John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Nobody Wants to Talk to Me Anymore!

John N. Gardner

I never had any idea that I could earn my living by talking, literally, until my squadron commander in the Air Force ordered me to perform community service, which he defined as being an adjunct college teacher for the University of South Carolina’s budding extension system back in the 1960’s. Higher educators weren’t exactly rushing into South Carolina 3 years after the Civil Rights Act and so there were lots of vacancies.

When I got over my nervousness about teaching during the first six-eight weeks or so of my first college course, I realized that I was having a ball. And like a true academic, rather than just enjoying it I decided I would analyze my reactions. I had never had any career planning in college because it didn’t exist then at small liberal arts colleges like the one I attended. So I had never been through any kid of exercise to get me thinking about the intersection of my values, activities that gave me pleasure, and possible vocational options. It didn’t take too much thinking on my part though to realize that I had discovered in college teaching the four things I loved to do: talk, read, write and help people. And so I have earned my living for the past 46 years by talking.

But I find now people don’t want to talk to me nearly as much. They don’t call me anymore.

Instead, they either write me an e-mail or they go to the website hosted by the non-profit organization which I lead ( This is a difficult adjustment for me!

I get lots of e-mail messages asking me truly profound questions, to which any thoughtful reply would ideally take a book, or at least a book chapter. And I get these messages from people who would never call me. This is either because they are too far away—from all over the globe and its different time zones; or younger and much less senior people to me in terms of professional achievements and hence they perceive social distance. Actually, I would be happy to have anyone call me. I have always loved the telephone. This love affair began as a teenager when I used the phone to talk to my adolescent heart throbs, said conversations which my mother tried (often unsuccessfully) to monitor and curtail to get me to do my homework.

Seriously, it is common for me to get e-mail requests which say “Please tell me what needs to be done to improve the first-year experience.” Great question. I have been working my whole adult life on it. (To be continued…)


  1. Kevin ThomasApril 15, 2013 at 1:24 pmReply

    There is an intimidation to picking up a phone and calling John Gardner. There is a halo effect when mentioning this name within higher education. You are in a group and mention John Gardner and then the harps sounds and angels sing in his recognition.

    Picking up the phone to call John Gardner is like picking up the phone to call Kuh, Tinto, or a very select group of higher education Mount Rushmore types.

    So in revamping our first year program would I drop a call to ask? Even after reading this blog, maybe but am still more likely to send an email. Good read and fun topic though.

  2. Kate TrombitasApril 15, 2013 at 2:26 pmReply

    Great post! I know I’m guilty of this, but I sure do appreciate those thoughtful emails you send :)

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