With students, surprises come in all forms. Some allow you to soar, some you fumble. Some fade when the moment has passed. Some stay with you as if they hold some hidden secret. This is one that I fumbled and that has stayed with me.
The student, I remember, stood outside my office door, nervously shifting his weight from side to side. He was peering in, uncertain whether to knock.
At work at my desk, I didn’t look up. Instead, I made a show of shuffling the papers on my desk, trying to convey the impression of serious engagement. My schedule for the day was already hectic, and I was hoping to avoid any interruption. As usual, my pretense failed.
“Have I got a case for you!” he said, apparently undeterred by my demeanor. He smiled broadly and plopped himself down in one of my office chairs.
Students in my courses are always presenting me with cases. As a lawyer turned ethicist, I’m a natural target. Since I know the law, I can’t claim ignorance. Since I study ethics, I’m presumably concerned with right and wrong. Thus, when a legal case jars the moral sensibilities of students, they often come to me. As a practical matter, this means being frequently called upon to justify some controversial legal issue they’ve read about or seen on TV. I put down the papers I had been reading and turned to listen.
The student’s story at first seemed like many I had heard. He began by describing an automobile accident. He went on to speculate that a manufacturing defect had led to the crash. As he spoke, I found myself recalling the rules of product liability, expecting he would ask how a court was likely to decide such a case.
But then his story took a more personal turn. The victim of the crash was the student’s favorite high school teacher. She had not survived.
As I adjusted to this new information, the student continued talking, describing his experiences in the teacher’s class. He had come, I now realized, not to talk about the law but about her. I found myself listening more closely to his story.
From what he was telling me, I could see that his teacher must have been a gifted instructor. But the student’s recollections of his teacher went far beyond the courses she taught and her success in the classroom. He spoke of the time she impulsively flew down to Florida to watch a space launch, the time she interviewed the U.S. president, the time she traveled alone through Africa, getting seriously ill in the process.
In the middle of one of the student’s stories, I caught sight of my watch and was startled: over an hour had passed! I swore silently, realizing another appointment loomed near and all too aware of the number of undone tasks on my desk. I told the student we could talk later, and he left.
The day proved to be as hectic as I had expected, and other matters soon captured my attention. By the time I went to bed that night, my conversation with the student was very nearly forgotten.
Or so I thought.
In the days and weeks that immediately followed the exchange in my office, it would return to me at odd moments. I wasn’t sure why. Students often share parts of their personal lives with me -- an argument with their parents, fears of entering the work world, a breakup in a relationship. Sometimes what they relate is painful indeed. I have talked with students agonizing over abortions and struggling with cancer. But seldom do such glimpses of my students’ lives linger with me beyond the workday. Why, then, did this one?
Looked at objectively, I couldn’t see how this student’s story could be distinguished from the many others I had heard. Yet I kept going over it in my mind, as if the next time through would surely produce some dramatic insight. That did not occur.
But I did gradually begin to see one reason why the incident intrigued me. It evoked the doubts I had begun to have about my own teaching. I had recently reached a point that sometimes coincides with modest success in a profession: I was asking about the worth of what I do. Something in my conversation with the student seemed to have significance in that regard.
First of all, I was struck by the distance between what I taught and what mattered to the student. I was thinking about legal rules; he was talking about a worthy life. Mine was the language of analysis, his of admiration.
Now, I suppose you could say the distance here was simply the distance between two subjects. The law sets minimum standards of behavior. It spells out the basic rules that we all have to follow if we wish to avoid being fined or thrown in jail or something worse. But it has little to do with a noble life.
Still, that answer didn’t satisfy me. I had always assumed that education at its core had a moral aim. Regardless of the subject an instructor teaches, he or she should convey more than information. A teacher should offer students a glimpse of what is admirable in life, a sense of what is worth striving for, some insight into our better selves.
But in my conversation with the student in my office, I had done none of this. Indeed, as I reflected on what had occurred, I saw a reversal of roles. In telling me the story of his favorite high school teacher, the student taught me something of an admirable or worthy life -- something my intended recitation of legal rules would have missed entirely.
Parker J. Palmer asks, “Who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form -- or deform -- the way I relate to my students?” Ultimately, this unsettling conversation in my office is one I’ve kept in mind because it prompts me to think about my who, the self I bring to my teaching -- and how I might always do better.
Sometimes you soar. Sometimes you fumble. The saving grace I’m finding in a long teaching career is that you get to try again.
Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor of legal studies at Franklin & Marshall College. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he has written widely on corporate law, business ethics and liberal education. He has previously served as chair of the department of business, organizations and society at Franklin & Marshall College and as director of the college’s Center for Liberal Arts and Society.
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