During their first month on the job, many professors find that they're not in on the joke. Twelve years ago, that was certainly my experience. I can remember one meeting in which I asked what I thought was a simple question: "Why do so many of my students wear rings with the initials 'CTR'?"

The room was full of veteran professors, many of whom had grown up in that particular city. "It's part of our local culture," one professor said. "It stands for 'Choose the Right.'"

"But some of us wish," another professor boomed, "that our students would wear GAC rings!" Laughter came from every corner of the room, except mine.

Seeing that I didn't get the joke, a third professor helped me out: "You know, GAC, as in, 'Give a Crap'!" Again, there was another round of hearty laughter—with only unknowing chuckles coming from me.

Soon enough, I was to discover what they meant, and the intellectual implications hidden within their recurring joke.

During my first several semesters of teaching, I was astounded by the apathy of many of my students. I could see that they were smart and had potential, but they just didn't seem to care about succeeding in their studies. Many wanted simply to extend their fun-filled days of high school a few more years into college.

Fortunately, every semester such students were mixed in with students whose genuine care for doing well—and for learning—enabled them not only to succeed on the assignments in my courses, but also, more important, to learn and grow as thinkers, as intellectuals. Such students were downright inspiring to me, a new teacher who needed motivation to persist. They gave me hope that my career in teaching would indeed work out. They also reminded me a bit of myself, years earlier, as a mediocre first-generation college student who often wondered if he could survive his freshman year.

As intellectuals—as believers in logic and the scientific method—we often talk about the ways in which emotion can hinder clear thinking. We use countless lectures, assignments, articles, and books to explore with students how advertisers, politicians, and bureaucracies use pathos, or appeals to the emotions, to obscure important issues and gloss over the need for thoughtful engagement with those issues. Such explorations should be key to any college or university worth its salt.

However, I'm beginning to think that the flip side to that formula is much more interesting: the ways in which emotion can improve the clarity and logic of our thinking—the ways in which giving a crap can even make us more scientific.