Wednesday, April 12, 2006


by Unknown

In the "publish or perish" environment of an R1 university, it's not easy to forget that we (professors) also teach and advise. Conversations between colleagues often start with a running countdown of how many classes are left in the semester, how much time we "wasted" grading or prepping lectures, which colleagues managed to buy out courses next year, etc.

It is easy, however, to forget that this part of our job can have far more impact than our research. (Judging from my citation counts, this is especially true for me... but I digress.) Every once in a while, though, a student can remind us of just how much influence we have, and in ways we probably never imagined.

At the risk of sounding like I'm blowing my own horn, I'd like to share one such reminder. This e-mail is from a student whose honors thesis I advised last year; she's spending two years in the Peace Corps in the Gambia.

I thought of Cornell recently sitting in my small mud hut writing furiously in my journal about how unfair it is to be relegated to second-class status here less than a year after I graduated. In the West Africa bush I know I shouldn't be surprised by the gender discrimination but sometimes when I can't even get the carpenter to make me a stool without bringing a man with me, I get really angry.

With all these thoughts in my mind, I thought I'd write to tell you how important it is that I had you as my advisor at Cornell. Here daughters get put down by their mothers, women tell each other they can't do anything meanwhile they literally do twice the work or more than men. As I play with ideas of how to help change their minds and as I toy with my future plans I find myself clinging to the fact that I've seen women in power in order to remember that it is possible. If I'd had another middle aged white guy as my advisor I'd probably have more doubt about going to a good grad school (or whatever) after Peace Corps. I wanted to say thanks for being a role model for me, even though I'm pretty sure you aren't doing what you are doing simply to set a good example for your students.
Maybe, just maybe, the next time I feel the urge to whine about how little time I have to do research, I'll remember that my "other" work is worthwhile, too. (I reserve the right to continue to whine about grading.)
The joy of students is seriously undervalued. Honestly, I love undergraduates. I just don't love grading. At all.
That's very nice, Kim. It reminds me that I need to catch up with my (PhD) adviser (who's retiring soon) next time I'm in D.C.

Actually, considering the extent to which universities fail to fully avail themselves of the benefits of specialization and the division of labor in research and teaching functions and whatnot, it's remarkable that I really have to think hard to come up with an example of a bad teacher. And, without the example of good teachers, I could be a very disgruntled nerd deep within the bowels of some computer lab (vs. the mostly happy nerd I am now).
Thanks for sharing that beautiful letter. Sounds like you earned the right to toot away on your horn, so keep tooting!
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