What We Tell Our Students May Matter More Than We or They Realize at the Time

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When I was a very homesick, unsure, unfocused first-year student, failing most of my courses, one day my political science professor, R.S. Hill, asked me after class “Mr. Gardner, would you like to be a good student?” He really caught me by surprise, that he would ask me anything at all and what specifically he asked me. I stopped and thought about his question and answered that I would, silently acknowledging to myself I had no idea what I would have to do to become a “good student.” His answer astounds me to this day, some 56 years later. He said: “Well, for starters you would start reading a good newspaper.”

John: “And how would I go about doing that; what is a good newspaper?”

Professor Hill: “Well, of course, The New York Times. There is no other like it. You should read The Times because then you won’t need anyone, including me, to tell you what some politician or judge said or wrote. You will be able to read the full text of what was said or written and then you can decide for yourself what the meaning and the importance of the message.”

John: “Ok, sir, well how would I go about doing this?” (I truly didn’t know because I had grown up in a staunch Republican household where my father thought—and said—that The Times was a “communist newspaper” and he wouldn’t allow it in the house.” So, I knew that to read such a paper would be an act of sedition defying my father who was paying to send me to this college where this professor was giving me such advice.

Professor Hill: “Come with me, Mr. Gardner, and we will walk right now two blocks to “People’s News” where if you don’t want to read the daily copy in the College library you can have your own personal copy. The Times comes in every morning on the 11.22 Greyhound from Pittsburgh (the bus terminal being one block from the news store) and it will be available to you every day by noon. The Greyhound is never late (I had never thought of the Greyhound bus as an agent of civilization and an intellectual lifeline to the rural American heartland in southern Appalachia in Ohio and no one today would extend such a compliment to any airline).

And that’s how I started reading the daily Times, which I still do quite faithfully, in the paper edition, even though I also have a subscription for the online edition which I read when I am traveling.

And all because a professor introduced me to an adult habit. He explained also to me that “Mr. Gardner, you should know that in addition to you, the other most influential people in the world will be reading that same paper on the same day and will know then what you will know.” And fifty-six years later I still want to know what the most influential people in the world are reading each morning. And I know one who lives during the week at 1600 Pennsylvania who doesn’t like what he reads in The Times.

A few weeks later in the term, I had an appointment with my academic advisor, a professor of speech, one Dr. Thomas Fernandez. He reviewed my mid-term grades and made this pronouncement: “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” I left his office and removed the dagger he had inserted in my self-concept. I didn’t quite know if what he said could be true. I knew I wasn’t doing well, failing most everything. But was I really the “stupidest kid” the guy had ever advised?  But I made a decision anyway: to get another advisor. I was pleased it was easy to actually switch advisors, something many of our students probably ought to consider doing. And my successor advisor became one of the keys to my eventual success in college, Professor Kermit Gatten. He really embraced me and I began to flourish. He and his wife had me in their home for visits and meals numerous times. And his advice, which I took, served me incredibly well for the balance of my college career.  I later was told that my first advisor ultimately became a college president in Texas. Wonder how many other people he labeled as “stupid"?

Two years later, in another political science course, designated as “American Political Parties,” the professor was lecturing on the legal actions leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education, declaring legally segregated schools both unequal and unconstitutional. One of the preceding cases he discovered was one banning the infamous southern “white primaries,” which the Court struck down in 1944 in Smith vs. Alright. The only reason I remember this now is because of what followed. I asked the professor, Eugene Murdock, what the court’s rationale for its ruling was. He replied to me: “Mr. Gardner, I do not know. How would you like to do some research and determine the answer to your own question yourself, and then report to the class what you found?” It was not a rhetorical question. I knew he meant it. I did not think he was trying to pressure me, let alone punish me for asking him a question to which he did not know the answer. I thought he was just being honest. I later realized that he was also being a wonderful role model for the professor I was going to become, but didn’t know that at the time—specifically, when a student were to ask me a question to which I did not know the answer, I would so indicate. Well, I accepted his invitation; did the research; determined the Court’s rationale; and made an oral presentation to my class on what I had learned. In my four years of undergraduate school, other than Speech 101 when I did have obligatory public speaking in class, this was the only presentation I was ever allowed to make in any course in any class. That’s right, one in four years. No wonder it really stood out in my mind and still does. I was nervous about doing this before my peers and my professor. But it went well. Professor Murdoch praised me publicly. And I soon realized that this one gesture on his part had truly given me a sense of empowerment and presence I had never experienced before.

On another occasion during college, I was studying in the library and a professor I respected greatly walked by, stopped, and approached my study carrel and said: “Mr. Gardner, I just read your paper and it was truly excellent.” To have unsolicited praise like that from someone whom I knew was REALLY gifted intellectually (unlike me, a neophyte just beginning to learn how to be a college student) that pushed me on to a cloud nine and boosted my confidence and self-esteem.

Two weeks before I was to graduate, someone broke into my rental house and stole only my lecture notebooks, for all my courses. What a hostile act. I was in a small college and many of us students knew each other all too well. And I was known as a compulsive note taker for whom his lecture notes were a critical ingredient to his academic success. I was very active in campus politics and, obviously, had made an enemy. I went to one of my professors and asked for an incomplete for the term that would give me time to reconstruct my notes. He agreed and told me he would allow me to take a make-up, take home unproctored final exam—with the words: “Mr. Gardner, I trust you. I know you are a person of honor.” I have been trying to live up to that ever since. One by one my professors were writing the script of my adult life. I didn’t know it then. But I know it now.

How are you writing the script for your students? What are the succinct verbal, or written, messages are you sending them that they will remember for the rest of their lives, and that will shape the development of their character and self-concept profoundly?

Several months ago, my early forties son related to me his recent professional encounter with a woman in South Carolina with whom he talked about her experiences at the University of South Carolina. He asked her if she had taken University 101 as a first-year student. She said she did. Then he asked her who her professor was. She said she didn’t remember but she remembered things he said and taught her. As she shared an illustration of the professor’s advice to her my son realized that she had to be talking about his father, me. Apparently, the professor admonished the students at the end of the term in December not to make any major life decisions (such as to drop out of college or transfer, or get married or get divorced) as the end of first term of college, especially at holiday time was a very sentimental, often emotional period and not a good context for making rational decisions. She told him that she practices that advice to this very day, over 30 years later.

We have no idea what we say to our students that may really sink in at present time or later. We just have to believe that the messages we send them do matter and hence chose our words intentionally and affirmatively.

About the Author
John N. Gardner brings unparalleled experience to students as an author. The recipient of his institution's highest award for teaching excellence, John has over forty years of experience directing and teaching in the most widely emulated first-year seminar in the country, the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia. John is universally recognized as one of the country's leading educators for his role in initiating and orchestrating an international reform movement to improve the beginning college experience, a concept he coined as "the first-year experience." He is the founding executive director of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at USC, as well as the Policy Center on the First Year of College and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education (www.jngi.org), both based in Brevard, N.C.