John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

You Just Never Know What Students Will Remember…and Act On

John N. Gardner

I am at the point in life where I am asking “now what did I accomplish in my career for my own students?” This is sometimes hard for us to measure. And this is because students often don’t give us direct feedback. And because they often don’t know at the actual time they are with us, just what is the value of what they have received from us. As I have found out on multiple occasions, it isn’t until much later that students have a kind of delayed epiphany upon reflection on something I told them or did with or for them—and then they put that into meaningful perspective and action. Case in point to follow:

My younger son is a medical laser expert—he sells medical laser equipment leases to physicians and shows them how to operate the equipment and does much of the technical laser work for the physicians himself. And this guy is a classic liberal arts graduate with no medical formal “training” or education at all. He was a political science major at Elon University. But, those liberal arts grads really know how to learn whatever they need to do to advance through their careers and lives.

My son lives 175 miles from my home in Brevard, North Carolina, down in central South Carolina, where I spent 32 years of my life. And he and I talk every week by phone at least. Recently he was telling me about a 40’ish woman he treated. And they talked in search of some commonalities and came across their mutual interest in the University of South Carolina. My son learned that she had been a student there, a graduate, in the late 70’s.

And the conversation turned to something my son asked her about because he knew I directed the University 101 first-year seminar during the period when this woman was a student at USC. He asked this woman if she had taken the course and she related that she had indeed. And more than just taken the course—she related how she remembered she had a professor who became really disgusted with her whole class. Told them they were a bunch of loosers, didn’t belong in college, and that he didn’t want to ever see any of them again—and that they didn’t have to come to this class again and he would just turn in a passing grade for all of them. And he meant it. This was back in the days when the course was graded pass/fail and all he had to do was turn in a “pass” grade. He did not return to this class.

This former student continued that a few weeks later she was contacted by “the University” and told that the class would be resuming and that she should return. The class did resume and was taught by another professor, whose name she did not remember, but something he taught her she remembered well and was still practicing in her third decade later.

What she remembered was a homily this professor had given the students at the end of the semester. He described it as his annual Christmas sermon. He described the late December period as being a highly emotional and irrational period in the American culture—one when many people made major life decisions—like to marry, divorce, kill somebody, quit something, start something, including, not returning to college after a disastrous first semester, just like this professor had experienced himself in college. Apparently he urged the students NOT to make any major life decisions during this period and to guard against the irrational pressures of the period. She told my son that she has practiced this in her own adult life and urged her own children and others to do the same.

As my son related this to me, he asked me if I recalled this incident of a professor getting so mad at his first-year students that he chastised them all and told them to get lost and unofficially canceled the class. I told him that I did indeed. And that I remembered that I discovered this because one of the students in the class had reported to a Baptist chaplain whom she/he was seeing for counseling what this professor had said the students and how upset and disappointed he/she was by this “first-year experience”. And that then this chaplain had called me to ascertain if I knew this professor had taken a walk on his class.

At this point my son said: “Dad, would you have been that professor whose name she couldn’t remember, who reconvened the class and gave them the homily that this woman still remembers 30+ years later?”

I replied that I was guilty as charged. Yes, I was the professor who tried to redeem that class from the total rejection they had received from my one of my fellow professorial colleagues.

I told my son, that this was a once in a career experience and that I had never heard of a first-year seminar instructor doing this anywhere, let alone at my university in our widely replicated University 101 course. I also explained that this professor was an associate professor of political science, who was tenured, and the great difficulty I had going through channels to have him reprimanded, and to have his stipend for teaching this course cancelled, but that I had achieved both those objectives.

So what I know from this exchange with my son is that I have a former student, who cannot recall my name, but who remembers me as a counterpoint to another professor who had sent her an extremely rejecting message. I know that something I told the class registered with her years later and that she is still putting to use in her life. I learned that although she still remembers the negative experience she had at the university I love, she has found a way to reconcile this and put in perspective with a correspondingly positive experience she had at this same university. I do not know if she was the student who reported this incident to the Baptist chaplain. I do know that what we say to our students really matters and what we do to and for them matters even more, for a lifetime.

So, dear readers: what do you want to be remembered for by your students?

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