Former Students

Terry Caesar reflects on why he remembers some and what it means to be remembered.

May 16, 2005

Bob Mann's recent column in The New York Times recalling his former student, Karen Hughes,  prompts me to think of my own former students. But not all of them. It's impossible to remember them all.

Many years ago, I was shocked to hear my dissertation adviser remark that he could remember students he had 15 years ago better than he could those of last semester. Now it's true of me -- and I can go back farther than 15 years. The other day I was telling a friend a story about a student I had in one of my first classes. It surprised me that I still remembered his name.

Why? Barry wasn't the brightest student. Indeed, he appeared the very definition of a western Pennsylvania redneck: rough, reactionary, racist. And yet, there seemed a poetry about him that either belied the crudity or transformed it. Could this be the reason I still remember Barry, and not just the shockingly violent fraternity (disbanded a few years later) about which I learned because I got to know him?

Is there for each of us a personal category of "former students"? The first thing to say is that it is not literal or numerical. Some years after I began teaching, I stopped in a convenience store in the area. The clerk who rang up my purchases was delighted to identify himself as my former student. "You know," he offered. "I was the one who sat way in the back and made all those jokes." Alas, I just couldn't remember him, although I lied and said. "Oh, yes, sure." Now I did. How could I forget?

Afterwards I wondered, how could I? Was this student imaginatively canceled out by another? Or by his whole unmemorable class? How does the sheer accumulation of all the students you have ever had become the special category of "former students" you remember and cherish? In so many cases, can the reason be pure accident? There are students whom I wish I could have gotten to know better, based on their incisive responses in class or their spirited demeanor. Alas, nothing apart from scheduled class meetings ever chanced to pass between us.

Just so, most of my students who eventually entered the special category of former students have at some time stopped by my office "just to ask about something." Several eventually became friends. To me, a "former student" not only describes a category. It ultimately defines a relation.

Of course that relation can take a fixed form. It is especially common today to characterize the former student, especially if he or she continues in academic life, as a "mentee" to the mentor professor. Well and good; I have had students to whom I functioned as a mentor, including one for whom I was eventually only that -- and not, as I thought, a friend.

But relations between students and teachers are most commonly not fixed. (To the despair of sexual conduct codes.) They are all sorts of things. Sometimes they are barely relations at all.
So I might be either wrong or sentimental to feel pleased to have my own former students range from one long ago who tried for the better part of two semesters to get me to smoke pot with him to one last year who spoke so openly about her plight as a single mother. I really never got to know either of these students very well. Yet each was vivid for a time in my experience, as so many students have been -- more than I can summon to memory, and certainly more than I can easily construct into public discourse. All former students are not equal.

The nice thing about Karen Hughes is that she is already part of public discourse, albeit not in her role as anyone's former student. However, we do seem to be hearing a lot more these days from their former professors about public figures, politicians in particular. I wish I could contribute, but, alas, no Karen Hughes has ever been my former student. I did have one once who went to high school with Joe Namath. But this is not the same thing as having had Joe Namath himself, and, besides, it was too long ago.
Today, in our all-access, 24-7 connected culture, where everybody seems to be no more than six degrees or keystrokes away from everybody else, it might not even appear so interesting if (or when) The Times runs an op-ed piece by the professor who once had George W. Bush himself in a section of Intro to Poli Sci.
Would the President be presented as being a not-so-bad student? Perhaps it doesn't matter. If all former students are not, like the children of Lake Woebegon, at least above average, they are somehow exceptional -- or become exceptional. Otherwise, why would a professor choose to remember them? Although there is no available public discourse about former students by their professors in any way comparable to the discourse about former professors by their students, the one partakes of the other.

Thus, the former figures are always singular individuals. They are brought to mind in order to be celebrated because their personality, conviction, or influence was utterly unique. Yet, no matter how exceptional a few, there are finally just too many former students in each teacher's experience, and, perhaps, too many ways in which they have made an impression.

Myself, I would even include the ones who wrote to thank me for the course once the semester is over (the ones who would curse you never write), and I especially recall the one who once wrote to a newspaper on my behalf years ago amid what the British term a "spot of bother" over something controversial I had written.

This man had seemed an unremarkable member of an remarkably bright class. And yet he was proud to name me as his former professor. How not to feel proud now to have had such students? It's easy to cherish the brightest ones or the most famous ones. (As is Hughes, in each case, to her former professor).

These are the ones, if at all, who get written about. It's harder to claim -- harder still even to know -- the dimmer ones, who never said a word in class, who didn't do particularly well, who nonetheless found the class to be of inestimable value, and who are grateful to have had the experience. Such students do exist, in every classroom, every semester. But do they still exist, so to speak, to themselves? Teachers have one advantage over students in this respect: they are already former students, and have already paid their debt -- if only in memory -- to former teachers. Today's students, on the other hand, are widely educated according to a corporate model that disdains personal relations.
Half their teachers are adjuncts, who lack so much as offices where students can stop by. And everybody is subject to a consumerist logic, whereby the class becomes a mere "product," to be respectively sold and purchased under conditions in which the customer is always right.  

What is a student? In one respect, he or she is always already a former student. Not in the future, but right now, in the present, with each class. At one time, I used to tell my students on the first day of class to try to act so as to keep its promise week after week, all semester long. If on the last day the promise was never realized, then at least each of them had continually tried to be responsible to the class in some ideal form. This still might serve as good advice for the student as former student, although I suspect that the best of my own former students, bless them all, never needed it and still don't.  


Terry Caesar's last column was about male academics and ties.


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