When I first heard of you your reputation quite literally preceded you. It was in a cryptic comment from my academic advisor, the arcane and wise Ron Denson. I should take a class with you, he said, “She has really a different kind of pedagogy.” From there, likely I witnessed you unleash precise devastation on interlocutors at CSCRE events — still more a mysterious force, a kind of rumor on the wind, than a person.
But I do remember my first real encounter with you. Freshman year I was endeavoring to understand the shape of US culture by interviewing every sociologist, economist, political scientist, music critic and perceived font of knowledge that I could educe to speak to me. And you, generously, consented to be questioned by someone fumbling toward knowledge. I don’t remember what I asked, but I remember the feeling of having encountered someone so profound that I had to pause for a long time afterward and think about what I did and didn’t know — so started that strange addiction — and I remember also that you said something to me along the lines of, “What kind of role model could I be to you?” Apropos of what I no longer recall, but I took this to mean, how could I possibly look to your example as a model for how to live, so different are our experiences, identities, histories? There was a lot of practical sense in this. How would I even work out how to pattern myself after you? I weighed this sense against my stubborn resistance to guidance and signed up for a class with you.
The thing I carry most from Race and Colonialism was how seriously a question may be pursued. We were intent young people concerned to understand the corruption of our world, and yes we did bring that desire to know more – to name and number the beast. But you held the space open. You would stand almost at the other end of that small seminar room, allowing us students the space to find each other, but it was under your gaze, the authority and scrutiny of it, that made the quest real. We knew when we had been careless, and we tried to internalize the level of care required to think. We understood that the inquiry had meaning, produced for ourselves and with you and indemnified by you. When I was quiet, you took me seriously, and from trembling and doubt, an idea might burst forth.
At least one other person in that room became a companion for life because of the way we saw each other’s searching. I have also set out to find a life in academia because of that room. Even when that course haunts me as a Gatsby-esque unattainable ideal, it stands flickering on the horizon as what might happen in a room between people. I’ve now taught enough classes to see that whatever instances of human chemistry occur in a classroom are true miracles and rarely reproducible, but I do know it could not have happened without you. To create the space and sustain faith — in the US, at this time, with these students — is monumental.
At that time, I certainly deified you. All students I think are apt to see the professors they admire as somehow partaking of the mystical, of the secret knowledge. At times I have the sneaking guilt of someone who has imprisoned another in an image impossible to fulfill or live within. I am sure that you have human faults, but I’ve now met many professors, many intelligent people and at some time or other they have all shown some side or impulse that was compromised or petty, selfish or unreflective. I forgive them, or try to, because we all are human and struggling to be good. However, in all this time you remain to me an ethical and intellectual lodestar of how one should conduct one’s life in a profession that is often degraded and strays from its vocation.
I am so extremely grateful for every moment that you have spent speaking with me or sitting with me as I thought and reached for words. I feel in those moments blessed. You’ve never failed to be there for me whenever I’ve reached out. You’ve offered comfort and consolation to me at times when I was frightened and times when I’ve felt shattered. And you have never done else but taken me seriously. You may not be a role model in the traditional sense of what that word means. How could I follow your path? But nonetheless I work — stubbornly — to connect what I see of your ethic and your critique to my praxis and how I hope to be. Whatever work I do, I want you to know that there is a part of me who is always trying to make you proud.