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Jan 30, 2009

Being a student

This semester, I am a student again. I am taking GER 202, Intermediate German II. This is a hopeless attempt to remember the language I have studied in school quarter a century ago, and has not used much since. So, I am sitting there, with my long beard, amongst a bunch of 19 year olds, who speak and understand the language so much better than I ever will. Just today I was trying to give a presentation on the brochure I created in German. It was very embarrassing; I turned red like borscht, and mumbled something incomprehensible. The kids were polite, and the instructor was wonderfully encouraging. Yet it was really hard and somehow emotionally very difficult. Now, I have no stage fright, and am OK with public presentations. Nor do I have any desire to be perfect at everything I do. It's just my German is very weak, and I found myself in a class that is two years ahead of me. This happened to me when I first learned English, too. However this is not about learning languages (although this process has some unique emotional qualities). We all had these experiences; they come with being a student, from struggling to learn in a public space. To be a student means to subject yourself to judgments of others, and to run a risk of exposing your own incompetence. It also contains the risk of comparing yourself to others in the room, and perhaps finding yourself at the very bottom of the ranking order.

Most of us forget or repress these memories, which is why I highly recommend that all my colleagues occasionally experiment on themselves. Take a class in a subject where you know you're not that good at. Take a math class if you're a math-phobic. Take a technology course if that is where you are not as strong. It is easy to forget how it is to be a student, still easier to forget how to be a poor student. I always try to be decent to students, but like any teacher, I will sometimes be irritated by someone's incompetence, inability to perform the easiest task. And if we go real deep, that irritation is probably an outward manifestation of my own insecurities projected onto others. The more you identify with a struggling student, the more irritated you may become. Of course, everyone knows by now, I am a fan of Freud.

We always have those students at the bottom, who are painfully aware of their position. I am not sure if one can be compassionate to them without experiencing something similar: embarrassment, denial, lack of self-efficacy. We struggle to overcome and hide vulnerabilities, and yet those maybe the best gift we have as teachers. Thinking about it, all the great teachers I knew are very aware of their own limitations, which probably what makes them able to relate to a struggling student.

Don't get me wrong – Deutsch ist Spaß. German is a lot of fun, and I enjoy those classes immensely. Thanks to the Board of Trustees for the free credit. I am just curious and puzzled about the peculiar mixture of pleasure and pain that is called learning.

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