Most of us can easily remember a favorite course that we took in college, but it is much more difficult to recall one lecture that occurred on a single morning or afternoon. Unless, of course, something remarkable happened during that lecture.
Of the handful that I can recall, Professor John D. Arras gave one of them.
As a sophomore at the University of Virginia, I sat waiting in a large nondescript hall for a meeting of Professor Jim Childress’s course, “Theology, Ethics, and Medicine.” Our class learned that we would be hearing from a guest lecturer on whether there was a right to health care.
Enter Professor Arras.
He walked up to the podium and adjusted the overhead projector settings for his presentation. Pleasantly surprised by the ease with which he had been able to manipulate the unfamiliar technological set-up, he gave a thumbs up to the audience of students, smiled, and said affirmatively, “Bitchin’.”
The hall erupted with laughter. Our guest had endeared himself to about 100 undergraduates, not an easy crowd to win over. He gracefully reeled our giggling class back in and segued to a talk on the implications of a right to health care. He asked us to consider this idea from four different perspectives of political philosophy – libertarianism, utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism, and communitarianism. If, in fact, we could agree that a right to access health care existed, the challenge, he said, was to tackle a second (more daunting) question: what was the content of such a right – how limited was it?
That was the thing about Professor Arras: one minute he’d have you roaring with laughter and then next he’d have you contemplating new ideas that might seriously change the world.
After his death last week, I wanted to pay tribute to Professor Arras in the best way I could as his former student. I reached out to my former professors at UVA and asked them to invite past and present students of his to write me if they wished to contribute personal memories. I want to share the voices of those he taught and those who taught alongside him. For those among us who were lucky enough to know him, even if just briefly, Professor Arras will be remembered not only for his scholarship and public service, but also for his dry and colorful wit, a giving heart, unwavering honesty, and for his unique ability to make each of his students feel deserving of respect.
There is a reason I opened this tribute somewhat irreverently, with the particular snapshot I chose. Former students Lee Eschenroeder (’11) and Alyssa Henning (’07) both independently wrote me long messages sharing their fond memories of this exact, winning Professor Arras-ism.
“He was the only professor I ever had who described things as ‘bitchin’,” Lee wrote. “This would typically come after an elegant explanation of a difficult problem and was always delivered with a smile and a slight cock of the head; it was a way of offering us a bridge from our everyday experiences and language to the expansive, soul-searching questions we were trying to ask ourselves.”
Close university colleague and friend, Professor Margaret Mohrmann, remembers often teasing Professor Arras for “his 1960s and ‘70s California lingo.” She and another close colleague, Jim Childress, each separately imagined that Professor Arras would characterize his own passing and our loss of him as a “total bummer.” Professor Mohrmann described this as the “unreconstructed hippie” side of his personality, a side that simultaneously manifested in a witty lightness and a serious commitment to improving “the well-being of his fellow humans.” Those who knew him appreciated the duality of his spiritedness, but, as Professor Mohrmann wrote, “John was a large bundle of irreverence – I/we may miss that more than anything, given that it’s always in too-short supply.”
In his popular “Justice and Health Care” course, current student Rebecca Richards described how he interspersed thoughtful lectures with obscure quotes from The Godfather and Monty Python, pop-culture references that sailed over most millennial heads. He deadpanned a lot, and, as Rebecca recalled, when students either failed to pick up on the reference quick enough or register the joke at all, he hid a smirk, feigned disappointment, and went right back to the lecture.
A sign of his supreme popularity was the significant queue of undergraduates waiting to get one-on-one time with Professor Arras during his office hours. Students understood his investment in relationships as a special commitment to take the goals and “views of his students seriously,” as Craig Iffland (’07) put it. This is no small thing, especially at a large university like UVA where so many students feel daunted by the prospect of having to build relationships with seemingly unapproachable faculty.
“The first thing to be said is that he was always there for his students, whether it was opening his house to us for an end of the semester lasagna fest or holding a huge amount of office hours or keeping us updated (almost religiously) of all things bioethics,” wrote Craig. “He was as willing to learn from the arguments of students as he was willing to subject them to critical scrutiny.”
Many students remembered this quality of his personality: an unsparing honesty that pushed students towards excellence.
“He challenged my views during class discussion, in his office hours, and at Justice League flash seminars. He refused to accept anything but the most excellent pieces of writing or well-pitched arguments,” said Sasheenie Moodley, a student enrolled in his ongoing “Reproductive Ethics” course.
Deeva Shah (’12) remembered, “The last time I interacted with him was at graduation, where he told me to stay strong in my beliefs and to continue working hard wherever I ended up. I was terrified because I had no idea what to expect from the ‘real world,’ and he reminded me that I was more than prepared to make something of myself.”
In writing this tribute, I heard from more than a dozen former and current students who wanted to express how John Arras had changed their lives for the better. However, one profound comment really hit me. Walker Redd (’11) prefaced his overwhelmingly positive remembrance of Professor Arras by saying, “As you know, my experience was not at all unique.”
As I think about how Professor Arras is and will be missed, Walker’s is a comforting thought: my memories of Professor Arras will not stand alone and will not be exceptional. So many people feel that he was the kind of mentor you could count on. Not only did he push you to expect only the best from yourself, but he gave you all the tools and advice you needed to succeed.
Chelsea Jack, a 2014 graduate of the University of Virginia, is a research assistant at The Hastings Center.