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Professors Are People, Too


By Douglas M. Pravda

I was sitting in one of the corner offices on the first floor of University Hall holding my reporter's notebook and taking notes. Across from me was Jeffrey Wolcowitz, the assistant dean for undergraduate education.

Wolcowitz, a jolly man who most students unfortunately know only as the vice chair of the Ad Board, was talking about his car--a two-seater red Mazda Miata convertible. "It's totally impractical as a car," he said, his eyes twinkling as if he'd rather be out dragracing along the Charles than cooped up dealing with administrative work. "But as a toy, I love it!"

My interview with Wolcowitz, which took place in the fall of 1995, was one of a number of great experiences I've had talking with professors since I began working on The Crimson's Faculty beat. After completing my comp in my first year, the managing editor asked me on what beat I wanted to work. Without a moment's hesitation, I said "Faculty." Harvard has perhaps the most famous Faculty in the world, and I wanted to take the opportunity while working at The Crimson to talk to some of the greatest minds around.

I've never regretted the choice. I stayed on the Faculty team for two years and led the team for another year. Along the way, I've eaten goldfish with Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, discussed civil liberties with Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, asked Warburg Professor of Economics emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith whom he thinks had the greatest impact on the 20th century (FDR '40), and talked with Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles '50 about his possible departure from Harvard.

And I've talked to Faculty members about more than just the reporting topics of the day. I've discussed with Wolcowitz his love of photography, traveling and convertibles. I've spoken with Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs John H. Coatsworth about his taste in movies, ballets and symphonies. I've reviewed Shakespeare scholar Stephen J. Greenblatt's family situation with him to figure out when he might accept Harvard's longstanding tenure offer. (He did this fall, after his youngest child graduated from high school). And I've conversed with Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Matthew S. Meselson about his place on the notorious Nixon "enemies" list.

Through all these interviews and conversations, I've found that professors here really do care about how students are doing and what their interests are. Most professors don't talk to students very often and, in the rare instances when they do, the conversations generally focus on academics. As a result, the professors are somewhat out of touch with student life at Harvard. But they make up for their lack of knowledge about student affairs with their genuine concern for students' well-being and with their interest in student opinions and research.

Meselson is a case in point. I dropped by his office in Dec. 1995 because he had been awarded a lifetime medal for his contributions to genetics as a result of his research on how DNA chains replicate. Those of you who have taken genetics or biology courses may have heard of the Meselson-Stahl model of DNA recombination, now a fixture in genetics textbooks.

I asked Meselson about his current research, and he explained that he was studying the question of why sex exists. He was examining a species of female pond dwellers, which live without sex and have no males, sperm or fertilization among their species. Since the species reproduces asexually, a daughter should inherit all her mother's genes. But Meselson found that the offspring differed from their parent genetically, and developed the idea of a silent mutation, a change in genes that has no effect on an organism. Thus, Meselson's findings cast doubt on the prevalent assumption that sex is essential to evolution. "There is no general agreement on why sex exists," he said. "It's a big mystery."

After talking about his own research for about half an hour, Meselson asked me about my own interests. I told him I was a junior majoring in government and was thinking about writing my thesis about the effects of the Internet on political participation. He asked me whether I thought there was any effect, and I started talking about the Christian Coalition, which was built up largely over the Internet. He asked if the Coalition had a home page on the World Wide Web, and I said I thought so, but hadn't actually looked at it. He motioned me to come over to his desk, and I sat down and watched him open Netscape Navigator and search Yahoo for the Christian Coalition. Together, we took a look at its home page and talked about how interesting it was.

Professors at Harvard are pretty amazing people whom I've enjoyed spending the last three and a half years getting to know. Having covered the Faculty for so long as a reporter, I feel qualified to offer one piece of advice: Get to know your professors. Drop by their office hours or talk to them after class. Ask them about their interests. Ask them about their family lives. Ask them about their research. And tell them about your own.

Too often I hear students saying that they don't go to professors' office hours because they are intimidated by the professors or don't have anything to say that is related to the class they are taking. Well it doesn't matter. Professors aren't one-dimensional academics who only care about the subjects they teach and the research they do. Professors are people, too. They go to see movies and plays. They drive convertibles and pick their mothers up at the airport. They eat goldfish and drink Corona with lime. Not only that, but they are interested in their students and their students lives. Sure, you'll have to make the effort to talk to them if you are interested in getting to know them. But if you make the first step, they'll take the second.

Douglas M. Pravda '97 was managing editor of The Crimson in 1996.

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