Dr. Eric Fife

Stories that Sustain Me

I look out over a sea of students, and all I see are stories.  That student over there has taken 21 hours of classes from me, and in that whole time I don’t think she’s ever gotten a grade lower than a B+ on any single assignment.  I doubt she’s gotten more than one A- or B+ as a final grade from any professor in any department, and I wish I had EVER had that level of academic brilliance.  The student over there, in the back corner, got off to a slow start.  But she listened, very carefully, to every single suggestion I made about writing and studying starting with the first of four classes she took from me, and now she’s among the top students in the communication major. And that student, close to the front, has an amazing future ahead of her as a graduate student in a top program.  I look at her, and maybe I’m just a little bit jealous as I think about the challenges and successes she’ll face in the next six years. She’ll encounter challenging new ideas, teach her very own class for the first time, and start her own career as a professor – she’ll be a great one. The student in the back, who doesn’t always get the highest test grades but is one of the most impressive, polished, energetic speakers I’ve ever seen.  In addition to her speaking skills, she’s a really hard worker, and I would not be at all surprised to hear that she ends up being one of the most “successful” members of the class of 2013.  And here they all are, waiting for me to get started.  So, why don’t I get started. . .

Despite the occasional bad day that anyone has in any organizational setting, I remain firmly convinced that I have the single best job in the world.  I love my job because of the academic stimulation, because of the variety of tasks (lecturing, grading, writing, leading discussions) that I enjoy on a daily basis, because I have great colleagues, and wonderful students, and work at a school with a unique, charmed environment – but at the end of the day, what really sustains me as a teacher are my students’ stories. Every single student has his or her own unique story; some of their stories I am privileged to share, while at some I can only guess.  To extent that their narratives intersect with my own, most of their stories play out over the course of a single class – like the GCOM student who is transformed from quiet, tentative speaker to eloquent, passionate advocate.  Some of their stories develop over multiple classes, like the student who really struggles with multiple choice tests in an interpersonal course but demonstrates an amazing ability to recount poignant personal experiences in the family communication class.  I’m impressed by the ones who dazzle me with their writing ability, like the student who went to a top arts journalism program and now has a wonderful life both reviewing and performing music, sharing her own stories; I’m equally impressed by the compelling speakers, the thoughtful scholars, the insightful critics of the communication around them and in the world at large.

For most of these students, graduation is the happy ending to the college story, and the beginning of a new adventure, but for me it is effectively the end of the story.  It is impossible to count the number of times I sit in my office and wonder, “Whatever happened to so-and-so?  Has she started to realize her dream?”  Very, very few stories continue past graduation, but it is perhaps those I treasure the most.  One of my favorite alumnae struggled in the advanced research methods course she took from me; this is not uncommon, as many students struggle in the class.  At the time, her college story was one of having a great time with the social aspects of JMU, and not being too concerned about the academics.  Since graduating, her story has taken several fascinating twists, from highly successful human resources manager to content stay-at-home mother.

These stories which evolve over the course of a semester, or the course of a college career, or the course of a lifetime inspire me to try to become a minor character in those stories – a person who can make at least some small difference in that ongoing narrative. During those times when my job does get particularly difficult – when I find myself frustrated by trying to meet a research deadline, or bogged down in service responsibilities, or just wondering how I can possibly get everything done by the end of the week – reflecting on those stories provides me with the greatest source of inspiration.

In one of my favorite ongoing narratives, I encouraged one of my superbly talented former students to consider applying to the top programs in my discipline for graduate school, and had no doubt she would have succeeded.  Instead, she chose to focus her efforts on being the best elementary school teacher she could possibly be.  She is already an award-winning teacher, and I could not possibly be more proud of her.  From our conversations, I suspect that she, like I, is sustained by the stories of HER students.


Eric Fife is Professor and Director of the School of Communication Studies.  Originally from Waynesboro, Virginia, he received a BS in Journalism and English from James Madison University, an MA in Communication from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in Communication from Purdue University.  He taught at the College of Charleston in South Carolina for five years before returning to JMU in 2001.  He teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication and research methods, as well as general education courses.  His most recent publications are in the areas of family communication, interpersonal communication and pedagogy.