Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a retirement celebration for the two professors who are probably most responsible for setting me on the path I have been on for the last fifteen years. Despite my generally reserved demeanor, I am pathologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut and so raised my hand to offer what was, in my humble opinion, a stream of gibberish. I had jotted down some notes, but they came out in a jumble. This is what I meant to say.
Dear Ann and Cheryl,
The two of you exemplify the professors I aspire to be.
I am sure that I learned something in your classes, but when I sit here now the content is secondary. I remember instead Cheryl’s laugh, bantering with Chris Farrell (back before he was Dr. Farrell) while snacking on bread and cheese, and, of course, Argos.
It is not that the content didn’t matter, but for both of you that was just one part of a college education. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I was overwhelmed by the transition from my rural Vermont high school to Brandeis—a nervous first-year who felt entirely unprepared for what was to come.
I found my mooring in Classics even as someone who came in thinking just about history and only belated made my way to the languages.
To this day, I don’t know what the two of your saw in me, but I am eternally grateful for whatever it was. You both patiently nurtured my growth through any number of slightly odd history-oriented papers on topics ranging from Roman Republican coinage to a calculation for the Roman grain trade to the Greek ἰδιώτης stemming from a question I had about Plato’s Apology—to say nothing about my massively unwieldy monstrosity of an undergraduate thesis. Midway through graduate school I developed a hobby of reading books on writing, but I still say that all of my foundational skills I learned from Cheryl, whose model I still use as something of a template for my own courses and assignments. When some of my classes require a specific citation style, I repeat something I remember Ann saying when she assigned something similar: it isn’t that this is the best style, but that is the style for this assignment and part of the exercise is learning to follow a citation style sheet.
But the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. You are both the type of generous teacher and mentor that I aspire to be. Moments stand out like when Cheryl, unprompted, gave me a copy of a book that I still have on my shelf, or when she patiently listened to me work through the argument of an academic article by a leading scholar of Ancient Greece that I vehemently disagreed with only to offer a quip, asking whether it was that scholar at the height of their powers or that scholar at the point of their career when they get published because of their name. It was pithier in the moment.
Then there was the time that I dropped in to talk about something and we got lost in conversation, at which point she looked up, exclaimed “oh crap,” and ran out the door because she had a class of first years who had been patiently waiting for more than fifteen minutes.
(I later told a student in the class to blame me.)
COVID notwithstanding, this is the sort of open-door office policy I aspire to—and I usually keep cookies there for anyone who visits me. I teach because I love what I study, but one of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that I am teaching whole people, not disembodied brains.
In this same vein, I am eternally grateful to Ann for a note she sent me the year after I graduated. I had applied to graduate school the year before and not gotten in anywhere, so I was managing a restaurant and contemplating another round of applications. The Classics Department was in danger at that moment and, yet, Ann wanted to bring me in on a developing personal issue so that she could complete my letters of recommendation before it left her indisposed. The next academic year I started graduated school at the University of Missouri.
How I went from that overwhelmed first-year struggling to write anything at all to someone with multiple publications, a book on the way, and the responsibility for training new generations of young people is beyond me, but I know that the guidance and support I received from the two of you was an essential part of that journey.
It has been a long time since Brandeis and nearly as long since I have even been to campus, but I often come back when I think about how I want to carry myself in- and outside the classroom. Brandeis—and the world—are a better place for all that you have done.
In the sincerest and simplest way I can say it: thank you.