A New Sense of Optimism

A teacher of college freshmen experiences a different mood on campus

| 15 Sep 2022 | 04:04

I have been teaching freshmen classes at Stony Brook University for the past eight fall semesters. Most new semesters are a lot like old semesters, to be honest. The students all look nervous, hopeful – and hungry! Only the faces of the students are much different.

But something unexpected – and maybe a little magical – happened during the first week of the current term.

I had, without a question, the most satisfying first week of classes to date. I walked out of the classroom at the conclusion of the first week thinking, somehow, that I had actually accomplished everything I wanted to get across.

Best of all, the 20 or so students in each of my freshmen classes seemed to get a lot out of the sessions, too. They asked incisive questions, exhibited good cheer despite the typically high temperatures way out there on Eastern Long Island and expressed a dedication to their studies.

Usually, at end of the first week of a new term is a time for bitter reflection. I have nagging doubts about whether I can find a way to motivate and inspire my quizzical students. This time, you might say, I got my second wind for teaching freshmen classes.

How did I come to think this group of freshmen was a little different?

When I asked each kid to name her or his major, nearly everyone had an answer, underscoring their preparedness for the rigors of college life. (Not, I stressed, that there is anything wrong with not having a major on the first day of freshman classes!)


So, the obvious question is: Why did this happen, after all these years? I needed to ask myself what I urge my journalism students to ask whenever they take on a dynamic story: a) Why is this happening? b) Why is it happening now?

To answer both pressing questions, the answers center around the COVID-19 crisis easing on campus. For the first time since the global pandemic turned our lives upside down in March 2020, there is a general feeling that the worst seems to have passed – for now, anyway.

Stony Brook University has placed a high priority on limiting the damage from the disease. The students have been required to get COVID tests on a regular basis. Apparently, the administration’s doggedness has paid off.

Perhaps the incoming students are feeling frisky and want to shake off the COVID paranoia and party like it’s 1999. Maybe they aren’t looking over their collective shoulders, as the incoming crop of students had to do in 2020 and 2021.

A Freshman Bias

I’m grateful.

You see, I’ve taught all levels of students, but the freshman class tends to mean the most to me. Maybe because they need the most help.

Even as early as the first class, I detected that these incoming 2022 students were different than many of the first-year students from recent semesters.

They were good humored, outspoken, worldly, courteous and wholly unafraid to speak up and challenge one another – and, to my delight, they go for it when I, their professor, needed a reality check.

The Roe Factor

Maybe the huge Supreme Court ruling over the summer reversing Roe v. Wade after 49 years also played a part in this class seeming to be a little edgier than students in the recent past.

Maybe these students, especially the women, felt a particular obligation to speak up and follow the news of the day. If professors across the United States have had reactions similar to mine, then we might suggest that a nationwide student movement is taking hold.

The High Court’s controversial decision may well have energized and galvanized students to pay attention to the world beyond their dormitories, especially with so much at stake.

Now that I have such expectations for these first-year students, we have to find ways to keep up the momentum from the first week.

Check back with me in early December, after the end of the fall semester. With any luck, I’ll have more good news to report.

The Supreme Court’s controversial decision reversing Roe v. Wade may well have energized and galvanized students to pay attention to the world beyond their dormitories.