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Before You Fill Out Your Course Evaluations

“Good morning, class. This is a sad day for me, and perhaps for you as well, because this is the last session we will have together. I would like to make a few closing remarks, and then you will have plenty of time to fill out your course evaluations.

Let me start by saying what a pleasure it has been to teach you. I can tell you, with fullest sincerity, that I have learned far more from you than you have learned from me. You are the best class I have ever taught. Listen, I know some people might say, ‘Professor, this is your first year at HBS, you haven’t taught any other classes.’ To them I say, you haven’t taught a class like this one, or you’d understand.

As a new professor at HBS, course evaluations are invaluable to me in improving the course. I would love to get your honest assessment of the course, and of course the Dean will also be interested as he makes his hiring and firing decisions. Again, I thought the opportunity to teach you was a delight!

Our discussions have been so productive and riveting that I haven’t had much time to tell you about myself. Since we have a few minutes remaining, perhaps I could share a story with you.

I don’t think I mentioned that I had a brother. A younger brother. His name was Tad.

[pause] Yes, I’m sure you noticed that I used the past tense. I did not do so accidentally. Let me tell you about the person Tad was. Tad was kind, he was generous, and he was full of life. He was the kind of brother everyone dreams of having.

Tad loved to scuba dive. That was his passion in life. So when Tad turned 18, my parents sent him on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Cozumel. He was so excited, he couldn’t believe it. He had read so much about the diving in Cozumel; he couldn’t wait to get there.

Well, Tad made his way to Cozumel, and shortly before he left for his first dive, he put a postcard in the mail to all of us. I’ll never forget, it had a tropical fish on the front.

By the way, while I’m talking, I’m going to begin passing out the evaluation forms, and I want to remind you to fill in the circles completely with your pencil. A partially-marked oval may not be read correctly by the scanner.

Anyway, back to the postcard. It was the last time we’d ever get mail from Tad.

Tad went on a dangerous dive, through a series of caves that had not been fully explored. He was a risk taker, and he loved to explore. But on that day, the fates were not with him. In one part of the cave, the walls narrowed suddenly. Before he realized what was happening, he got stuck, wedged between the sides of the passageway.

There were signs of a furious struggle. He fought with everything he had. But, at some point, he must have realized that he was doomed. And as his breathing became labored, and as his air grew scarce, he took out a pocket knife and began to scratch something on his oxygen tank. It was the last message the world would ever get from Tad.

It said: “Teach the children.” Those were his last words, and I knew they were for me. And that’s how I became a teacher. I did it for Tad.

I also have extra No. 2 pencils up front, if you forgot to bring one. If you want, you can keep them. It’s on me.

There is another story I’d like to tell about my family. It’s about my favorite aunt, Queenie. She is a wonderful woman, and I have told her so much about all of you!

My aunt has always been an animal lover. Dogs, cats, gerbils, birds, horses, whatever. If it was an animal, she loved it.

Well, she got to know this one squirrel that lived in her backyard. She’d come out in the morning and give it a nut. It got to where the squirrel would show up every morning. You could set your watch by this squirrel.

My uncle Pete would always say, “Don’t give those good nuts to that rat!

Squirrels are pests!” And Queenie would say, “Pete, we’ve all got our place in this world, even that squirrel. Its job is to gather some nuts for the winter, and I’m gonna help it.” Uncle Pete would shake his head and grumble and go about his business.

By the way, remember that on the evaluations, “7” is the high number. Sometimes it can get confusing, but “1” is not like “#1,” as in “the best.” “1” is low. Very, very low.

Anyway, winter came one year. I was off at college by then, and my uncle was off, um, chopping firewood, I think, or maybe it was mining coal. It has been so long. Anyway, on one winter morning, the squirrel came up to the door, but Aunt Queenie didn’t come out. The squirrel must have been heartbroken. Queenie had never missed a day.

Well, the reason she missed that day is that she was lying, passed out, on the kitchen floor. She’d had a stroke and fallen down and hit her head on something.

About 30 minutes later, the paramedics showed up, and thank God they did, they saved Queenie’s life. But here’s what baffled Uncle Pete: How did the medics know to come? Queenie couldn’t have dialed 911 in her state, and no one else lived around for miles.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Pete figured it out. He walked out to the backyard to rake some leaves, and right there on the ground, in real big letters, was the word “HELP.” That little squirrel had used his entire
stash of winter nuts to spell out the word. Every last one. For Queenie.

Apparently, a news helicopter was flying over and saw it, and the rest is history. I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget how my aunt’s little acts of kindness, to a single small rodent, ended up saving her life.

And that’s why I want to thank all of you. You have been like a squirrel to me.

Well, with that, I will wrap up our term. We’ve had a great semester. I know that sometimes I can have an edge, and I have really worked on that, especially after the crying incident, and the screaming incident, but I feel like things have been really good since then. The course platform issues, just for the record, are out of a professor’s control. This has all been fun. It was always fun.

I hope you will all keep in touch with me, and if I can get you jobs, I will.

Very high-paying jobs. Thank you all.

No, on second thought, thank Tad.”

January 20, 2004
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