My terrible teachable moment dream

I had a terrible dream a couple of nights ago, and I think I understand it very well. Freud would no doubt be proud of me, even if there was no sex in it.

After teaching in NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) for the past six years, I finally decided to take a break and hand my course in journalism fundamentals to someone else. I had a dialogue about this last month with Ann Finkbeiner--who used to run the Johns Hopkins program--on the Last Word on Nothing blog, where science writers get to say pretty much anything they want (within reason; Ann always reminds me that they don't have libel insurance.) We talked about the pain of quitting teaching, how much our students meant to us, and related things. I think I got a bit gushy at times, but as I said there, I think that I have been an important person in the lives of many of my students and I know that they have been a very important part of my life. That's why I have all their photos on the wall of my office.

The evening before I had the dream, one of my students from last semester, who had done a profile of a particular individual (I won't complicate her life by naming her or the profile subject) started getting a lot of flak from someone associated with the subject over a passage in the article. The passage was absolutely true, and the student felt strongly that she should not have to change it--despite being threatened with legal action to "squash" the article. (Really, more people should read the First Amendment and the Supreme Court decisions associated with it, we would be so much better off.)

I applauded and supported her stand, as did her other professors and her fellow students. I know that she greatly appreciated the support. And what a great teachable moment: Journalists are truth-tellers, at least they try hard to be, and that takes a lot of courage no matter how early they are in their careers.

So in the dream, I was walking down a hallway, probably at NYU (although you know how dreams are), when I saw a couple of my former students and started to say hi to them. Suddenly I remembered that I was supposed to have gotten together with them for a drink or coffee or whatever, and they both looked very upset that I had entirely forgotten. Indeed, one of them started to cry inconsolably, tears streaming down her face. I woke up with the shock and slamming heart so typical of a nightmare, and then, relieved that it was only a dream, fell back to sleep--only to wake up again with the dream still going on. Now there was a larger group of students, all of whom were clearly angry at me. The student who had been crying no longer was, but she didn't want to talk to me and rebuffed my apology.

I can assure you that I do not relate my dreams publicly very often (actually never, this is a first for me.) But the meaning of this one is so obvious that I really don't feel very embarrassed about it. If anything it is the deep night sweats terror version of the question I discussed with Ann: What do we mean to our students, and what do they mean to us? A very great deal, as it turns out. And there is just no way to walk away from those bonds; they are for life.

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I try to teach my students (in oilfield exploration) that if WE get thing wrong, people can die. And as a consequence, if an operation is getting risky, we SHOULD go to the site and remove junior staff from the danger zone. It's the old thing about power and responsibility.