delayed gratification

For the last couple of years, I've been teaching a research methods class. This is a course I pushed hard for, because it was missing from our curriculum, and I felt strongly (still do) that it needed to be there.

In many ways, it's been an object lesson in being careful what you wish for.

I won't go into the details of why teaching this course has been... challenging. To put it mildly. But like all challenges, it's also been a huge learning experience for me, and for my students. The biggest lesson has been about delayed gratification.

Most of my students hate this class. They hate having to take it, they hate the process, they hate the uncertainty (are they doing it right? will they actually get any responses? will they be able to figure out what to do with them when they get them?). Telling them that these are the same inherent questions I face in my own work daily doesn't make a difference--and why should it? Misery doesn't love company that much when company has the power to assign a grade. I get it. Fear is a beast, and twenty-year-olds are pummeled with reasons to be afraid. I'm just adding to the overall chorus of terror, placing obstacles in their way.

The course isn't that hard, in my estimation, and it's gotten a lot easier over time in response to feedback from various sources. But it's far outside the comfort zone of most of the students who come through my class, and they don't hesitate to make their displeasure known at every opportunity.

This is exactly as much fun as it sounds, for everyone involved.

Last Friday was our convocation for students graduating this semester. I used to love these occasions: I got to dress up in my fancy gown and hood, watch students parade across the stage (some teetering dangerously in ill-fitting, nosebleed-high heels, a testament to the power of mind over gravity as I've never witnessed anyone take a header), tear up at the speakers' messages of congratulation and hope. A chance to celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and achievement. These days, I get a lot less pleasure from the events. As I sat on the stage Friday evening, watching the faces of the students who crossed the stage one by one to receive their diploma and shake the dean's hand, I mourned the loss of what was once a source of great joy, and renewal of my commitment to this profession.

After the ceremony, I stood in the lobby chatting to colleagues, as students and their families milled about. Lots of proud parents taking photos of their proud children. I wondered how soon I could slip out unnoticed by those who keep track of such things.

Suddenly, out of the throng a young woman emerged, seeking me out. She seized me in a hug. I was startled into speechlessness. "Thank you so much!" she said.
I managed to stammer out a congratulations. This young lady had taken my class in the spring, and was a very bright student who'd done quite well. She'd also spent the semester scowling at me and her computer screen, like most of her peers.

"I can't tell you how useful it's been to know that stuff," she told me. "At my internship they think I'm a rockstar, and we used all of it in my capstone course this semester." Later, we were joined by her mother, and she introduced me as her Research Methods professor. "That course was a bear," she said cheerfully, "but it's sure come in handy." Her mother beamed in pride. My former student insisted on having her picture taken with me, and we both smiled happily into her mom's viewfinder.

This, I was reminded, is exactly why I do it. Students come back to me after a semester, a year, grateful for what they learned, able to understand in retrospect why I had them do the things we did. Glowing with the confidence that comes with accomplishing things they didn't think they could do, and having skills that help them succeed in ways they didn't know existed.

The process is painful for all of us. The gratification comes (a lot) later than we'd like, but when it comes, it's very sweet.

This may be the hill I choose to die on. (Well, I'm choosing the hill, not the dying part.) But if that's how things turn out, it's not a choice I can bring myself to regret, no matter how bitter the battle. It's a good reminder that it's important to play the long game when it comes to stuff that matters. Best not to get too caught up in the day-to-day struggles. Easier said than done, so it's nice of the universe to toss occasional reminders my way. And even though there's no mention of candy canes or bedecked trees or stocking stuffers (well, I guess there is now), this feels like a relevant holiday message. Consider it my wish to all of you, that you be able to step back from whatever is stressing you out or wearing you down, and see that it's all worth the effort when it pays off down the line. And it if it's not, that you're able to rid yourself of it like dead pine needles after the holiday is over.