At the beginning of the semester, a former student, Bonnie, sent me a link to an article entitled “Spirit Guides” from Slate, which was excerpted from William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. In the article, Deresiewicz discusses the role of college teachers outside the classroom as mentors who give students “what their parents can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid.” When Bonnie sent me the link she wrote in her email, “I happened across this article on Slate this evening and thought of you and how much I appreciated our talks in your office about papers and life, especially during my senior year,” and she thanked me for “always lending an ear.”
What I remember most about these conversations is attempting to help Bonnie think about her options after college. She was anxious about the future, and we discussed the kinds of skills and talents she would bring into the world, and how she didn’t have to have her whole future already figured out. Bonnie didn’t go right to graduate school. Instead, she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Czechoslovakia, and she is now back home thinking about what to do next. I think this is why she sent me the article—because she isn’t as worried about what she might do next as she was her senior year.
When I think about my conversations with Bonnie and other undergraduates in the context of Deresiewicz’s comments in the Slate article, I can see that what we do outside the classroom, in what sometimes seem to be casual conversations, can make a deep impression on our students. The majority of talks I have with students in my office center on their anxieties about what they will do next. Many English majors who come to talk to me are high-achieving students who are concerned to stay on track and to do the next, “right” thing. What I usually tell them is not to worry about the track—indeed, to let themselves go off the track and see what they might find. I tell them they should study abroad, and I recommend that they take time off from school after graduation. I tell them they don’t always have to pursue the next marker of academic achievement, and that they certainly can’t expect to know right now what they will do for the rest of their lives.
When students come to talk to us in office hours, we can’t give them a job, get them into graduate school, or calm all their (and their parents’) fears; but we can think about the fact that we are teaching outside, as well as inside, the classroom. In my case, I like to think that if I give students the confidence to take a few steps off the track, they might find out something astonishing about themselves and about their interests and capabilities. As much as we teach them and train them and help them develop intellectually, we also can sometimes help them recognize that the world outside the University is full of opportunities waiting to be explored and to be known.
Deborah Weiss is an associate professor in the Department of English and the co-coordinator of the English Honors Program.