Madison Monday: First-Year Experience

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Yesterday the college campus where I teach was all abuzz with the busy moving-in activities of almost 390 new first-year students.  Three hundred and ninety students is a big class for us; this morning, we could only fit them into one of our auditoriums by putting some of them in chairs on the stage.  They looked like a group of visiting dignitaries, but in reality, they were just more scared and somewhat disoriented looking first-year students.

Classes at Hanover don’t begin until Labor Day.  Yes, Labor Day.  Every year our semester begins on Labor Day while all the rest of the world is taking the day off, and if you tune back at this time next week, you’re likely to hear me complaining about it.  But a week before classes start, our first-year students come for their week-long orientation.  Today was the second day on campus for most of them, and I got to meet with them to talk about our Common Reading for this year, the novel, Winter’s Bone.

The idea of the Common Reading is to give students a chance to exercise their college classroom skills in a grade-free environment before the real thing starts next Monday.  So today we talked about the difference between a college classroom and a high school classroom, and then we talked about Daniel Woodrell’s beautiful book, Winter’s Bone.

As always, I was impressed with how bright and enthusiastic our new students are, and the quaint way in which they still patiently raise their hands.  I find that the idea of being on campus and interacting with students, which I dread for days leading up to it, is never as bad as actually being on campus and interacting with students.

Hanover College
Students moving in

The farther and farther I get away from being a first-year college student myself, the easier I find it to feel a great deal of compassion for them in their anxiety and excitement.  I sometimes feel that their lives as college students are much more complicated than I remember mine ever being.  And instead of feeling envious for their next four years, I feel largely glad to be old and in bed by 10:00 almost every night.  I think this probably signals that I have officially become the uncool professor, assuming that I was ever anything else.

Following an academic calendar for the whole of your life–in essence, never really leaving college–raises questions about which part of the year is your “real” life?  The three months during the summer when you’re free to pursue your own interests, which sometimes involves nothing more complicated than lying on the couch and reading all day?  Or the nine months when you’re on campus and teaching classes?  Or is it best conceived of as a hybrid life, as one fellow academic described, taking your retirement spread out in three month increments?  Either way, it’s a good life all in all.

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