John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Power of Just One Educator

September 17, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I learned so many important lessons in college. And one of them was the Socratic Method. I learned this when I was a junior, in a political philosophy course, the semester that President Kennedy was murdered. One of the many books we read that term was Plato’s Republic. This classic and the professor leading the course taught me this method. And I practice this method regularly.

It’s really pretty simple. When appropriate, you communicate with others in the interrogative mode. You are a seeker of truth, always. The truth is always under construction. You get at this by asking countless individuals what do they see as the truth of something. And in almost anything anyone gives you in such dialogue you can find at least a half-truth, a scintilla of meaning, value, evidence, insight. And then you add up all those collected half truths and you have created your own.

So I have just been on vacation in New England with my wife. And we spent a week at this place we love so much in Vermont, on Lake Champlain, just below the great college town of Burlington. And the Inn at Shelburne Farms has a large staff of recent college graduates who are servers.

One of them was recounting for me the impact of her “first-year experience.” I had asked her if she had taken any kind of introductory first-year seminar type course at the University of Vermont. She told me that she had. And much more than that. She was reflecting four years back on who taught that course, a male history professor, and the impact he had on her.

The course structure provided that the instructor of the seminar section would also serve as the advisor for the students enrolled in the section. This student described in good detail for me the focus of the seminar, what was for her an introduction into gender studies and how this discipline is illuminated by integration with the study of history. She told me she loved the course so much that she decided to major in history! And she also respected the advisor so much that she decided to retain him as her academic advisor for the balance of her undergraduate career. Now this is the kind of impact of the first-year experience that I would want for all students. And this is the kind of thing I can’t be reminded of too often.

She also told me that during her first year she was very concerned about the relationship between her choice of major and the even bigger questions of life after college, career, etc. She quoted her professor of the seminar as telling her: “Don’t worry about that now. Just do something in college that you love, and everything else will work out and fall into place.” Now some could quibble that that advice is overly simplistic and may not be valid –certainly not valid for all students. But that advice has really carried this student well.

My main take away from this serendipitous conversation was that here was my latest illustration of how much power (the ability to influence the decisions and actions of others) one higher educator can exercise over students, for better or worse. And it was also a reminder of the potential impact of engaging pedagogy in a first-year seminar; and of the power of the role of academic advisor.

I didn’t have such a course when I was a first-year student. And this was one reason why I almost flunked out. And my first advisor told me in a post mid-term conversation when he was reviewing my grades with me something very different from the message the former University of Vermont student described above received from her advisor. Mine told me: “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest student I have ever advised….!” I thought a minute and realized he meant it. What did I do with this message? I decided to get a new advisor, which I did. I went on and have had a career that has influenced hundreds of thousands of college students. And my former advisor went on to become a college president. His discipline, not incidentally, was communication, and he taught speech!

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