lessons in humility as I review my own student files from Penn

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reading through my old university files is akin to taking a graduate-level course in humility. How hard I tried—recopying notes, recopying the recopies. How overwhelmed I made myself by writing essays toward questions no one could ever really answer, by doing so much extra reading that I was drowning in the facts (and losing the essence). I was, it's clear, forcing myself toward a law degree as an undergrad. I was taking on extra projects at the Superior Court, writing papers on contract law, always looking for the legal angle in history papers and economics projects—and, most of the time, avoiding the fact that my passions lay elsewhere. I never took a single writing course at Penn. I only took one English course.

My professors wrote long notes to me. They bashed, they encouraged. They gave me early B's, cajoled me toward less baroque results, congratulated me when progress was made.

But none of it was easy. Most of the time, trying so hard, I was lonely. So lonely and ultimately out of my element that I left Penn for one semester to take classes at the much-smaller Haverford College. There (and I recall this well) I found my niche. There conversation mattered as much as the final exam.

Just now, sifting and sorting through these files, I find a note I wrote to a favorite Haverford professor. The final paragraph:

Finally, I'd like to add that, as a University of Pennsylvania student who moved off campus this semester feeling utterly alienated and unable to communicate with my contemporaries, the group discussion session proved extremely valuable to me. It was an experience as necessary as it was fun.
Perhaps I write today because I gave myself room for the poetic at Haverford. Perhaps much of the way I teach now at Penn stems from what I learned about the importance of creating classrooms where names are known, ideas are valued, and affection is absolute. We learn better in those environments. We take what we learned forward.


Michael G-G said...

Wonderful and salutary to read, as I send my firstborn off to college this fall. His passion is theater and it's easy for me and his mother to go "oops, not sure about the economic security of that." I hope he follows his lights and isn't affected by our fears.

Glad you also found your niche at Haverford.

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