I have spent much of the past year preparing for two conferences in honor of two mentors. My undergraduate and doctoral advisers have dramatically different personalities, biographies, interests, and ambitions - bar one. They each committed themselves first and foremost to their students. They give a damn.
My first year back at work in the academy, I imagined a device I dubbed “the give-a-damneter.” I rate academics and administrators alike by their give-a-damneter readings. Men and women incapable of working with one another due to personal or professional conflicts but equally devoted to students charged to their care register equally high on my dream device. Those too bored or self-obsessed to bother guiding undergraduates and graduates through the maze of ivy covered halls without succumbing to the minotaur many make of distraction and self-doubt fail to budge the needle of the give-a-damneter. Those who accept Theseus’ mission, fight the minotaur on their mentees behalf, and bring them safely through the maze to degrees, push the needle towards max.
I wish I could dole out give-a-damneters for use in the many heated meetings taking place on any given campus at any given time. Marriages crash and burn when parents fail to put their children first. Institutions of learning at any level do the same when students cease to stand at the center of their efforts. Whether sectarian doctrine, publications and patents, or athletic accolades overshadow the institutions’ central purpose, distraction from a high reading on the give-a-damneter bodes ill.
Academics use argument as lifeblood. To prove a point is indeed the point of the academic exercise. Disciplines may employ different methods to do so, but every nook and cranny of the ivory tower aspires to unveil a novel notion and persuade the world of its proper value. This need to be right runs counter to any healthy relationship. When the Cambridge college dean who married us met with my husband and me prior to the ceremony, he counseled us that we would need to will our relationship into being on a daily basis. As we approach two decades of marriage, I would shape the deans advice to say relationships take willing focus and willing compromise. I wonder what would happen if squabbling scholars exercised the same commitment to will their academic unions into functional educational families.
The decision not to advance self over students in a system that counts single or lead author publications as the most valued sign of success seems suicidal. However, some of the most prolific authors are indeed capable of simultaneous service as some of the most devoted mentors. Workshops for women and minority members of the faculty club focus on the importance of saying ‘no’ to endless requests for service. Some take this advice to mean that they ought lock their office doors and exit under cover of darkness for lab or library undisturbed by student leeches. Others lock the door on their colleagues and committees as they turn their adoring advisees into their only friends. The latter may be preferable to the former, but surely students shouldn’t feel that they have to adhere to only one academic mentor as the children of calamitous marriages pick between parents?
If professors put the students for whom they serve in loco parentis first, functional - if not fond- relationships among faculty constitute a critical foundation for success. The give-a-damneter might help like-minded men and women find one another, resolve their differences, and build a better home in which to raise their academic offspring.
Evanston, Illinois in the US.
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.