Many years ago, during the panic-riddled days prior to my dissertation defense, an experienced friend encouraged me to see the defense procedures as a celebration of scholarship, something to be savored, not a hurdle to be feared or dreaded. While I was not able to embrace that perspective fully (especially the night before), I sensed a shift from “grilling” to intellectual debate after just a few minutes into the defense, and that shift came with a growing sense of confidence: I was ready. I had done the work, and I had something worthwhile to say. Those who attended listened, questioned, and affirmed.
My first-year writing students have reached the final two weeks of the semester. As they are finishing projects and final reflections, I can see distress rising – many of them are taking three, four, or (in some cases) five other classes, and they have families, work, or even high school rites of passage that compete for their attention. As I conferenced with students this week, I listened to their stories, fears, and questions. I realized they need a context in which to finish well; I need to make the final two weeks a reminder of what they have accomplished and to celebrate the progress they have made.
What specific steps create that context for finishing well? I look back and remember what contributed to a positive ending on my dissertation: time to do the work and reminders of how that dissertation fit into the larger picture of my education and training. For my students, time means our class meetings will be devoted to the projects they are working on: workshops, small group and one-on-one conferences, and peer review. And the big picture includes feedback, reminders of how concepts we’ve circled around all semester are relevant to these final projects. When a student asks me, for example, if I think her opening move makes sense, I first affirm the value of her question as evidence of her growth as a writer. When a student asks me how to cite an interview he conducted with another professor, I remind him that his view of source material has changed since we began, and then we think about resources for MLA citation rules. Another student tells me her thesis for the final project “just doesn’t feel right yet,” and I commiserate with her—while applauding her choice to listen to that intuition. Our workshops will provide a platform for her to talk through why her thesis draft is not working for her. Our talk about writing over these two weeks, while centered on their specific drafts and needs, will touch on the threshold concepts that have framed the entire course.
In one of my classes, students will write a final reflection letter during the final exam slot, and in the other, students will present their final projects in a poster session. While they have not finished their educations, they have completed a significant first step. Our final sessions will be a celebration of finishing well.
What do you do to help your students end well?