It was a phone interview, and the email confirmation said that the search committee would call between 8:00 am and 10:00 am CST. (“AM”—that’s the morning, right?) So I got up in the morning and got my job materials all ready to reference, and I waited…and waited. No call at 8:01 am, not at 8:30 am…9:00, 9:25, 10:00…no call at all! At 11:00 I sent them a polite email: “Perhaps you lost my phone number”…Still no call. In mid-afternoon I called the school and got voice mail.
Late afternoon I went to my class at the prison, and when I got out, just before 8:00 pm, I got into my car and headed home. As I was driving through the gate, at just after 8:00 pm, my phone rang. Yeah, right.
But all that’s background, and only moderately weird. They were mixed up about the time. Very mixed up. Or crazy. I guess it happens.
So I pulled over in front of the prison and talked to the two members of the committee. They asked basic interview questions—about my dissertation, about how I teach composition, about my writing, about my work at Callaloo.
Then one of the interviewers asked, “So, tell me, how do you know when your students are learning?”
I talked about assessment, about the rubric I put together for creative writing…I don’t know, I talked about…learning things.
When I finished the other interviewer asked something or other, and I answered.
Then the earlier one asked, “I want to go back to my previous question. How do you know when your students are learning? I mean, how do you really know?”
I was parked in front of a prison in the dark. Cars were going down the street. Headlights flashing in my eyes. This is the weird part. Much of my writing is based on the idea that people are very mysterious—that you never know what’s going on with another individual, you never know what’s going on in their mind or in their heart. Never! Yet here was that question challenging that idea—I was being asked how I knew something perhaps essentially unknowable. I found that really…weird. I had a strange image of hanging around a dorm room with a bunch of stoners: “Dude, how do you REALLY know if somebody knows something? I mean, REALLY?”
I started to say something—then I stopped, and started to say something else. Then I was silent for a second. Then at last I was honest: “Uh…I guess I don’t know.”
I didn’t get the job, of course. (A sad loss for that department, since I’m a damn good English teacher).
But—after I gave it some thought over the next few days, I had an esprit de l’escalier moment, and I figured out what I should have answered.
How do I know when my students are learning?
I know when I see them change.
I know when I see them think.
I know when I see them put into practice the concepts we’ve covered over the course of the semester.
I know when ideas become action.
The Young Scholars I taught this semester at A&M reached this level over the past couple of weeks. It was remarkable to watch—and fun, and moving. They led discussions, they gave presentations, they turned in outstanding writing. They changed. They learned—we all did.