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Graduation 2018

Topics/tags: Teaching, Grinnell, rambly

Today was Grinnell’s commencement, probably the 170th or so [1]. It’s a happy day, but it’s also a sad day. Many of our graduates have meant a lot to me, including some who’ve never taken a class from me, and it’s hard to say goodbye. In some ways, it’s like sending your children off into the real world: I know I’ll hear from them and I’m proud of what they’ll accomplish, but I’ll also miss seeing them as regularly [2,3].

I also get the experience of meeting with parents. Many of them say, I’ve heard so much about you. I don’t know how to react to that. I don’t remember telling my mother about any of my faculty [4,5]. What are my students telling their parents?

There’s are also the broader issues that I’m an introvert and that I’m not particularly good at casual conversation.

It’s hard to find the right words to tell a parent how important their child is to me, about the joys of watching them learn, about the frustrations of seeing them struggle, about the students who have served as class mentors and improved my teaching, about the students who challenge me enough that it changes my way of thinking, about my pride in their post-graduation choices [6] or their willingness to challenge themselves in new ways [7], and about the students who it just makes me happy to see every day [8]. I also don’t feel the same way about every student [9], so it’s difficult to praise one student to their parents when I know I can’t do so with every student. I usually settle with Thank you for sharing your child with us for four [10] years; they’ve made Grinnell better. And I mean that [11].

It’s also hard to tell the students how much they’ve meant to me. Do they know? I hope so.

I heard some people say You do this every year. You must get used to it. But I don’t. I don’t like saying goodbye. Each class is different. And my relationships with each group of students are different. It’s also changed a bit as we’ve grown larger and larger [12].

More importantly, I know that however important I am to the students at this instant and however important they are to me, our future contact will likely be limited. There are some who I’ll hear from regularly [14]. There are others I might see when they return to campus for reunion. There are some who come to campus and don’t stop by to say hi. And, even when they do, the relationship seems different; I’m not always sure what to say. There are some who will send an occasional email. There are many I’ll probably never hear from again. That makes me sad. I also know that I am a horrible correspondent, so in many cases, the responsibility is as much mine as theirs.

Wow, that’s depressing. You know what? I shouldn’t focus on the negatives or the sadness. I should focus on the positives. I watched students graduate who I enjoyed teaching, who supported my research and teaching, and who I know will go off to do great things. Enough will remain in contact to remind me that I’ve had an impact. And, whether or not I’ve had an impact, I feel fortunate to have had them as students.

[1] This endnote will hold the actual number once someone tells me.

[2] I hear from my students less often than I hear from my children (or expect to hear from my children). I also know that I’m not a very good correspondent, so I don’t write to my graduates all that often.

[3] I had originally written this sentence in the second-person: You know you’ll hear from them and you’ll be proud of what they accomplish but you’ll also miss seeing them as regularly. I’m not sure why I had that inclination.

[4] Well, she was friends with one or two of them. I think I mentioned something about them.

[5] I guess my kids tell me about their faculty. But I know their faculty; it seems different. And they don’t tell me that much.

[6] While I’m proud of all our graduates, I’m particularly proud of the ones who are forsaking the high-paying world of computing to pursue what they consider particularly important.

[7] This year, I was particularly happy to see one of our students take up dance in their last semester.

[8] Or at least three days a week.

[9] I appreciate all of my students. There are just some I know better, usually because they’ve served as research assistants or class mentors.

[10] Or three, or three and a half, or four and a half, or …

[11] Okay, if I’m honest with myself, I must admit there are a few who do not make it better, and perhaps even a few who make it worse. But they are the exception.

[12] And larger.

[14] Even if, as in one case, it takes me twenty years to learn how to pronounce their name correctly.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-21.