How Not To Be a Senior Scholar

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I remember almost two years ago when American historian Edmund Morgan died. I had read Morgan’s Visible Saints as part of my doctoral exams but, not being a historian by training or researching the colonial period, I hadn’t read much else of his work. But after his death I read a lot about Morgan. I read stories from his graduate students, from his colleagues, and from scholars who had come into contact with the man one way or another. It seemed like every historian of a certain generation had some story about him.

Jill Lepore called him “the E.B. White of the historical profession.” As she put it, “Edmund Morgan liked, especially, to teach his students how to make and sharpen a quill. None were ever so sharp as his.” John Mack Faragher described his experience in a two semester seminar with Morgan in graduate school. I love that moment in the fourth paragraph where Faragher drops from “Morgan” to “Ed.” Because he didn’t know MORGAN. He knew Ed.  Faragher quotes another of Morgan’s students, Karen Halttunen:

“But perhaps the most important thing I learned in Ed’s seminar,” Halttunen continues, “was conveyed silently. From the model of scholarship and teaching he provided, I learned that the greatest of historians–such as himself–do not tolerate intellectual arrogance whether in others or in themselves. To me, this wasn’t simply a lesson in good academic manners; it was an important insight into what makes intellectual greatness like that of Morgan’s. Towards the end of his life, Isaac Newton captured this quality, by likening himself to a boy playing on the sea shore, occasionally finding a smoother pebble or shell than ordinary, ‘whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’ I think Ed conveyed to his students that we were all of us just like Newton’s boy on the beach. Most of us needed to hear this, and most of us, I suspect, have never forgotten it.”

It seems to me there are two ways to be a senior scholar at an elite institution. You can invest in your students and in the young scholars coming after you. You can teach them. You can mentor them. You can serve them. You can love them.

Or, you can imagine yourself too busy, too important, or too smart for that. You can imagine that you don’t have to engage with a graduate student that isn’t “yours.” You can offer “counsel” that doesn’t teach, or build up, or help a younger scholar grow.

At some level, regardless of prestige level, every professor makes this choice, whether he or she knows it or not. Do I serve my students, my colleagues, my field, or do I serve myself? There are two ways to be a senior scholar, be sure you choose the right one. Because when you’re dead, no one reads your C.V. But they do tell stories about you.

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