strong when I am right.

For a student to see this and tell me how much she appreciated it meant a lot to me, because my quest these days is for strength. Her affirming that it is not only okay for me to stand strong, but important beyond just myself, was what I needed to hear. Young people such as herself are looking for what that kind of strength looks like, and are disappointed at how hard it is to find it. Her saying that reminded me of how often I have been similarly disappointed. I feel honored that she recognized this in me. What a gift she has given me!

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