By JOHN M. CRISP
Classes began last week at the college where I work, reminding me once again why I have such a great job. What makes being a college professor so great? It’s not really the pay; the pay is reasonable, but not spectacular. It’s not the hours; in general college professors work considerably harder than most people think. It’s not the prestige, either; I teach at an excellent school, but it’s not exactly Harvard.
No, the best thing about my job is that twice a year — at the beginnings of the fall and spring semesters — I get to wipe the slate clean and start over. Twice a year, no matter how well or how badly things went last semester == and sometimes they can go really badly — my job allows me to take it from the top. The mistakes of last semester don’t bleed over into the next, except as lessons learned. Every semester represents another opportunity to start over. Not many jobs provide a completely new chance twice a year to get it right.
And I’m not the only one who gets to start over. It’s a new start for students, too. Of course, over time they accumulate a grade point average, but usually I teach freshman, so they haven’t had a chance to screw up too badly yet. Most of my students are new to me, but a few, gluttons for punishment who have failed or withdrawn previously, are re-taking my course, so they bring a little baggage with them. But even these students, having failed once, often return with a fresh sense of optimism, and both of us feel that this time they just might make it.
Other students start over in different ways. Since I teach at a community college, I suspect that my students are more heterogeneous than those at a traditional four-year, residential university. In fact, the average age of our students is about 27, which means that some of them are actually older than I am, people in their late 50s and 60s who are making fresh starts of their own after a divorce, the death of a spouse, a layoff, or a retirement from a first career. Another new beginning.
But the majority of my students look like college students anywhere. Since we’re starting the fall semester, many of them were in high school just a few months ago, and now they’re making another kind of fresh start. Most of them are from South Texas, but some come from a surprising array of other places: Vermont, Utah, Guam, Mexico, Japan. For them, South Texas is a whole new world.
Some of my students are handsome or beautiful, surfers and athletes. Many are serious, ambitious, and studious. A few are just along for the ride. Some are classic nerds, awkward and too shy to speak or look at me. Some of them are tattooed and pierced through improbable parts of their bodies, and their hair comes in strange colors, shapes, and patterns. They all have cell phones. And they’re all, in one way or another, starting over.
In fact, for some reason my students appear to get younger every year, as though college were a sort of fountain of youth that perpetually rejuvenates them. If it is a fountain of youth, it’s not working for my colleagues and me. Or maybe it is. Who knows how crusty and curmudgeonly we would have become if we hadn’t been so regularly exposed to a never-ending stream of young people who are reasonably willing to engage with old ideas? And to offer a few new ones of their own.
So, college and university students, good luck! Fourteen more busy weeks lie ahead of us. Do your best to make it happen and so will we. Your success will make a big difference to you, your children, and the community that you live in. But if it doesn’t work out this time, don’t give up: Let’s make another fresh start in the spring.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp(at) delmar.edu.)