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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Not being rude to people is a rare quality in academia!

Reading this passage from another blog will give you a good idea on the type of personalities you will have to deal with in academia. I think a story similar to the one below can be told by ANY graduate student. NOTE: "larger-than-life historian", "big name" usually means "known to a few hundred grad students and faculty members". Your local high school band may have a much larger fan base than one of those big names in academia.

John Hope was a "larger-than-life" historian. Many will laugh, but in the historical profession, John Hope was a rock star. He attended two of the same professional conferences that I regularly frequent--the Southern Historical Association and the American Historical Association. At annual meetings he was always mobbed. There would be throngs of historians coming up to say hello, a sort of "kiss-the ring" moment.

And John Hope always took the time to stop and talk to them. Always. Regardless of what he was doing, this famous person, famous historian, always took some time to give some words of encouragement to the newer generation of historians.

Not everyone is like that. I remember one conference when I was a graduate student. I had approached a historian--let's call hir Professor Doe--whose work I greatly admired. I walked up to hir and said "Ah, hello, Professor Doe. My name is AndrewMc, I'm a graduate student. I've read your [well-known book] and really enjoyed it. It's really shaped how I think about the subject."

Professor Doe looked at me as if I were a bug and said [with no small amount of scorn] "That's nice," and walked away. OK, whatever. Grad students can be a pain in the butt. Historians can have big egos. I didn't take it personally.

For John Hope, though, there was always time to speak to everyone. Around the time he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom I asked him about this. I said "You know, you can hardly make it across a room without getting mobbed. And yet you always take time to speak to everyone. How do you have the patience?"

Here was what he told me.

Decades ago, he was the second African American ever to enter graduate school at Harvard University. The first was WEB DuBois. One day John Hope was on campus--I believe it was the library--and he saw DuBois at a table, working. So he went over to speak to him. John Hope walked over (nervously, as he described it) to DuBois and said "Um, hello Mr. DuBois. My name is John Hope Franklin. You were the first black grad student at Harvard. I'm the second." He said that DuBois never looked up to acknowledge him, mumbled something, and then ignored him.

John Hope told me that at that moment he decided that he would never ignore anyone, especially grad students, who wanted or needed a moment of his time. And there were many conferences where I saw that vow in action. As I said, he was always mobbed, and always patient.

I thought that was a great story, and a great example of professionalism on the part of John Hope Franklin. Always take time to talk to people. Never let your ego get in the way of your encounters. My work in the professional is minor, and not well known. But John Hope's example is one that I hope I can always follow.

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