Dear Sewanee Students

Psychology Professor Karen Yu wants you to know that your professors miss you.
And here are some of the reasons why.

By Karen Yu

 


First of all, thank you to the students who suggested that I change the seemingly innocuous desktop image of a plant on our classroom computer. You were right on both counts: It was a cannabis leaf. And I had no idea.

Thank you to the student who shared with me her knowledge of and passion for donkey basketball. Before I met you, I didn’t know donkeys were ever allowed on basketball courts.

Thank you to the student who innocently referred to me as “our middle-aged college professor” when describing study participants in her lab report. Given that I was in my late 20s at the time, you reminded me that while I thought of myself as being not much older than you, your perception was quite different.

And thank you to the student who kept careful track of my chemotherapy schedule when I was battling cancer some years ago. It meant so much that you called me the day after each treatment not only to see how I was doing but to share a bit about how your days were going. Amidst everything else in your life, you never missed a post-treatment day.

As I was reviewing some recordings of our recent online class sessions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t help but be struck by a common and yet noteworthy occurrence: the thank-yous. They happen at the end of nearly every class session at Sewanee and are by no means unique to me. As I listen to them, I find myself thinking not only “You’re welcome,” but—even more strongly and deeply—“Thank you.”

Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve always been impressed by the gratitude of Sewanee students and alumni, and by the genuine affection they hold for faculty members. I’m here to tell you that fondness goes both ways. The physical separation brought on by the current global pandemic has only made this clearer to me. Indeed, while I hope to give you some sustenance through our class time and interactions, in these recent weeks I’ve realized even more explicitly how much I’m sustained by your participation. And yet I suspect that what you contribute to the lives of faculty during both your time as our students and as alumni may be less obvious to you. It’s high time to remedy that.

So, if you’ll bear with me, a few more thank-yous …

Thank you for trusting me over the years to help you develop your thinking, trusting enough not only to go along with but to dive deeply into the challenges I put before you. You came along for the ride, gave the work a good faith effort, and from time to time offered suggestions for modifying the process. Through it all, you rarely seemed to doubt my good intentions, and your comments and suggestions were offered with sensitivity and for all the right reasons.

Thank you for showing up, whether you spoke up in class or not. Those of you who openly shared your thoughts took both intellectual and social risks and offered new perspectives not only to your peers but to me. Those of you who spoke reluctantly or not at all reminded me to consider the many reasons that might be, how I might encourage you to share your ideas, and whether speaking up is all that it’s sometimes made out to be. Indeed, opening space for the thoughts of others and truly and thoughtfully listening are arguably at least as valuable, if not more.

Thank you for trying. There were times when you exceeded all expectations with your insightful and original ideas. And there were times when you may have felt yourself coming up a bit short. Admirably, even then, you typically tried, often producing some remarkably creative and all-in-good-fun answers to exam questions. You demonstrated that grades are not the measure of a person—nor are they necessarily a measure of learning, understanding, interest, or potential—and that we each have to juggle multiple priorities at any given time in our lives. Even then, so many of you are and were ultimately in it to learn. There is perhaps no greater gift for a teacher.

Thank you for expecting me to know something—and for wanting, inviting, and expecting me to share that with you. Those of us who aim to teach, perhaps especially at a place like Sewanee, do so for the opportunity to engage your ideas and thoughts, to learn from and with you. We have hopes for you that are not dissimilar to those we might have for our own children. Luckily for us, you are willing to believe that we may know something, to affirm that to which we dedicate a good part of our lives. 

Thank you for your honesty, and the varying combinations of grace, tact, and candor with which you offer it. The feedback and suggestions I receive on course evaluations invariably help me. Those that are quite direct—is my teaching voice really that monotone?—give me a more complete sense of how things seem to at least some of you and ideas for how to improve my teaching and enhance your learning experience. 

Thank you for conducting yourselves with honor. While I know that not everyone strictly adheres to Sewanee’s Honor Code at all times, I also know that academic dishonesty is more pervasive on other campuses. In a study that one of you designed and conducted with me, computer activity records showed that very few students consulted forbidden online sources during a quiz, and most said that doing so had never crossed their minds. It was interesting to have researchers from other institutions actually question the accuracy of our data: On their campuses, the expected percentage of students who would have cheated was estimated at anywhere between 20% and 40%. 

Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts, dreams, successes, and challenges with me. Some of you tell me about your athletic, music, dance, theater, and other pursuits and welcome my presence at those events. You share the exciting news of a summer internship, graduate school acceptance, or coveted job offer, and sometimes you also share the disappointment of a hoped-for outcome not being realized. Sometimes you tell me of tremendous fears and deep losses—a friend in great despair, the death of your beloved mother. Over and over again, you have honored me with these opportunities to cheer for, celebrate with, console, and otherwise support you—to gain a fuller understanding of you and your life, and to remember that there is so much more to each of us than is immediately and outwardly visible.

Thank you for giving me glimpses into student life over the years. Whether recounting the latest item found in Lake Trez, the challenges of campus parking and parking tickets, the drawings in the elevators at Humphreys, aspects of the Greek life system, your perspective as a first-generation student, or the lack of local hair salons for all hair types, you have raised my awareness of issues that affect and matter to students. 

Thank you for persevering through challenging circumstances, including illness, family trouble, changes in friendships and romantic relationships, and other competing commitments and responsibilities. More often than not, you have found a way forward for yourself. Sometimes it involved withdrawing from a course or other commitment, which may have felt like admitting defeat at the time, but those were acts of courage, control, and perseverance for the long haul. Some of you met more enduring and less common challenges such as blindness and quadriplegia—you demonstrated to me and your fellow students what is really possible. At the same time, you increased our awareness of systems and approaches that privilege the majority and led us to think more clearly about the imperative for greater inclusivity.

Thank you for aspiring to make things even better at Sewanee, for leading important efforts and opening up opportunities for others. With courage, grace, and care, you have moved fellow students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators to consider and reconsider issues of deep significance in ways that might not have happened without your leadership and conviction.

Thank you for reaching out to reconnect over the years. Whether it’s an email to update me on what is going on in your career, a wedding invitation, a birth announcement, an article you thought I might find interesting, or a request for a recommendation letter as you pursue your next endeavor, it is a true joy to hear from you and to get a sense of your path since Sewanee and your hopes for the future.

Most of all, thank you for caring about and engaging with others and with me as a person—beyond the student-professor relationship—over the years. Thank you for taking the time to observe, ask, listen, and reflect not only on your own experiences but those of your fellow students, of faculty and staff members at Sewanee, and of members of the broader community. You show that you care by the ways that you ask and listen in class, by the conversations and activities you engage in outside of the classroom, even by the way you say hello, make eye contact, and inquire of others. 

On my office wall hangs a piece of Chinese calligraphy written for me by my father. It is a prose excerpt by a famous scholar of the Tang dynasty about a simple, humble dwelling. To me, the details speak to a room being so much more than a room—that a room is defined less by its appearance or what is in it than by who inhabits it and what happens within it. Our classrooms and offices are sacred spaces because of what happens in them—the ideas shared, the questions asked, the emotions expressed. We associate those spaces with those deep interactions—hence some of our sadness at not being together in those places now. Yet if it is not those spaces per se that are so critical, but rather the people and ideas that inhabit them, then perhaps there is more hope for our interactions across the miles than one might initially think. To the extent that is so, you help to create those possibilities. 

To your thank-yous: You are so very, very welcome. 

And again, dear Sewanee students, thank you—perhaps still more than you know.