An Endangered Art

August 24, 2004

Editor's note: Ray Wilson passed away unexpectedly in Rome while leading a Baylor study-abroad program. For his obituary and a tribute, see the related stories in the right sidebar.

An e-mail I received from a former Baylor student read: "Even though I never had your class, of all the professors I knew in college, you were my favorite. I appreciate your wise counsel during those days and especially you taking me in as a friend, not just another student." 
No other group needs the ministry of friendship more than students. To me, they are the most interesting of all people, with such possibilities for development and such tremendous versatility. For more than 30 years, I have walked into my classes intent upon letting my students know I intend to be their friend. I stand before them with what some have described as a maniacal grin on my face, and I look them in the eye until, unsure of what else to do, they respond with smiles. I then say, "Good morning, class!" and they respond in their best kindergarten voices, "Good morning, teacher." From the beginning, they understand -- I consider them my friends. 
I believe the art of friendship is endangered and that reviving it will be the biggest challenge we face in the 21st century. In a survey, 800 of 1,200 Waco-area high school students said their greatest problem was loneliness -- an unexpected response given the proliferation of communication devices in today's society. But, consider this statistic: 70 percent of communication is nonverbal. No amount of smiley faces and other emoticons embedded in an e-mail message can bridge that gap, nor can any number of minutes used on our cell phones. Such communication often is as void of personality as an unabridged dictionary. The great danger today is that one can become the most successful lonely person in the world.
Friendship and meaningful communication require being in one another's presence. Eye contact, smiling, a handshake or touching an arm are actions that convey much and make a great impact. Even in our litigious society, I contend that touch is an important aspect of making friends, and it is one of the unique characteristics I noticed in students when I first came to Baylor. Touch still is common among students, but it is increasingly rare among individuals of different generations. Have you ever wondered why it is socially acceptable for only medical personnel and hair stylists to touch you? In Great Britain, I've seen multitudes of young and old people walking arm in arm, and I have to wonder if this might contribute to their longevity and general bonhomie.
Friendship involves letting you know me. Self-disclosure is telling another person about yourself, trusting someone enough to become vulnerable. This once was an easy process at Baylor, often initiated at the first advising session. Hearing students talk about their dreams and aspirations always lets my ebullient nature surface. I love encouraging all our students to reach their goals but have to admit I am fondest of those I call fence-sitters. They are the individuals who could easily succeed or fail, and I enjoy encouraging them not to waste their God-given talents. 
Now, with many students being advised via the computer, the personal advising session rarely happens. In fact, students are so accustomed to electronic communication that office encounters are becoming increasingly rare. Even questions about an assignment or course syllabus are sent by e-mail. The computer may be more efficient, but it is not nearly so friendly.
The bedrock of all friendships should be love -- hoping for the ultimate achievement of others. In that sense, faculty should be in love with their students. As a faculty partner for one of the residence halls, I get to share thoughts and ideas with underclass students, all of whom are total strangers initially. I know faculty members who jog with their students or share a meal with them -- my personal preference.
The opportunity to practice Christian friendship through informal counsel with our students is one of Baylor's best assets. We compliment, encourage and challenge our students, and what these expressions of love say is, "As a teacher, I care about you and want the best for you." It begins with us being accessible and able to regard interruptions as opportunities. Ultimately, each of us who works at a university is responsible for its final product.

Wilson, BS '66 (Texas Wesleyan University), MS '69 (Texas Christian University) and PhD '73 (University of Illinois) was a Master Teacher and professor of biology. He recently was named director of the Honors Program at Baylor, where he had taught since 1973.