When I was coming up through high school, college, then on into graduate school, Charles Barkley was a rather well-known and outspoken basketball player. Probably his most famous comment from the time is simply, “I am not a role model.” He went on to state that his ability to dunk a basketball did not mean that he should help raise people’s children. In the same way and around the same time, Michael Jordan was asked about Nike’s possible use of sweatshop labor. Jordan claimed that he was not a political activist, just a basketball player.
In much the same way, I often hear my colleagues in this profession make similar statements, arguing that we professors are not, in fact, role models. Not that we aren’t political, of course, as everything is political for us these days, but that we have no claims to authority. Many of us are uncomfortable with the titles that separate us from our students, so we go by our first names, treat students as friends or peers, not as people who know less than we do, just people who know different material than we do. Our classes sometimes become so student-centered and democratic that we might as well not show up, as students are asked to write the syllabus, select the readings, and lead the discussions.
Granted, that is an extreme position, but it highlights the discomfort we have with our positions of authority, our roles as models for our students. However, we, like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, are role models, no matter how often we protest. Let me quickly say, though, that I am not arguing for an early-20th-century description of teachers that lists such requirements/ restrictions as “You must be home between the hours of 8 PM and 6 AM unless at a school function” or “You may not dress in bright colors” (New Hampshire Historical Society). However, if we think that students are not listening to us on matters that go beyond our field of expertise, that they are not watching us to see how to be not only professionals in our field, but adults, we are only fooling ourselves, and we are avoiding responsibility for what we say and what we do.
A few years ago, I taught the introductory class to our discipline, so I had a number of younger students enrolled, mostly sophomores, but a few first-semester students, along with a few students who should have taken the class earlier. One day, we were somehow talking about the religious season of Lent, and I made a joke about what people give up. I said simply, “That’s right, my giving up eating chocolate for 40 days helps me participate in the sufferings of Jesus.” I laughed; several students laughed; we all went on with class after what was clearly a joke.
The next semester, a spring semester, I was teaching a sophomore-level literature survey, and a few of the students from the previous course were now enrolled in it. One day, I saw one of them drinking something, a vitamin water, I believe, as I was giving back quizzes. I asked her if she wasn’t eating anything with it, as the class met around lunchtime, and students often brought snacks to class. “No,” she said, “I’m fasting for Lent. I thought I should do something more challenging, like you said last semester.”
I spent the next 40 days checking on her whenever I saw her, whether in class or not. I asked how she was doing, and I even asked her friends. I was quite relieved when Easter came, and I knew that she was going to be fine. I never told her how worried I was, though, as I did not want her to worry herself.
She was in a course a couple of semesters later, and Lent came up yet again. Someone asked me what I was giving up, and I mentioned sweets. This same student was in this course, and she looked at me with disbelief: “You’re only giving up sweets? After what you said about Lent?” Three years later, she still remembered that comment. I explained my joke from several years earlier, but I also talked about how much students take in from their professors. I wanted those of them who plan to be teachers to know that their students will listen, and I wanted them to know that we know they hear us more than they will admit.
Of course, these types of interactions occur much more often than we would care to admit, and they happen outside of the classroom, as well. We have students come to our offices and talk about problems that we are clearly not trained to handle. My minor in Human Relations from more than 20 years ago does not begin to prepare me for what students share and what they need help with. I’m not talking about issues that clearly require counseling; instead, I’m talking about students seeking help about dealing with their parents or struggling with issues of doubt and belief or thinking about proposing marriage to another student. Students come to us with these questions because we might be one of the few adults in their lives who are not their parents, but who are also people they want to be like. Thus, as with Charles Barkley, whom kids wanted to be because he could dunk a basketball, students want to be like us because we are successful in our profession, and that desire of imitation goes beyond writing and thinking ability.
A few years ago, I had two students come to talk to me about their parents’ lack of acceptance of their relationship. They were seeking counseling about the situation, and, of course, they were talking to their peers about it. However, they wanted my advice as someone who is almost twice their age and who has simply lived much more than they have. They admitted that my advice often went against what their peers were saying, which should not surprise any professors, but they sought me out precisely for that reason. They needed an adult to counteract what their friends were telling them. In the beginning of our conversations, they listened to their friends more often, but, by the end, they listened to me.
Along the same lines, a recent graduate sent me a Facebook message to discuss a crisis of faith she was experiencing. The main problem was not theological; it was that her questions were distancing her from her family, which left her with no other adults she could trust to have this conversation. Thus, she turned to someone whom she had seen for the past three years of her life and who had shaped her in other ways.
I once worked with a colleague who would never have admitted that he had any responsibility for what came of his interactions with students. While he loudly proclaimed the liberal arts tradition’s responsibility to raise difficult ideas, to push both envelopes and buttons, to subvert the dominant narrative, or whatever one wishes to call it, he never claimed any responsibility for what happened to the students whose worlds he had shaken. He left students confused and angry, not at him, of course, as he had opened their eyes to the truth, but he left them with no way to build a foundation for themselves, no help to reconstruct a worldview that he had helped demolish. He would like Charles Barkley, I’m sure.