John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Gift of Self

December 28, 2009John N. GardnerInsights0

The “season of giving” has me thinking about gifts. And “giving” is one of those potentially hot button words for academics in their own world of the culture wars. “Giving” at best is loaded with ambiguities.

Unfortunately, with reference to faculty/student relationships and interaction patterns, “giving” as in faculty “giving” students something too often connotes students receiving something from professors that students don’t deserve, especially grades, or other “favors” or acts of dispensation. The term “giving” has come to mean a kind of lowering of academic standards. I regret that the concept of faculty “giving” to students has taken on such negative connotations, other than “giving lectures.”

In my own experience in teaching thousands of students in South Carolina over my 32.5 years there of active teaching employment, I had countless opportunities to run into my students, often years after I had taught them. It was easy to do that. South Carolina is a small state, relatively, about four million people. The state is one big happy family reunion. And most of my students, wanted to remain in South Carolina after college, even if they hadn’t originally come from there.

Whenever I would run into my former students they would regale me with stories, recollections, anecdotes about what I had “given” them: lots of homework; challenging exams; required newspaper reading of foreign newspapers such as The New York Times; writing assignments based on the belief that yes, they could indeed write even if they hadn’t been asked in high school to write; interesting field trips; outside of class assistance during office hours; “northern” and other “liberal” attitudes and beliefs; perspectives on US politicians that they would never hear at home; attention; support; friendship; concern; empathy; and for some smaller classes, a group dinner in my home.

Eventually, I figured out what the consistent theme was that they were giving me in their feedback. What they remembered most was that I had given them myself: the gift of self. They could and did recount all kinds of ways that I had given myself to them, and simultaneously held them to high and exacting standards which they came to appreciate.

On one occasion, I ran into former student whom I had taught one summer in Upward Bound, when he was about 16. I met him 25 years later after he had graduated from college and medical school and returned to Columbia, S.C. as a family practice physician. He told me that before he took my class in Upward Bound, circa 1971, that no high school teacher had ever given him a writing assignment (SC public schools were not racially integrated until 1970 and hence he was a product of a de jure segregated school system where it was assumed that African American students had no need to learn to write). His feedback was that I was the first “teacher” who believed he could write and that he had any ideas worth writing about. And until that time, he had not believed he could write, or had anything worthy to say in writing.

I came to realize that it was much more likely that my students would remember me as a person, my gifts to them, than the cognitive information I was teaching at the time.

The end of the calendar year is a great time for resolutions. I hope you will think more consciously about what gifts you are giving your students. What gifts do you want your students to remember you for? Resolve to be more intentional about giving those gifts in 2010. This is something entirely under your control, unlike many aspects of faculty-student relationships which involve things not totally under our control. Consider the possibilities. They are virtually (no pun intended) unlimited.

John N. Gardner

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