Duke University Alumni Magazine


by Robert J. Bliwise

arlier this spring, the nearby National Humanities Center celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a meal of North Carolina barbecue and musings on how scholarly worlds connect with the world-at-large. Scholars talked about the most meaningful way to connect with something larger than themselves, or their disciplines--through the students they teach. "Students can be destroyed by their own sense of self-criticism," said one. "A professor's job is to inculcate self-confidence."

Does that mean the professor should be a good student of the student, mindful of the text and the sub-text that may be hidden from casual viewing? And even if the adviser is discerning and caring, with so much power invested in his end of the relationship, can he be a friend?

In its last issue, this magazine collected essays from Duke's teaching-award winners. One of the striking statements came from Clay Taliaferro of the dance program. He wrote, "I have always tried to embody what I teach." Dance, he suggested, is all about engagement with life, and he shows his power as a teacher--and his dedication to his craft--with his readiness to engage students. The ensuing conversation might be about dance, or dating.

Teaching in the first-year writing program has taught me a lot about students, and about myself. One of the program's virtues is its emphasis on one-on-one conferences. As you talk with students about their writing, you explore themes that get at how they think and how they live; you gauge their concerns and their capacities. You offer them support, as well. Over Thanksgiving break, I took an international student, who was rather lonely on a nearly deserted campus, to dinner. At the end of the semester, he didn't fare gloriously with his course grade, but I suspect in later years he'll look back not on the grade awarded, but on that small pedagogic--or friendly--gesture.

"The relation between student and teacher must be about the most complex and ill-defined there is," wrote May Sarton in her book The Small Room. A Duke civil engineering professor, P. Aarne Vesilind, began with the Sarton quote in a paper he gave at a symposium last year on graduate research and teaching. Vesilind talked about the joy taken by the mentor in watching the protŽgŽ succeed, and he recounted a visit to campus by engineers associated with the American Society of Civil Engineers. They came to campus mostly to offer advice and expertise to students. Asked about their efforts to make such connections, they told him, "It simply is what you do as a professional engineer. It's part of your heritage--your debt to pay to the people who helped you in your own path to professional engineering."

That's one way to rationalize mentoring--to see it as professional (or professorial) responsibility. Perhaps there's an even more basic way to look at it--as an expression of the human need to connect. It's a need that an educational "system" doesn't necessarily nurture.

Six years ago, in his probing report on campus dynamics--"We Work Hard, We Play Hard"--Dean of the Chapel William H. Willimon said that detachment seems to be the prevailing mode of the modern university. "Classes and curricula are structured in such a way that faculty and students alike will remain as much strangers to one another when we leave the university as when we arrived," he wrote. "Forgetting the etymology of the name professor as 'someone who professes something,' we are more inclined as faculty to say, 'The data show...' than 'I have found' or 'I believe that...' "

Mentoring, then, involves intersecting worlds. It is rooted in, and expresses, the ideas and values that matter to the teacher. And it prompts the student's consideration of his own ideas and values.

Vesilind compares learning the rules of good mentoring to learning how to ride a bicycle: With the right commitment, it comes naturally. In Willimon's words, "I believe that we teach people to learn how to think, to learn how to take hold of their lives, not by stepping back from them, not by leaving them to their own devices, but rather through engaging them.... As Aristotle contended, it is impossible to teach anything important to people who are not your friends, because only friends know how to hurt you in the right way. A friend knows when to speak, and when to listen, when to push, and when to let go."

One reality behind mentoring is that it takes initiative on both sides of the relationship. Some students are happy enough to coast through a four-year college education without making a mark on the place, or having it make an appreciable mark on them, beyond the expectations of the classroom. But then there are the intellectual agitators--the curious, insistent, and eager students who revel in learning. When I researched Duke's Rhodes Scholars and other super-achieving students, I was struck by the fact that they weren't just classroom performers. As collaborators in research projects and as partners in intellectual conversation, they had become colleagues to professors.

Mentoring doesn't flow from curricular connections alone. After the heartbreaking loss in the national championship game, men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters, "I don't coach for winning; I coach for relationships." The image of the coach's comforting the disappointed athlete makes a more powerful symbol of mentoring--and friendship--than any rules of the (basketball or mentoring) game.

Just recently, I found myself in separate conversations with two students that, in part, centered on a mutual friendship with another student. One observed that she saw our friend-in-common as a younger version of me, at least in terms of intellectual seriousness (or resistance to intellectual compartmentalizing). The other asked good-naturedly why I might be putting so much energy into guiding an undergraduate. My response was, "Because I knew I could change his life." Those themes are tightly linked: Of course, we're drawn to those who show certain qualities that we like in ourselves, and we should delight in helping others to recognize those qualities and to explore their potential.

As they cope with the pressures of managing competing commitments and thinking about their ultimate choices, Duke students can look to Curriculum 2000 as a model of curricular coherence. But students are also in search of coherence in their lives. For that they need the help of dedicated educators. They want to be valued as the interesting people they are and will become. And so growth is shared and lives are changed across the generations. That's friendship.

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