Though Good Friday isn’t a BYU holiday, I’ve tried for a long time to avoid scheduling anything on Good Friday. This year, however, when making up the calendar, I didn’t pay enough attention. To encourage my students to work on their papers early and to talk to each other about them, I required my philosophy of religion seminar to take part in a mini-conference, and I scheduled it for today and tomorrow.
I’ve never done something like this before, but I wanted to try it, and I’m more than pleased with the result. Nine students presented today, and to a person they did a good job. Some did better than others—they ranged in philosophical quality from one that may be publishable to some that have a long way to go. Some were more nervous than others; some were more polished than others. But all of them did well.
The most interesting thing for me was the different perspective that having this conference gave me. I have already read the first draft of many of their papers, but reading them gave me a very different impression than hearing them. Hearing students present, I could see those who were genuinely struggling with difficult ideas, whereas reading them it was hard to tell the difference between someone struggling with a difficult idea and someone who just hadn’t bothered to put in the needed work. I think this conference puts me in a much better position to evaluate their final papers and their work for the semester. In fact, I look forward to reading their final papers, something that hasn’t always been true.
The conference also gave me insight into the seminar participants as people, and that is difficult to come by in most classroom circumstances. Though I lecture, I also discuss, but seldom does anyone in class but me have twenty minutes to talk about an idea. Seeing these students talk about the ideas they found interesting made me understand better what they are doing. It also made me like them.
I generally like students. That is one of the reasons I’m a professor. But this mini-conference has given me affection for those in the class. In it I’m having something like the experience I’ve had when serving in a student ward or stake: I see students as bright, good, sincere people who work hard, rather than as pleasant people many of whom are just trying to get through in whatever is the easiest way. Sorry to say, but that is an impression that is easy to come by, for whatever reasons, but the impression is smoothed over and erased when I see students differently, as I did today.
I hope the students enjoy the mini-conference as much as I am. I’m certainly going to try it again in my next seminar. On the other hand, that one will be on Heidegger rather than the philosophy of religion, so it may be more difficult for students to get enthusiastic about the topic. I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed.