OPINION: The educational guild

Faculty Columnist

On the Wednesday before spring break, my dissertation adviser turned 80, an occasion I marked by sending him a card and a couple of recent articles. That Friday, I flew to Oregon to deliver a paper at an annual conference that he and his wife, another great teacher of mine, always attend. But because he’d been ill for some months, this year she went on her own. And we did what we’ve always done, but without him: We gave our talks (mine was on the attempts by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure to uncover anagrams in Vedic poetry), went to our colleagues’ talks, talked about the talks and about our colleagues and enjoyed ourselves over food and wine. Since he seemed to be getting better, our mood was cheerful, and I departed on Monday morning optimistic that the three of us would be getting together again soon.

Two days later, that next Wednesday morning, he died.

No one needs me to explain that, thanks to nature and nurture, all of us inherit and take on traits, good and bad, from our parents. But there are academic parents, too, and their influence, which can naturally have a profound effect on any student, is typically of particular importance to those of us who choose to follow seriously in their intellectual footsteps and join the educational guild ourselves.

I was astonishingly fortunate in my teachers, both in college and in graduate school, and it would be wrong of me to name any one of them as my most important influence: I study what I study, teach what I teach and in many ways am what I am because I am a mutt, the son of all of them. Nevertheless, when one’s Doktorvater — that wonderful German word for Ph.D. supervisor, literally “doctor-father” — is the single most prominent scholar in the field, and when that scholar is also a deeply kind person who has no truck with hierarchy, it would be wrong to downplay the extraordinary role he has had in shaping one’s career. And that’s the case with me: My Doktorvater was Calvert Watkins, the leading historical and comparative linguist and Indo-Europeanist of our times — and, my word, he would be having a jolly time right now seeing just how much trouble I am having getting the tenses right. Which is, of course, one of the smaller problems one can expect to have when dealing with the newly deceased.

Having parents as simultaneously distinguished and loving as Calvert and his wife Stephanie Jamison — the latter first taught me, brilliantly, when I was a college freshman and would go on to be a member of my dissertation committee — is as terrifying as it is wonderful. On the one hand, instruction from and letters of recommendation by the best of the best do have a way of increasing both one’s knowledge and, to put it crassly, one’s marketability. On the other hand, though, most of my siblings and I — Calvert and Stephanie’s children — have long had to come to terms with the fact that we will never have what they have: genius.

But it isn’t because of his brilliance that I loved Calvert. I loved him because he had a fantastic sense of humor, because he was the consummate host, because he had a thing about black-eyed peas, because he introduced me to Myers’s Rum with a splash of tonic and a wedge of lime, because he devoured mysteries, because he wasn’t pretentious and yet wore a pocket watch and because he really and truly couldn’t understand how anyone could claim to be educated without being able to read cuneiform. During my years as a graduate student, few days passed when I didn’t have at least one formal or informal class with him, few days when we didn’t have at least one informal meal or drink together. In and out of the classroom, day after day, he taught simply by being himself.

One of my main interests is intellectual history: who influenced whom, who learned what from whom. On the Monday right after spring break, I was scheduled to give a lecture on the history of linguistic thought in the 300-level TRA course “Imagined Languages” that I am co-teaching with Michael Gordin. The announced topic was “Plato, Saussure, Chomsky, and Others.” The day before, I inserted a photograph of Calvert into my presentation right after one of Saussure, who was the greatest linguist of his age — he died a century ago, in February 1913 — and the teacher of the greatest teacher of one of Calvert’s greatest teachers. The pursuit and advancement of knowledge is a traditional craft, in some ways not unlike blacksmithing and the production of stained glass, and giving a lecture of this kind is a neat way of demonstrating to students that they are part of a tradition. As for me, it was a bittersweet way to salute my dear mentor and friend.

Joshua Katz is a professor in the Department of Classics. He can be reached at jtkatz@princeton.edu.

6 thoughts on “OPINION: The educational guild

  1. Pingback: Today’s Paper: Apr. 3, 2013 | The Daily Princetonian

  2. Amazing! My favorite Cal story: on a day when not even my parents remembered my birthday, he remembered, and (atque) took me out for sandwiches and drinks. He was so great. And a walking /arx/ of Harvard history. And (and, and, and) a genius.

  3. Charles de Lamberterie
    Merci à Josh de cette belle évocation de Cal. Pour moi, Cal était un grand ami et un mentor. Il est aussi le maître que j’aurais aimé avoir.

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