Knowing Students

I don’t know how this is possible but this quarter seems more overwhelming than the previous two. A very real possibility is that I’m tired and ready for summer. Last week, I went to bed before 11 almost every night, which is pretty rare. Finally, it occurred to me that my exhaustion was caused by teaching. I love teaching, and I feel terrified of teaching.

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Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

“Teaching” in my class consists of leading a thirty minute discussion twice a week, during the latter half of class. 19 students and I crowd around an amalgamation of tables. The space feels cramped. The students work very hard; they exude excellence. Given my background in dialogue facilitation, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. First of all, there was no baking soda in the time of Jesus, so cake probably didn’t happen. Second, leading a discussion about a subject that is not my expertise feels wrong, in a way. Who am I to make judgments about whether someone makes a good point, or needs to be pushed further? Very gradually, I have relaxed into the role knowing I will never feel like an expert, and that saying “I don’t know” will be an essential phrase in the next two months. Maybe on the last day of class, I will feel like I got the hang of this discussion thing.

Just when things began to feel smooth, a handful of students turned in papers for me to grade. Grading is not something I have much experience doing, and so I feel even more overwhelmed by the activity. This week, three papers sit on my desk waiting for assessment. I’ve read each one twice already and tried to utilize a rubric, only to feel more confused. You see, I find it impossible to separate the writer from the writing. Even with the limited knowledge I have about my students, their contexts influence my perception of their writing.

One student, for example, diligently sent a rough draft two days before she turned in her paper. She explained that English is her third language, and she likes when readers can ask questions of her writing to improve it. Even from the draft, I see improvement in her writing. Do I ignore the few missing articles and some awkward tenses? Another student explained that he wanted to turn in the paper early because his team would be competing in national championships during the week. Without expressing too much enthusiasm, I felt so excited for him. Who gets to compete in national championships?

The framework of college chaplaincy never stopped influencing how I see the world, and especially how I see students. This means above all else, my commitment to students is to learn who they are. It’s not just skills or exciting news, I need to know how they learn, what makes them excited or upset or discouraged, and how to push them outside their comfort areas. The key warrant is that students don’t enter a classroom having left the rest of themselves outside the door. Though perhaps more exhausting, knowing my students actually makes me feel like I can grade their work. It’s not about excuses, it’s about particularity. Good thing, because reading 20 papers with the exact same thesis would be pretty darn boring.

Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

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Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”