IWD Essay by John Mock
International Women’s Day Essay
-A late submission by John Mock-
The question of which woman has had an enormous influence on my life is a difficult one for several reasons, primarily because there have been so many. From my third-grade teacher who encouraged me to write (not necessarily well) to a sixth-grade teacher whose name I still remember 60 plus years later, there are a host of women who have influenced me.
I think if I had to pick one, particularly since I ended up being a university professor, I think I would have to pick Marjorie Gesner (1910 – 1994), a historian who specialized in early British history. I pick Professor Gesner not really because of her specialty but because of two characteristics of her professional approach to university teaching that I have sought to emulate. The first was a rather overwhelming teaching personality. Professor Gesner, when I knew her (mid-1960’s) was in her mid-50’s and probably somewhere near her peak as a university lecturer. I remember her coming into the classroom (I think my first course with her was History of Tudor and Stuart England) already lecturing. She would continue talking, succinctly and coherently, while she dumped a pile of books and papers on the lectern and turned to the class. She would continue for the entire period at full speed, giving quotes (with complete citations) as she talked with almost no notes.
One was encouraged, at one level, to ask questions but you better have your question well framed and ready to be refined. In a class of 75 or so students, usually only the brave (or the totally insensitive) would actually venture a question, the brave usually met with a really brilliant response. At the end of the period, Professor Gesner would sweep out of the classroom, usually still adding footnotes to her lecture. I remember writing frantically to try to get sufficient notes. I could not ever get everything she said but I did learn to take sufficient notes that I could later (usually immediately after class) spend some time expanding them. She also taught me to always read the required material before class because the consequences of being unprepared were at least a total lack of comprehension, and at worst public humiliation if she singled you out with a penetrating question to which you had no reasonable response.
"So, the first characteristic I have tried to emulate, albeit in my own way, is her dynamic approach to university teaching."
Professor Gesner was also an equal-opportunity professor. She treated all students fairly and equally. Previous achievements meant very little to her (like one’s GPA), you had to demonstrate proficiency in her class. Her examinations (extended essays with pertinent geography embedded in the questions) were extremely thorough and demanding. Getting a “B” in a Gesner class was considered something of a mark of superiority, an “A” really meant some form of excellence. As this was in the days before substantial grade inflation, even a “C” meant something positive (and there were quite a lot of lower grades).
So, the first characteristic I have tried to emulate, albeit in my own way, is her dynamic approach to university teaching. The dry, droning of mundane material to bored students is, again to my mind, simply boring to both the students and the professor. I try to put sufficient energy into my classes to make them sparkle a bit. I also think, quite strongly, that university is not high school and it should not be easy or, in some cases, even pleasant. Being pushed out of one’s comfort zone is not necessarily a bad thing.
The second characteristic is somewhat related. My college experience had some serious ups and downs. I went to Michigan State University because a) they actively recruited me because I was a national merit finalist, b) neither of my older brothers (MIT and Duke undergraduates, Colombia and Harvard graduate schools) were anywhere near the Midwest and c) it was a rather substantial distance from where I want to high school (Winston-Salem, NC) where my parents lived. I started out as a chemistry/biochemistry double major (I was able to skip freshman chemistry and math) which lasted into the first quarter (old quarter system) of my second year when I pretty much crashed and burned. I then switched, first to classical languages (Greek and Latin), then to early British history (enter Marjorie Gesner) and finally ended up with a degree with an emphasis on African history. In the winter and spring quarters of my second year, I took a variety of classes including a class, each quarter, from Professor Gesner. In the fall of my third year, I noticed in the rather massive MSU schedule, that a Professor Gesner was giving a graduate seminar in early British history (I do not remember the specific title) and, with almost no consideration of the consequences, decided to ask permission to take the graduate seminar.
As what was probably a pure fluke, it turns out there were only five graduate students signed up for the class and Professor Gesner allowed me into the class. Since then, I have thought that perhaps MSU, like other institutions I have taught at since then, required a minimum number of students to “make” a class and if I had not enrolled, the class might have been dropped. In the event, I enrolled in the class and immediately found myself in a situation far beyond my capacity to function adequately. The other students in the class, one Ph.D. candidate and four Master’s candidates, were all a) well prepared (all Gesner graduate students) and b) all ferocious workers. I was far outclassed from the beginning and essentially struggled just to maintain my head above water. It was a spectacular class. I ended up with a “B” (still not sure if she did not fudge things in my favor) and a wealth of knowledge and insight into history that I simply could not otherwise have acquired, particularly at that level.
"Professor Gesner has provided me with an enormously important role model in two completely different areas"
This led me to change, almost completely, my strategy as an undergraduate. I had never had much of a concern about my GPA and I had a very supportive, if not wealthy, family so the risks—as long as I maintained “reasonable progress toward graduation” in four years, a function of the Vietnam era draft—were acceptable. My strategy was to try to get into at least one graduate seminar every quarter and where possible, avoid large classes for individual reading classes. I was not always successful but I did participate in several graduate seminars and several individual reading courses with various faculty. When I was going to graduate, the future options were, at that time, very limited. I could allow myself to be drafted into the US military (with the risk of being sent to Vietnam, this was 1967), I could leave the USA, possibly to Canada or Sweden, I could go to jail (for avoiding the draft) or I could go to graduate school (exemptions were still possible). Not too surprisingly, I decided to try graduate school while I applied for Conscientious Objector status (1-O) with the draft which would have meant alternative service for a couple of years rather than the military.
Because of Marjorie Gesner, it never occurred to me that graduate school would be overwhelmingly difficult. After all, I had already taken several graduate seminars and done adequately (if not elegantly). It also did not occur to me that applying to graduate school in a field where I had no undergraduate work was a risk. I had already jumped from chemistry to history, how hard could another switch be? So, I applied to six different graduate schools in three different fields, African history, Celtic Studies and Anthropology. I got accepted to three schools (one each) and ended up choosing anthropology because of money. During my first year of graduate school, I switched from an emphasis on Southern Africa to East Asia, again without really thinking out the consequences but enjoying it thoroughly.
"I saw her just by chance on campus and she stopped me, actually remembered me, and asked what I was doing."
Professor Gesner has provided me with an enormously important role model in two completely different areas: teaching strategy and presence and life-time strategy. These can both be wrapped up into an educational philosophy that involves relatively high stress/high reward strategies.
I should close by pointing out that Professor Gesner is in no way responsible for my rather “black sheep” career. I have only had tenure once (and was forced to retire almost immediately thereafter) and I have never had a “permanent” position in any sense of the term. I have taught at about a dozen different institutions, mainly in Japan and the US, which is considered relatively unsuccessful in terms of academic careers but seems to have fit me quite well. I never planned to end up in Japan on an extended, much less permanent basis, but that seems to have been what I have managed to do and I am pretty happy about it. I am delighted that I can continue to teach and muck around with research and I very much appreciate Temple University Japan for giving me the opportunity to do so.
I want to close with an anecdote of the last time I saw Professor Gesner. This was about 10 years after I had taken any of her classes, I had done my field work for my Ph.D. in anthropology and was in the endless process of trying to grind out a dissertation. I saw her just by chance on campus and she stopped me, actually remembered me, and asked what I was doing. I told her I was struggling with a Ph.D. dissertation on the social history of a neighborhood in Sapporo, Japan. She asked me a couple of questions about oral history (which is what I was doing), then allowed, “not bad”. She also asked if I had finally learned to spell properly (this is pre-spellcheck).