On Another School Year Starting

Though the locations have shifted (Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, Ohio, and Texas) over my years as a student and teacher, what has not changed is my excitement and joy at the start of a new school year. I am beginning my 13th year teaching college, my fourth year at my current institution. Even when I was a student through my 25 years of formal education, I had this energy building up as the middle of August approached.

Part of what (among many things I could list) I love about the college teaching experience is a new start each semester. There’s so much possibility. A different slate of classes. Different sets of students. A certain combination of freshness and the predictable. Even when I use the exact same texts in a class (as I am in one course this fall), the student population is obviously different, and that’s what I find so enjoyable. And there’s the spontaneity factor–I can never know with any degree of certainty how a class session will go, what direction(s) it will take.

While I am often excited for Spring Semester to start (especially when I lived in colder climates because that meant warmer weather would–eventually–be on the way), it would not be the same degree of excitement. When fall semester arrives, I’ve been refreshed by the summer break, nervous to meet my new students, eager to try varied approaches. With the length of the summer break, I’ve had time and space to reflect on what I did in the prior iteration(s) of courses, considering ways I could make them better, even more meaningful for the students, as well as for me.

It sounds cliche to say it, but I’m always learning from my students in so many ways. They come up with those unexpected insights, those off-the-wall topics that keep me fresh and interested as a professor. In my fall Creative Writing course, I find myself excited about the stories my students will tell (both in short fiction and in creative nonfiction), and eager to help them take those initial drafts through various stages of development, offering words and ideas to nudge them along as they try to tell those stories as artfully, as well as they can.

Over these years, I still remember the names and faces of some students from all of those classes in all those places. I still remember some names and faces from my very first class as an MFA teaching assistant in fall 2002, my 7:30 MWF section in the basement of Weld Hall, the floor covered with ’80s-era orange carpet. I even remember topics of papers over the years. (Joey wrote an argument essay about __________. Kayla wrote a short story about ___________.) I occasionally find myself wondering about a former student, wondering about the direction the student eventually ventured.

I haven’t counted the number of students I’ve taught over a dozen years, and I certainly haven’t attempted to count the total words of student writing I’ve read. And as each fall begins, I try not to think hard about what year the current freshman population was (on average) born in. (Doing so would produce all kinds of emotions.) School is in my DNA, and the school calendar is also.

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