Friday, September 2, 2016

The Professor's Obligation

By the fall of 1975, I had completed the academic course work for my masters degree.   The thesis proposal had been approved and I had collected the data.  Subsequently, I moved to Connecticut for an internship in Psychology.  I would start my internship and write my thesis in Connecticut.  By November I sent my first draft to my major professor.  I knew she wasn’t happy with me.  She had recently divorced, had let me know she was angry at me for breaking up with my girlfriend before we left school and she was angry with men.  I was still shocked when I received her reply to my first draft.  Essentially it read like this:  “I received your paper.  I was extremely disappointed by the quality of the work.  I am now convinced that you will never be able to complete the research adequately and therefore you will not graduate.  The amount of effort that I would have to invest for this to become viable would be astronomical.  Therefore, I am quitting your committee and sending this letter to all the other faculty.”  
I was devastated.  For about three hours I felt hopeless.  Then I had the thought that this was my thesis not hers.  If I kept working on it and improving it, I would eventually graduate.  With hope renewed I wrote another professor that I respected and asked him to be my committee chair.  I sent along a copy of the paper.  
In response, Ray Wolfe, Ph.D., sent me a critique of my paper.  It contained a huge list of changes that had to be made.  I went to work.  I made the changes and sent it back to him.  My internship flew by with my sending revisions to him and Ray responding with recommendations.  
Three weeks after the internship ended, my mother was murdered.  It was a horrible time for me.  Mourning my mother dominated my life.  Over time, I again started working on the paper.  It took me 17 drafts before I was approved for my oral defense.  The defense of a thesis is an intimidating experience.  It is called a defense because it is the faculty’s job to attack the research.  I knew that I would face a hostile faculty.  Upon entering the room, I heard one professor say how this was going to be like “wolves descending on sheep.”  There were thousands of ways that my research could have been improved.  During those two hours I heard every one of them.  Eventually, it came to an end and I was asked to leave the room.  After their discussion, I walked with Ray back to his office and he told me that I had passed.  He had actually secured enough votes for me to pass before the defense.  He hadn’t told me, so that I would experience the full impact of defending my research.  He was right, I certainly felt it.    
As we set down in his office, he began to disclose his experience.  When he received the draft from me, with the request to be committee chair, he didn’t know what to think.  He had received the letter from my original committee chair.  He didn’t think the paper was that bad.  But when I changed the paper in response to his critique, he knew that I was being a student.  If I was capable of being a student, he had the obligation to be a professor.  
Then he told me an interesting story.  He told me that in the history of science there was only one major contribution that had not been the result of a student, working with a mentor and then going beyond.  Evidently, there was a nobleman in England who started studying physics.  He took some classes, but generally educated himself.  He eventually wrote a paper regarding Quantum theory and sent it to Oxford and Cambridge U.  It was so deep and complicated that none of the scholars that read it knew what to do with it.  Eventually, it reached Albert Einstein at Princeton.  He responded that this man had made the next contribution to understanding Quantum physics.  They should award him a doctoral degree.  

I have been blessed with great mentors throughout my career.  They have each contributed to my career as a psychologist and psychotherapist.  But I wanted to acknowledge Ray Wolfe and what he did for me.  My career could have been derailed back there in Geneseo had Ray not lived up to his obligation to be a professor to someone who was being a student.  

No comments:

Post a Comment