They’re Not Interruptions

We’re about to get into the really busy part of the semester now that we’re returning from Fall Break.  There are only about five weeks until Thanksgiving, then maybe one week after that before finals (we only have two days after break until finals, actually).  The pace picks up rather significantly at this point.  That’s not just in the classroom, either.  On top of all the grading we will have to do, we’ll have advising and Homecoming and visiting speakers and meetings to finish up the work of the department or university that started earlier in the year.  It will be busy.

I was thinking about that this weekend of my Fall Break, and I remembered a story I’ve heard in different places, but couldn’t find online.  It might be apocryphal, but the point is still one worth remembering.  Two professors are talking about how busy they are, with one of them going on and on about all he has to do.  He ends his litany of complaints by talking about how he has all these interruptions when he’s trying to get work done in his office, what with students coming by to talk about their papers or exams.  The other professor responds, “Those aren’t interruptions.  They’re the reason we’re here.”

It’s oddly easy to forget that about our jobs, especially the more responsibilities we’ve taken on in departments and across the university.  We believe that the grading we’re doing or the committee work we’re doing is more important than the students for whose benefit we are supposedly doing those things.  Granted, we need to get that work done, as it is important work, but it is not more important than those students who are coming by our office or emailing us to seek help with their papers or their exams or even their lives.

This week, I had lunch with one of my best friends who is also a professor.  We were talking about life at our different institutions, and we ended up on the subject of teaching, in general.  Both of us were talking about how enjoyable it is to make an impact on students’ lives, how rewarding it is to have a job where we do meaningful work and can truly change the way someone sees the world or him or herself.  It was a nice reminder of why we do what we do, which is always good to remember.

I added that I thought having the ability to influence students provided us with a great deal of responsibility, then told a story from several years ago.  I often make off-the-cuff comments in class, almost always in a joking fashion, that I don’t expect students to take seriously.  One year, we were talking about Lent, for some reason, and I talked about how people give up chocolate or caffeine because that is truly participating in the sufferings of Jesus.  I said something like, “I mean, Jesus goes to the cross and gives up his life for us, and we give up chocolate.  That’s a fair trade.”

I didn’t think about that conversation again until halfway through the next semester.  It was Lent, and I was returning quizzes to a class.  I gave one to a young woman who had been in that previous class, and I noticed she was drinking a Vitamin Water.  I asked, not thinking about much of anything, “Nothing to eat today?”  She responded that she was giving up food for Lent, an honest fast for forty days, and then she referenced the comment I had made the previous semester.  She had taken it seriously.  I watched her rather carefully for the next six weeks.

Only a couple of years later when she overheard me say that I was giving up chocolate for Lent did we clear up the confusion from my original comment.  What I learned from all of this was that students listen much more carefully than we give them credit for doing.  They are often looking to us for wisdom and guidance, even if they don’t ask us for them outright.  When they come by the office to talk about a paper, they might be wanting to talk about something bigger than that assignment.  They might also just need help on the paper.  Either way, they are not interrupting whatever it is I’m doing.  They’re reminding me why I’m there.

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