What I Learned in College

Here is an essay I wrote for a weekend class on Reinventing College.

I have not been a student at SOU and therefore cannot address the intent of this assignment directly.  Instead I will speak of a particular experience I had as an undergraduate at Rice University and how it has affected my professional views as an instructor here at SOU.

 In the fall of 1966 I decided to go to graduate school majoring in operations research, the mathematical discipline associated with management science.  I needed two letters of recommendation.  My problem was that in my three plus years at Rice I had literally spoken just two times to my professors about anything connected with their class much less about anything personal.

One interaction occurred early in my freshman year when I went to show my calculus professor that one of my test problems had been mis-graded.  I got a grudging change in the test grade.  I never tried that again.

 The other time I was visiting the various chemistry professors with a cohort of fellow chemistry honor society nominees to obtain signatures as part of an initiation ritual.  I handed my paper to my physical chemistry professor of the previous year.  He did not recognize me, though I had been the one in the back asking questions everyday – everyday.  I had also gotten the second highest grade on the final.

 But I needed two letters of recommendation.  I went to the math department chairman with my dilemma.  He asked who my professors had been and told me to go ask Dr. D.  As I remember now, Dr. D asked few or no questions and said he would write the letter as I long as I didn’t apply to Harvard.  I thanked him for the letter.

 I still needed another letter.  I had been playing bridge in my college with a young political science professor named Gilbert Cuthbertson. I asked him to write me a letter.  He said he would if I took his class.  I did and got my letter.  Dr. Cuthbertson is remembered with affection by those in my generation for his generosity and concern for students.

 How has this experience informed by my work as a college instructor?  In sum, I try to make the college experience richer for the shy Jim’s in my classes, really for all of my students.  I make a point of getting to class early so I can chat with students and play some music.  I form students into random pairs to work on problems.  This way they can meet all of the other people in class.  I work in the math tutoring center to meet students from all math classes.  I read about our sports teams and theater and music performances and talk to my students about them.  I go to some games and plays and visit the art museum.  My office is open to students anytime I am in it.  I have all my students write a letter to me about themselves.  I write a letter to them.

 I really don’t know if any of this helps. I do enjoy the noisy group work and the good cheer before class.  I think the Jim of 1960’s would be happier in such an environment.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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One Response to What I Learned in College

  1. susan martin says:


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