Friday, January 13, 2012

To Sir, With Love

(It needs to be said up front that the title of this blog post is firmly tongue in cheek. Very firmly. Bear that in mind. I just couldn’t resist picking this song title, it was too deliciously wrong.)

(Also, yes, I am a wanker and pick a song title for every blog post title. Sorry. I have fun trying to come up with one.)

I want to spend some time talking about my Honours supervisor. He will feature heavily in all sorts of future posts and as I am a terrible name dropper, I think it best to tell you something about the teacher who is my partner in crime when it comes to my studies this year. And I mean that literally, as there’s no way I could do this as well without him.

I went back to uni in February 2011 after 5 years away from study (5 in practice, 6 in reality). I was told that I would be unable to do my Honours year due to time requirements and initially I was disappointed because I had been looking forward to writing a thesis. But at the time I was all set and ready to do a law degree at the beginning of 2012 so it didn’t really matter in the long term. I was ready to move onto what came next, as soon as I finished the two outstanding subjects for my Arts degree, tucking the study in around full time work. Two more subjects, and I was done.

I still felt this way when I started second semester. The subject I did in first semester was one of the weaker subjects I did in my degree, especially in the History department, and my mark reflected my ambivalence towards it. (The History department at the university where I study is one of the best, certainly in the country and I suspect in the world.) The fact that I still wasn’t intellectually engaged when I started second semester merely served to make me all the more sure that law was where I was headed.

The subject that I was enrolled to study in second semester was a course that I had actually been enrolled to take all the way back in 2004, but I had dropped it as I was trying to get as far and as fast away from Italian as possible, language and history wise. (There’s a story as to why, but that’s for another day.) It was run by a teacher who had an excellent reputation, both when I had been at the university previously and at the point in time I was enrolling. I decided it was time to go back to Italian. It was also the only course run by the department in second semester that was really appealing. So all the way back in February I made a decision that would actually change my life for the better.

I don’t know how classes run in the UK or in the US, but the way we do it at my university and in my faculty is that we take two 1 hr lectures and one 1 hr tutorial for most senior units of study within my degree. For the tutorial we have set readings which we discuss. The class is run by a tutor, usually a post graduate student in the department, if not by the lecturer themselves. The one I was scheduled to take wasn’t with that great a group of people, nor was the tutor all that impressive.

Because of a funeral I had to sing at and the fact that there was a guest lecturer for the second week, it wasn’t until week 3 that I got to listen to the mentor actually do his thang. He shares my penchant for really bad jokes and he is a passionate teacher of the variety that you very rarely meet. But it was one joke, and not even one that is worth repeating, that made me ask to swap tutorials and get into one of his classes. He agreed.

I’ll skip the next few bits and fast forward to the end of semester. I topped the course, I was nominated for a prize and the mentor is now my supervisor for my Honours year, which I was granted special permission to do after an application to which he loaned his considerable support (it helps that he is the Honours co-ordinator for the department in 2012).   

The bits in between include the fact that after my first tutorial run by him he wanted to know if I was going to do Honours or a PhD – after one tutorial, he reached out and implicitly told me I was talented. They include the fact that we both get our coffee from the same (cult) coffee shop on campus around the same time and he would sit and share his with me every Wednesday morning about an hour or so before our class and talk about anything and everything. They include the fact that he asked the right questions and I trusted him instinctively enough to be honest about my Bipolar very early on in the game, the first person in a position of authority that I told (and the only one to date). They include the fact that after he knew me to be suffering from an episode he was kind enough to follow up with me and make sure I was all right. They include the fact that he was as almost as excited as I was when the Honours application was approved and that I wanted to study with him for the year.

My friends are completely sick of hearing about this teacher and about the course I studied last semester. If you met him, you’d understand why I like him so much. And it’s here that I need to emphasise that it’s not ‘liking him’ in a romantic way at all. (I know that isn’t helped by the title of this blog post.) There probably is a large part of me that wishes he was my father and that’s embarrassing enough to admit. But it’s mostly because I want to be like him. He loves teaching so much and his writing is nothing short of incredible. And it’s rare that you meet someone who is so consistently, spontaneously kind. I have had good teachers, but this guy is something else. He is so obviously enthusiastic about the material at hand, and so clearly gives everything of himself to his classes and his students, that you want to meet the same standards of enthusiasm and scholarship. In the context of what we were studying last semester (violence) he characterised himself on more than one occasion as being a coward. The irony is that I have rarely met anyone who lives (and writes) as bravely. He’s the most palpably content person I think I have ever met and no one could deserve that happiness more.

I think most universities have a process by which you can commend teachers for good work and this is the case where I study. What follows is the anonymous commendation I submitted for him at the end of semester:

‘[The mentor] is, quite simply, the best teacher I have ever had. He is a wonderful storyteller, in his writing and in lectures, and he caters to both the highest and lowest common denominator in his teaching, no easy feat. He sincerely wants every student to do the best they can and does everything within his power to make that possible for each of them. Perhaps most importantly he understands that university can be difficult for many students, and his capacity for understanding and empathy make him not only a wonderful historian, but an incredible teacher. He is genuinely inspiring and I consider myself lucky to have his guidance and support.’

I meant and still mean every word of that.

I never expected to find a mentor but having one is pretty great. I’m not used to having people who support me unconditionally and are prepared to tell me so. I keep telling myself that if someone like him believes I am worth something, then I can’t be all bad. Perhaps this is why he means so much to me. But it’s also because, if I decide to pursue an academic career, he’s the teacher I hope to become someday. Mostly it is because he’s the person I most hope to be like in life. 


  1. I totally get this.

    Everywhere I have studied or worked, since high school, I have had one or two professor/teacher/mentor types that I just absolutely adore. We often fell into a father-daughter type relationship that was quite close, and there has usually been our own mutual-admiration society.

    I can't really explain the importance of these mentors to my success and general happiness and well-being. I love each of them to pieces. I've never had a woman mentor who fit quite the same role, and I don't really know what that is about. Except, perhaps, I am very close to my mom and my relationship with my dad has always been a bit rockier, and so I tend to gravitate toward male mentors to fill a void? I don't know. Just guessing. I'm a lawyer, not a psych major. :D

    1. I have had teachers before who really meant a great deal and helped me enormously (one of whom died just last week) but this is different. This guy has my back and I know he's in it for the long haul. He genuinely thinks I have a place in this world.

      I know he had a teacher like this for him that he models himself on. And the thing is the students love him, especially the girls. He'd be MORTIFIED if he realised this as he is one of the most happily married people I have ever met, something intriguing for me, as I have already talked about.

      Cheesy as it sounds, he came into my life when I really needed him.

      My specialist took 10 minutes to say he was like a father figure and she doesn't usually say psychy stuff like that to me. I almost rolled my eyes but she's absolutely right and I knew it was so myself.

      Previously the teachers with whom I have had things with have been women, but that's because my teachers have overwhelmingly been women.

    2. I get that. I worked closely with my old boss for nine years, and moving away was the hardest thing in the world because it meant leaving him behind. He came to our wedding, and he's really the best Dad/Mentor I ever had, and I admire and envy his relationships with his wife and his two adult daughters. They are very lucky to have him.

  2. I LOVE SILLY JOKES!!! (I had to say it)

    I'm so glad you found him :) Besides, I'm proud of you! And I don't know why but I've never pictured you studying law.
    I've never had that mentor thingo with teachers, I've only had several crushes... :P

    I have a close relationship with my parents and maybe that's the reason... I don't know.


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