Jim Wilcox Retires after 43 Years
Well-loved professor made an impression on thousands of students—including Howard Stern (CGS’74, COM’76).
Forty-three years teaching at the College of General Studies, with roughly 110 students on his rolls each year. Add in the California high schoolers he taught in the early 1960s and the undergrads seated in his first college classes at Northern Illinois University, and CGS Associate Professor of Humanities James Wilcox estimates he’s taught more than 5,000 students over the course of his career. That’s enough people to fill half the bleachers at BU’s Nickerson Field.
Wilcox, 77, completed his final year of classroom teaching this spring, to be followed by a two-year sabbatical and then a much-deserved retirement. Imagine the scene if all his past students were able to gather at Nickerson to bid him farewell. Despite the size of the crowd, Wilcox would likely remember many of the names, faces, and stories of these former students. As a professor of rhetoric, then literature, and finally of philosophy at CGS, Wilcox instructed students by the thousands but is known for approaching each of them as individuals.
Always encouraging, always available
“I remember going to BU and feeling overwhelmed by going to college,” says radio personality Howard Stern (CGS’74, COM’76), arguably Wilcox’s most famous former student. “In high school, I was very hesitant to speak up in classes and became very introverted and shy—which might shock people, based on what I’m about now,” he says. “And the guy who brought me out of my shell in classes was Professor Wilcox.”
Stern remembers Wilcox praising his papers, asking his opinions, and creating such a comfortable classroom atmosphere that he began confidently chiming in on class discussions. “He made me feel so good about my writing, and so good about my own intellectual capacity,” Stern says. “I’ve never had another teacher bring that out in me quite that way.”
Bill Blakeslee (CGS’70, CAS’72), who as a freshman in 1968 was among Wilcox’s first CGS students, remembers Wilcox as a professor who was “always available to talk” about any topic, academic or personal. “Jim was a guy who really gave a damn about his students,” he says.
Stepping into Wilcox’s classroom nearly four decades later, Lois Yoon (CGS’08, CAS’09) discovered a more grandfatherly figure than the one Blakeslee remembers, but one with the same willingness to “take time out of his day to speak one-on-one” with students, getting to know them on a personal basis. “It’s funny the things he remembers, too,” Yoon says. She spoke often with Wilcox about her future plans and her decision to travel to South Korea to teach English after graduation. “He used to tell me, ‘Lois, you’re like Siddhartha on your Axial journey.’ And when I came back—two years later—the first thing he said to me was, ‘Welcome home from your Axial journey,’” she says. “It’s just nice to know that a professor remembers you.”
Wilcox himself might be flattered to know how well students remember him and the concepts he strove to teach them. Blakeslee, now working in computer sales and consulting, says he can still recall the different forms of rhetorical argument he studied in Wilcox’s rhetoric class those 43 years ago.
Erica Mosca (CGS’06, COM’08), who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Harvard, says she thinks often of the ethical principles she learned in Wilcox’s philosophy course. “The thing that I most got out of his class was about Kant and the practical imperative,” Mosca says, “which is that people are ends and not means. So, basically, you have to always treat people as though they are the ends in themselves.” This ethical lesson stuck with her, she says, because Wilcox did more than simply explain the concept. He illustrated his explanation with examples his students could relate to, she says, and then he lived the principle—showing by his own example that he considered his students to be far more than just a means to a paycheck.
That Wilcox exemplifies the concepts he teaches isn’t surprising, considering his ideas about his profession. “I have a theory of teaching,” he says. “It’s that you end up teaching yourself. What you’ve internalized is this knowledge, right? You’ve got it in you, and so it becomes part of you, and so you’re teaching that part of you.” To be successful, he says, teachers must master their material and then be authentic in the classroom. “It’s an interesting problem, I think, in teaching as a whole,” he adds. “Much of secondary education now is teaching to the quiz or the exam. That’s not the teacher, is it?”
After decades committed to imparting knowledge to students, Wilcox could well be nervous to step away from the lectern and into retirement. But the transition doesn’t worry him, he says. To be an effective humanities professor, he explains, he has filled his life with a “mosaic” of books, travel, theater, film, and other cultural pursuits. After retirement, he says, “there’s only going to be one piece missing, and that’s coming over here and teaching these courses, but that can be easily filled with extending or expanding the mosaic that’s already in place.”
His former students are reluctant to accept his departure so philosophically. “I’m saddened by the fact that he won’t be able to inspire more students,” says Yoon. “It’s a shame he’s retiring,” agrees Stern, adding that he wishes CGS could clone Wilcox for future generations “because he’s a unique individual—because he really does care.”