Burning the Box: A Teacher Does Her Homework I Emma Bolden

Where are you going, where have you been: though they’re widely known as the title of a harrowing short story by Joyce Carol Oates, those eight words describe exactly what I want my students to think about in their last assignment for my class, the self-reflection: where they have been as writers and where they are going, where those two roads intersect, and what they’ve learned from a semesters’ worth of readings, exercises, class discussions, and peer critiques of their work.

In college-level writing classes, these assignments are so common as to be rote requirements; most writing professors automatically assign them – myself included.  Nonetheless, I am struck every time I read a student’s self-reflection with wonder at the learning process.  I’m struck with my students’ abilities to change, to improve, to embrace and incorporate new ideas.

This semester was a bumpy one, as any professor’s first semester at a new institution is bound to be.  Every first semester seems like a test: the students, wary of a newcomer, are often resistant until the professor earns their trust, and the professor herself must gauge for the first time what the students need.  In this semester’s wake, I felt it best to complete my own assignment, to see what I’d learned in my own self-reflection.  I learned this semester the most difficult thing not just for any writer or teacher or artist to learn, but for any human being to learn: not everyone is going to like you, especially when you’re challenging them, forcing them not only to think outside of their box but to take a match and burn that box to ash. 

When I think back to where I have been in terms of my own educational experiences, I realize that I learned the most from teachers who I at first, well, didn’t like very much – because they pushed me past my comfort zone, because – I now realize – they cared enough about my mind, my writing, and my art to push me to take risks, to never accept the status quo, to change and learn and think and re-think and always, always move further.

This has helped me a great deal to see where I am going, both as a teacher and as a writer.  When I go into my classroom, I will come from a place of mercy and sympathy – or, rather, empathy – for the difficult task both my students and I are doing.  I’ll be less defensive and more willing to share my own struggles as a writer so that my students can learn from them.  After all, we are all in that room together for three hours a week for the very same reason: to write, to learn, to grow and improve and write again.  This may not be an easy process, but if we approach others and ourselves with empathy and understanding, it’ll make the road from where we have been to where we are going a little bit smoother.

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