12/30/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

The Exclamatory Cycle of Teaching

I now understand the fundamental difference between academic administration and faculty life. Being a dean was typically punctuated with semi-colons. Work was an ongoing continuum with slight changes along the way. Being a full-time professor, though, is punctuated by exclamation points. A semester begins (!) and then, fifteen weeks later, it ends! You meet a set of students, get to know one another, take stock of the experience, and say goodbye. The cycle then repeats itself.

This was my epiphany as a rookie professor after four decades of academic administration. I taught three very different courses this fall, two designed from scratch without the aid of even a textbook. My faculty colleagues thought I was crazy to launch my encore career this way. But it made perfect sense to me -- as I explored what courses, assignments, writings, approaches, and students I would most enjoy. It was by far the busiest, perhaps most creative, and certainly the most one-dimensional phase of my work life, but laid the groundwork to make future terms far saner.

I made it a point to learn all sixty-four students' names -- and then much more about them over the course of our three months together. Several stood out.

There was "David" who wrote his first paper as theatrically as he spoke, but not well enough to earn more than a mediocre grade. No one had ever demanded careful writing from him. Once he overcame his defensiveness, he raised the quality of his writing and his grades. In the last class, he led the students in a round of applauses in appreciation for the course.

But then there was "Joan." She based her paper on a movie she had just seen, even though I expected originality in this assignment. (Note to myself: add a more explicit statement in future syllabi to outlaw this.) She missed a fifth of the classes, hardly talked in those she attended, and scored among the lowest in the final examination. I still gave her a barely passing grade. She wrote to me to say how much she enjoyed the class and asked whether I would allow her to do additional work to raise her grade (I could not and would not -- another statement to add to future syllabi).

"Tom" seemed to be exercising his peripheral vision during his final examination. I had to point that out to him twice during the test. I noted the irony to myself that this occurred in a course on business ethics.

"Maria" emailed me before class one day to say she could not attend that day because her Spanish parents were in town. I plan to indicate in future syllabi that students are welcome to bring visiting family to class.

I will always cherish the class discussions -- particularly those that were the most unexpected. I found it challenging to anticipate what topics would trigger animated conversation and which would fall flat. My goal was to get most, if not all, students talking weekly. While there was nothing more painful than those seconds of silence while my questions remained unanswered, I could always count on the same several eager and articulate students in each course to bail me out. Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how well my students were able to handle difficult and controversial subjects with candor and civility.

Of the several thank-you notes I received after the semester, I will long remember one from a visiting French student, "Philippe," who after telling me how much he liked the class, questioned his final grade. He thought it was too high and didn't want a grade he hadn't earned. I checked back to my spreadsheet and discovered I had inverted the mid-term grades of two students -- which had lowered the grade of the other student. I thanked him, made the correction, and asked him to call on me if he ever needed anyone at any point in his life to vouch for his integrity.

I suspect that professors erase much of their previous experience as we start the process all over again. I hope to retain the high points and memories of my many outstanding students, along with disappointments and lessons learned. Perhaps faculty accumulate some wisdom on what worked and what didn't, what needs to be better stated upfront, and what we would like to refresh. And, if we are lucky, we also accumulate some quiet satisfaction after the exclamation point of the farewells that we made a small and perhaps lasting impact on our students as they too move through a similar experience with their professors.

Jay A. Halfond is on Boston University's faculty after serving as dean of BU's Metropolitan College since 2001.