Academic Confetti: contributions from campus intellectuals

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September 8, 2008

Bonne Marie Bautista

I love being a college professor for a lot of reasons, one of which is that we get three months off in the summer, six weeks in the winter, and ten days in the spring. Off from teaching and committee work, that is, but not from our jobs. We are “expected” to devote about half of our time to research and writing (or creative equivalents in artistic fields), and most of that gets done when we are not fully occupied with teaching. So professors just take short vacations like everyone else.

“Expected” is putting it mildly. To get hired in the first place you are required to have published articles. To earn a permanent job as a tenured associate professor you usually will need a book in addition to articles, and for promotion to full professor, as well as for so-called merit promotions within grade, other solid demonstrations of scientific or scholarly excellence, often additional books, are de rigueur.

But it’s not about articles and books, it’s about keeping up with new directions in your field by contributing to them, and it’s about teaching better because you are, in a sense, apprenticing students to your profession. It’s why professors find so much joy in teaching as well as in research.

For this past summer I give you the example of Deborah L. Stein, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of Art History. “When not at the beach with my little boys Ariel and Aiden,” she told me, “I spent the summer delving deeply into the intricacies of tantra and what counts as tantra.”

Wow, I thought, tantra, the art of ecstasy. Dr. Stein speaks of it as “a form of worship where the devotee becomes the deity through meditation and ritual.”

“In contrast to the 1960s Western idea that tantra is just about exotic Indian sex,” she cautioned me, “my work zeros in on a ferocious (and fabulous!) post-menopausal female deity named Chamunda.” Dr. Stein’s research involves exploring what the iconography of old age and death can tell us about gender and belief in early medieval India. Since the beginning of classes this semester she has already given a talk at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco where she focused on a Chamunda sculpture on permanent display in the South Asia galleries.

Dr. Stein plans to continue her research on Chamunda and hopes to involve her Mills students by teaching a course she would like to call The Visual Culture of Tantra as well as a seminar on The Female Body in Early Medieval India.

For this past summer I also give you an example from a different part of the campus. Jared Young, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biology, worked through the summer months on the Mills campus in our new Natural Science Building, but he wasn’t alone. Three of his students, his apprentices, if you will, collaborated with him, Emilie Nachtigall, Caitlin Moe, and Alison Immel. The Young team carried out laboratory experiments to explore the ability of worms with particular defective genes to perform simple learning tasks.

Good grief! He shifted from teaching college students in the spring to teaching worms in the summer. You do have to be versatile to succeed as a college professor!

I wondered what they taught their worms, so Dr. Young gave me an example. Worms were taught to avoid a smell that normally is attractive to their species, and then were tested for how well they learned the lesson.

What’s the point? I asked.

“If a worm with a defective gene is unable to learn, that suggests that the gene, when functioning, contributes to the learning process. By identifying and characterizing such genes, we can piece together the biological underpinnings of learning in these worms – and therefore in humans. Because all organisms evolved from a common ancestor, many of the genes involved in learning in worms are virtually identical to those involved in learning in ourselves.”

Emilie, Caitlin, and Ali were recipients of Barrett Research Scholarships, so in addition to doing exciting work, apprenticing in the practice of laboratory biology, and opening doors for future careers in biology, they got paid for it!

You can see why I love being a professor. It’s invigorating and rewarding to be able to spend weeks or months on a research or writing schedule, exploring that part of the universe that intrigues you and contributing to it. But you must have balance in your life, and so it is equally invigorating and rewarding to shift over to sharing your field of expertise with students during the fall and spring semesters. If you are a student, consider preparing yourself to become a professor. Ask your advisor how to do it. But be realistic about those long “vacation” months.


Academic Confetti: contributions from campus intellectuals was published on September 8, 2008 in Opinions

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