While final papers and exams for the two classes that left me, for various reasons, feeling disheartened, did not blow me out of the water, they did make me rethink my sense of the semester. My narrative for the Commonwealth class now sounds less like "buncha deadweight" and a lot more like, quiet, thoughtful class who did better writing than speaking.
And while that isn't characteristic of a class I teach (my students usually are saying things in more sophisticated ways than they can often write), it could be construed as a real success. Only one paper really fell short of expectations, and two of my lowest performing students took a real step with their final papers. Meanwhile, the best writing came from the usual suspects and other students. A typically low-B-writing student convinced me that even if we ascribe the attitudes to the character and not the author, there are real problems with racism in Disgrace. Another suggested that Arundhati Roy takes advantage of Western readers desire for a token postcolonial read in order to critique global capitalism more broadly, and another connected White Teeth's Dickensian feel to an actual critique of Dickens's displacement of class anxieties onto race. So in the end, the good work I just read outshines my sense of the class as underacheiving. Now I can only hope that the students perceived it that way in evaluations.
As for the drama class, some of them surprised me too, not by performing well, which they did, but in revealing to me some of the ways that my teaching in particular shows up in their work. For example, one thing that often ask them to do is to find what hope is left in deeply depressing plays: to concentrate on the persistence--to the final moments--of human choice in Endgame, or to imagine the possibility for kindness in a play as brutal as Blasted, or the moments of commonality across ethnic communities in Fires in the Mirror. I talk about these often in my classes, and students' understanding of the audience experience, even in the most harrowing tragedies, as one primarily comprised of hope, specifically a hope that is more honest when tested against merciless conditions, is something I was pleasantly surprised to recognize in these exams as a feature of my teaching.
In the end, as much as Beckett may scoff at me, I am an optimist: a hopeful sort. And as I try to wrap up this semester comprised largely of short term disappointments, the hope for these students emerges a harder, more crystalline thing, one tempered by the failures (theirs and mine).
All that said, I'd also like to brag about how much I got accomplished on Wednesday: not only did I collect and grade an entire (if small) batch of papers, but the long exam I gave from 3-5 pm was graded and entered and my gradebook was closed up by 11pm. That amount of work was driven largely by the good work of my students (and one nice glass of white wine).