Professor James Knight is a big believer in the maxim that little things mean a lot.
That’s what students say they’ll miss most now that he’s retiring as one of the University of Arizona’s most popular educators.
Balloons, bouquets and best wishes greeted the professor’s last lecture Wednesday at the campus where he spent much of his career.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who cares more about his students,” said sophomore Ethan Reiter, 20, a Texan majoring in biomedical science.
For years, Knight, 67, has made a habit of shaking students’ hands, asking about their families and memorizing their names and faces — small gestures that had a large impact on those who took his two-credit, free elective on the history of the UA.
Knight, who began teaching at the UA in 1996, insisted that every student attend a five-minute, get-acquainted chat in his office — a practice he kept to even when the class had 300 students a semester.
Students say that alone made Knight a rarity.
“A lot of professors just show up and lecture and leave,” said Lo Bannerman, 22, a California native who recently completed a master’s degree in agricultural education.
“I’ve taken 50 to 70 courses, and this was the only one where a professor took the time to get to know me as a person,” she said.
Knight said he was simply doing what he loved.
“You learn a lot about life from talking to students,” he said in an interview.
“I remember one, a Hispanic boy from South Tucson, who was the fifth of five children raised by a single mother. And she worked two jobs to put every one of her kids through college.
“How great is that?” he asked, his face brightening at the memory.
The course that helped make Knight popular — The Heritage and Traditions of the University of Arizona — is one he created in 1998 to help undergrads feel more connected to the school.
The idea came from alumni and the UA Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm, Knight said. Officials reasoned that if students felt more attached, they might be more inclined to donate to their alma mater.
The course examines how the UA came to be in the Wild West era to how it operates today. Guest lecturers ranged from coaches to UA’s president and the provost.
Recent UA research suggests some benefit .
Bannerman recently surveyed nearly 400 others as part of her master’s thesis and compared their graduation rates to those of UA students in general.
Those who took Knight’s elective were nearly twice as likely to graduate within four years, and 1.5 times more likely to graduate within six years, Bannerman said.
“We can’t say that it’s cause-and-effect, but the research suggests there’s some sort of connection,” Knight said.
With his departure, the future of the course is up in the air. Officials are still looking for a replacement to teach it.
Whoever that is, said Bannerman, “They’ll have giant shoes to fill.”