Starting In The Middle

I walk slowly, as if to avoid the awkward land mines hidden all over the classroom.

Dixil Rodriguez

Early Sunday morning I am one of many professors finishing up online course information for the new academic start. Years ago an academic semester had a certain predictability on start and end dates. That is not the case now. With the great demand of online courses, dual enrollment, the practicality of the eight-week term and weekend classes, it sometimes feels as if I am constantly preparing for a new academic start, even in the middle of one.

A guest speaker from the Education Department provided a lecture entitled “Students and Netiquette” (online etiquette) and delivered a preformatted paragraph regarding social media, one now required in every syllabus: “No hate speech, intended violence, bullying, slander, disparagement, of peers can be posted online or in any form of social media.” The paragraph outlined online content supervision outside the classroom. Somehow the fact that professors were now required to place this paragraph in the syllabi hurt my feelings. As a communications professor, was that not part of my ethical language choice-based curriculum: to make students aware of how language choices create or diffuse problematic situations? complicate relationships? hurt or encourage others?

I walk slowly, as if to avoid the awkward land mines hidden all over the classroom.

Will students notice this policy? What will they learn from it? As it turns out, I do not have to wait long to find out.

First day of class, walking to my assigned classroom with a colleague, I hear him wish me well and say: “Time to teach.”

In the halls young people enter classrooms, talk to one another, laugh, check text messages. In the past 10 years teaching has become an interesting challenge of example and practice versus academia. As Christians, do we not all teach others every day by our very presence, example, and communication? There in the hall I pray: “Heavenly Father, grant me wisdom to teach well.”

Minutes later I walk around the classroom, reading through the syllabi posted on the electronic blackboard. I casually read the “netiquette” paragraph, and I am quickly interrupted by a student: “What if I really don’t like someone? It’s my right to give my opinion. Why would the school monitor that?”

I walk slowly, as if to avoid the awkward land mines hidden all over the classroom. It’s time to teach: a new academic start in the middle of this young student’s life.

“What about this statement should make us all take pause?” I watch as students wrestle with the question. Finally a young woman’s voice pierces the silence: “It’s the golden rule. Not to sound religious in a philosophy class, but the Bible says, ‘Do unto others.’ How difficult is it to treat others with respect? Even if you don’t like them?”

Students nod in agreement and glance at the student who initiated the conversation. Our eyes meet, and he asks, “What do you think, Professor?”

There it is, the open door to speak of language choices that demonstrate who we are and what we believe in. An invitational opportunity (vetted in caution and wisdom) to search the obvious with students. An answered prayer and challenge to “teach well”: a new academic start in the middle of my own life.

Dixil Rodríguez, a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas.

Dixil Rodriguez