A Letter to My Professor

Dear Bob,

You have probably seen this New York Times column already, but I wanted you to know that even 30 years later, when I ask myself Frank Bruni’s question, “What’s the most transformative educational experience you’ve had?” I think of your freshman seminar.

I’ve often tried to describe the mash up of psychology and philosophy you called “Identity, Alienation and Freedom,” but my descriptions never do it justice.

Here’s what I remember most vividly: It is September 1985, and a dozen first year students sit in a circle in the University of Michigan’s Perry Building, ready to take notes, to raise hands, to do ANYTHING at all that might be considered productive and impressive.

perry-building
The Perry Building post-renovation. When I was a student, it was not so beautiful inside.

The old desks creak. There are wide windows all around and scuffed hardwood floors.

You tell us there’s no text book, just novels and a course pack. Instead of lecturing, you ask what we want to do with our lives, and assure us that everyone in the class will receive an A.

“A, A- or A+,” you say, “so don’t worry about your grade.”  Several of my classmates look crestfallen, confused. What does this mean? How can we earn A’s if we haven’t turned in a single assignment yet? How will you know which of us is the best, the brightest, the hardest working?

I am secretly thrilled. I don’t understand why quite yet, but I know I have found what I have been looking for, and I didn’t even know I was searching. I will have experiences like this many times in my life, but this is the first one I recall so vividly.

Here’s something else I remember: Asked what we are doing here in college, one young woman proudly raises her hand. “I want to be a doctor,” she says. You ask if she knows what doctors do all day: soothe frightened, uncomfortable patients; look in children’s ears; get sneezed on. Her confidence wavers a bit, but it is clear that you’ve made her think. You have made all of us think.

Today I work with high school seniors who are applying to college, and I still ask them that question.

By the way, that student did become a doctor. I hear she’s pretty good at it.

Me? Still writing.

That’s the semester I became a writer, though it took several years of journaling, poems and papers to figure that out. I had always been praised for my essays and stories, but I didn’t know how central writing was to my sense of self, or that one day I would make a living at it.writing

You encouraged us to write things down – anything at all. So I did. I was nothing if not an obedient student.

I still have my old paperback copy of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. I read it over and over for years. I don’t recall what we discussed after reading it, but I’m sure you asked us hard questions.

We watched films too. I can see us sprawled around your living room, eating chocolate chip cookies and absorbing Harold and Maude, with its Cat Stevens soundtrack and crazy storyline. I suppose today we’d all stream it on Netflix and watch in our dorm rooms, alone.

My oldest child will start applying to college this summer. She is more clear about what she’s looking for in a school than I was at her age, though I don’t know if that matters.

I hope she will find at least one professor like you – someone who will challenge her while encouraging her questions. She questions everything, you know. I see myself in her – sometimes insufferable, always sincere.

So thank you for listening, for pushing us to make connections, for engaging us in difficult conversations. I learned how to question assumptions back then. I suppose we’d call that “critical thinking” today. That first seminar provided a foundation, and I will always be grateful.

And a little nostalgic too. I might just make a batch of toll house cookies and watch that old movie again.

With my daughter this time.

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