Sunday, September 25, 2011

Be afraid, but don't be afraid of your fear

Today I had a very contemplative morning. I had a good run, and it couldn't have been a nicer day for it: the air has an early-autumn crispness, and the trees a golden-green that connotes an ageless seasonal change.

I gave thought this morning to an opportunity I've recently been granted, one of which I'll soon take advantage, and which I hope will bear fruit. I can't say much of it publicly yet, but I will say that I became fully determined to make a move this morning when I realized two things:

1. I'm a little afraid of taking this chance, and

2. it's that little bit of fear that's convinced me the chance is worth taking.

I know that if things work out the way I hope they will I'll be presented with entirely new challenges I've not yet faced in my career to this point. I'll be doing a lot of learning on the fly and a lot of playing it by ear. I'll be bearing a great deal of responsibility, but also relying to a greater extent than ever before on others to help me carry out the tasks I'll be responsible for. I'll be delegating, relegating, moving and shaking, and working my tail off.

It's a bit frightening. I've almost balked once or twice because I know that though I'm qualified to take this on, and though I'm as ready as I'll ever be (and as ready as anyone could be expected to be), it'll still be a rough road. I'll definitely be outside my comfort zone. It was only just this morning that I admitted to myself that I've been a little afraid of moving down this path much further.

But you know what? That's a good thing. If we don't put ourselves in that "zone of proximal development," as Vygotsky put it, we don't put ourselves in a position to do much learning or growth. If I only ever do things that I know that I can do, that I'm utterly unafraid of doing, I'm not going to get much out of them.

These twin realizations: the presence of fear and the healthfulness, the appropriateness, of that fear, have moved me forward. I feel stronger and more whole.

There's a parallel in one of my courses right now. Yesterday I spent roughly 10 hours grading (9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., almost nonstop), about 7 hours on Precalculus alone. Their most recent homework sets (especially Homework 6) were challenging ones, involving complicated problems which had to be broken down into simpler subproblems. The students had mixed success in seeking solutions to these problems. Some patiently broken them down and crafted careful solutions; others were less successful, impatiently attempting to swallow the problems whole.

The problems are meant to push the students forward, to move them from a place where they feel comfortable to one where they feel challenged, and maybe just a little scared. I'm confident that the students can do what's asked of them, though, and that they have the skills needed to solve the problems I give to them if they take their time and work carefully. I'm confident that if they take time to contemplate the problems piece by piece, they'll grow in confidence and competence.

I sent the students an email just now, including a model solution to the toughest of the homework problems. Here's some of the text from that email; I hope it helps them place our work together in a healthy context:

...I also recognize that the problems I'm asking you to complete are not easy ones. Each of those on HW 6 likely took you 45 minutes apiece (maybe more) if you did them clearly, capably, carefully, and well, as many of you did. I was impressed with the neatness and precision of some of your answers!

These are not easy problems; they are challenging and probing. It's for the best: I believe that challenging problems are those most worth doing. They push us to our limits and force us to confront fully our understanding of the ideas we come up with together. I'm just relearning now (relearning from you, as much as from any other source) that those things that are most worth doing are those things that are difficult to do, that challenge us, and that, perhaps, even scare us a little.

My reflective morning's brought me other thoughts as well, about which I'll be posting throughout the week. Several stem from my ongoing reading of Parker J. Palmer's and Arthur Zajonc's The heart of higher education: A call to renewal (transforming the academy through collegial conversations) (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), the centerpiece of the Learning Circle I've been taking part in (when possible) this semester. The book has great richness, and has led me to reflect deeply; as I wrote to myself at one point "there's poetry on every page!"

In the next few posts I'll talk about what I've learned from an ongoing project about which here I've yet said little, about resistance to curricular change on the part of even the most well-intentioned (and change-oriented) faculty, and about my own elusive "community of scholars" Palmer and Zajonc extol on page 128 of the book I mentioned above. About all of these I've thought today.

As I said, I had a very contemplative morning.

No comments: