The Scholarship of Caring

The Scholarship of Caring by Scott Samuelson  

"The scholarship we ought to be pursuing should involve
and engage and benefit our students"

-President David A. Bednar

When colleagues at other schools ask me, as they invariably do, "How are things going with the transition from Ricks College to BYU-Idaho?" I say, "We are learning a lot." Or "It's exciting to be teaching juniors." I'm not always sure exactly what they are asking--Do they want to know about programs or policies, about campus attitudes? Is it just a kind of greeting, a conversation opener? What I want to tell them--what I wish they wanted to know--is about my students, about Kari and those like her. To me, the most exciting thing about teaching at BYU-Idaho this fall is the same excitement of every fall--the new students and the returning former students.

Kari is, in fact, a younger sister. She has come to my office to see if I received the e-mail she had forwarded to me of her sister's missionary letter. Her older sister, Lindy, is now serving her mission in Florida. When I think of Lindy, it's not hard to see where Kari gets her spunk--it's a family quality. Lindy, a solid, straight-A student, took more classes from me than any other student has ever taken. My wife and I happened a little over a year ago to be in Utah the weekend of her mission farewell, and we attended. Years ago in a special academic program, Lindy and I were part of a group who went to the temple to do baptisms. Later, after she received her endowment in preparation for her mission, we attended the temple together. 

Ours is like a family relationship: we have adopted each other. So it is not strange that when Kari came to BYU-Idaho this fall, she followed her missionary sister's advice and looked me up. 

To me, though Kari may be new to BYU-Idaho, she fits absolutely. She is the new BYU-Idaho. She wants to do well; she cares about being good--she just wants to be shown how in an gospel-oriented academic environment to learn by faith as well as by study. Almost every day she walks by my office during my 10 o'clock office hour. The door is open. She has not actually come to see me, but she is glad I am there. She is just passing by. And if anyone comes who has scheduled an appointment, she is quick to leave. She does not come in and sit, but she does like to talk standing in the hallway. She is indirect, chatty. She talks about her sister, Lindy. We muse together over missionary stories we have read in Lindy's letters. Kari wonders if I know a mountain biking trail that is within riding distance. She is surprised by some of the things her roommates do. She is excited about going home for conference weekend. She is, of course, a little bit lonely--that much is clear--though she would never admit to such a weakness. And it is clear that I am a father figure, a family substitute away from family. Kari is also taking a class from me. She presumes no familiarity, but she clearly needs and welcomes friendship. 

Kari is everything I love in students--I love her energy, her freshness, her willingness to be guided, her independence. Her bright prospects. Like her sister before her, she is full of potential. She cares, and she needs caring for. And I am by no means unique in loving to care for such wonderful young friends. Everywhere on campus doors are open. Every teacher I know here has stories to match those I tell of students I have learned to love.

After all, to love and be loved anew is always an innovation of the highest order. Seen one way, in the transition from Ricks College to BYU-Idaho we are becoming the thing we have always been. We are forging anew the scholarship of caring, learning to care anew for the things we have always cared for--the life of the mind, our relationship with fellow citizens in the gospel kingdom, and the restored gospel. And hopefully we are teaching those new to this place, teachers and students, how to value that special combination of learning and teaching in the environment of faith. 

Last month--Homecoming--Jennifer, a former student who is currently in the master's program in English at BYU-Provo returned to Rexburg to visit family and friends. Jennifer, a dedicated student whose grandfather, John L. Clarke, was president here years ago, loves Ricks College. She, like so many others, has watched the transition to BYU-Idaho with interest. When I asked her about her perception of the transition, she said, "I love the way things have been in the past, but I know it's going in the right direction." 

Her exemplary faith may be tied to a story she told me during her visit. She and her family were once visiting the Ricks College campus, when they ran into Elder Eyring, who happened also to be on campus and with whom the family had some acquaintance. After exchanging greetings, Elder Eyring turned to Jennifer and said, "This is your place." Those four words form for her, Jennifer told me, an important foundation of her desire to someday return here to teach. 

There are many who feel that Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho, is "their place." This sense of possession and dearness stems, in part, from the fact that so many of us have been enriched here, to cite Elder Eyring's BYU-Idaho devotional address of September 17, 2001, by "basic characteristics which have blessed [our] lives."

One of those characteristics is a coming of age intellectually. For example, I asked Jennifer when and how she had decided to pursue teaching. She said she could point to the exact moment. Interestingly for me, it was in an assignment for my class, Fundamentals of Literary Interpretation. She and some of her classmates were assigned to prepare and deliver an oral report. Jennifer had come to understand a difficult concept that some of her classmates had not yet mastered. She arose from the table where they were discussing this concept and drew a diagram on the blackboard. She said, "I was telling how this idea had clicked for me. And as I spoke I could see it was clicking for people in the group. I remember one woman in particular. I remember her exact expression as she 'got it.' It was such a thrill. I decided I have to do this forever." 

Many of us know that thrill. What Jennifer resolved to "do forever" is to help the lights turn on for her students. When I asked Jennifer what her concerns were about Ricks College becoming Brigham Young University-Idaho, she said, "I have no concerns."

I asked another former student and good friend, Renn, who now works as a successful young tax attorney in Dallas if he had concerns about the transition. He spoke of his own academic progress, beginning with his graduation from a small high school in Alaska where, in his words, he was "woefully under-prepared academically." He spoke of learning the basics of creative and in-depth thinking in a Church atmosphere, at Ricks College where classes were small, where students were individually as well as collectively nurtured and "where you felt loved." He went on to speak of Columbia University Law School. Of course, in that competitive world teachers are concerned with the professional world of law and furthering the general body of legal scholarship more than in personally nurturing students. He felt prepared for that world because he had started at Ricks College where he felt an atmosphere of personal, individual tutoring and advising, of asking personal questions and receiving individual answers. He learned to succeed because his academic confidence and skills were increased in a nurturing environment of faith and academic rigor. He had learned to care because he was cared for. 

Renn expressed the opinion of many when he said, "I would hate to see that environment lost." I reassured him that in my opinion when he brought his sons to BYU-Idaho ten years from now, we will be working harder than ever to create and maintain that environment. In Elder Eyring's words, "When you return in some distant future, you will find great innovation has become common place, and yet, amidst all the change the school will have retained and enriched the basic characteristics which blessed your life."

I come back to my young student Kari. What of her future? In one way or another Kari is symbolically every young student I and my fellow teachers have ever taught. Those moments in the hallway, chatting, building friendship, reassurance--those moments are the companion piece to the formal meetings, the talk of policy and program. They are an important complement to the rigors of classroom and homework because they show we care not only for our subject matter and structure but even more for the individual learners.

Has anything changed in our transition? It is clear that in important ways much has changed. But seen another way, seen in terms of what I consider to be my primary charge, some fundamentals--perhaps the most important things for me as a teacher--remain the same: I remain committed to academic excellence in my subject, but my joy is connecting with my students. I want to continue to learn and teach the scholarship of caring.  

"When you return in some distant future, you will find great innovation has become common place, and yet, amidst all the change the school will have retained and enriched the basic characteristics which blessed your life." 

-Elder Henry B. Eyring