CHRIS: A PROFESSOR'S
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Marketing
I think of Chris, a student from long ago, at the start and end of every quarter. I would never say he was the best student I ever had, not by a long shot, but by making a single comment just before graduation, he became one of the most important.
During my first year at Auburn, I was frequently asked what I thought of the students I encountered here. "In all honesty," I'd reply, "they are the same as those at Penn State or Boston College or other places I have taught over the prior decade.
"Some only want to survive and graduate; others just want to have fun. Most spend the quarter trying to hide their faces from me for five hours per week and a few would only speak to ask What will be on the exam? Some spend most of their energy avoiding an education, seeking courses with the lightest work or requirements, and most expect faculty to possess the entertainment skills of Robin Williams."
For the first few weeks, Chris did not especially stand out in class. He sat in the front row, and he filled his notebook with detailed scribbling that, by the end of the period, reminded me of pictures I once saw of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I had seen other students write class "transcripts" before, so he did not stand out.
And then we took the first exam.
He did not just fail. He BOMBED.
It was not a problem of writing skill, or clarity; he never addressed the questions. If I asked the benefits of a particular approach to management decisions, he would list all the approaches possible. If I asked how two ideas contrasted, he would state, with no elaboration or comparison, what the ideas said, or maybe he would just write about some "related" concepts, though the relationship was never explained.
It was like an episode of "Rocky and Bullwinkle." When the moon men wanted to become U.S. citizens, they studied the Boy Scout Manual since a copy of the U.S. Constitution was not available. At the citizenship exam, when asked how a bill becomes a law, they said you made a fire by rubbing two sticks together.
Like the moon men, most of what Chris wrote on his exam was true, but he did not answer the questions.
Of course, Chris came to talk with me about his score. And he was angry, at first. After all, memorization and regurgitation of every detail from the text had garnered passing grades in the past. But, as I always do, I changed the conversation from the essays he wrote to how to perform better in the future. After a mention of the benefits (and limits) of other courses using multiple choice or "list the methods..." questions on exams, we discussed his need to understand the concepts and to apply material from different areas to solve problems.
I wanted him to start thinking instead of memorizing trivial details from the text.
We talked for almost two hours, and, at the end, he asked if he could talk with me again, maybe before a class, if he did not understand a future reading assignment. The request was not unusual, and I encourage all students to make such visits. I reminded him that I am available much more than my posted office hours, thinking that, like most students before him, I would probably not see him again until after the next exam.
Unexpectedly, he stopped by to talk with me before every class.
At first, he only asked for "better" restatements of text paragraphs that confused him. But as the quarter progressed, he was contrasting different readings, pointing out possible contradictions between authors, or asking why the text reported a certain business approach as "most common" when, to him, it seemed totally illogical.
In class, Chris was still the last person to finish an exam, but now he addressed the questions.
Of course, such a transformation, while extreme, is not that uncommon. It is not the reason I remember him.
I saw Chris every now and then for the next few terms as he took classes from my friends and colleagues. On his graduation day, I did not even realize station wagons and minivans from all over the region were coming into town for commencement ceremonies -- my face was buried in the computer screen when he popped into my office and asked if he could introduce me to his family.
After exchange of names, and we shook hands all around, Chris proudly said to his parents, "This is the man who taught me to think."
I was unable to speak (and that is a rare event)!
Most students I forget within days after the class ends. A few I might remember from student activities, or because they stopped by my office to talk about topics with no relationship to the course. Some students tell me after the quarter that I taught a "good course," though I often wonder just what they mean.
Like many faculty, on many days, I wonder if we are doing anything worth a damn. Chris told me that, with him, I did.
His comment was not just a compliment. An education only comes about by the work of the student -- a faculty member could only facilitate such a self-discovery.
I never saw Chris after that last day, but I will always remember what he said since it is what educators should be trying to do, every day and with every student.
It's why I'm here, or so I think. And on that day, Chris reminded me, and said that, in the end, he realized why he was here, too.