Sunday, November 2, 2008

Humbling the Professor

One of the things I love most about Wikipedia, blogs, and the like, is that it makes it easier for anyone to challenge "experts" such as university professors like myself. I love any story where an expert is proven wrong. Here is an interesting story I recently discovered.

Consider David Foster Wallace, one of the most popular writers in the twentieth century. Rolling Stone recently wrote a piece about Wallace, and his interactions with English professors at the University of Arizona. Wallace turned in a novel called Here and There, which the professor replied, "I hope this isn't representative of the work you're hoping to do for us. We'd hate to lose you." That novel was subsequently published and sold well.

The professors were not the only one mistaken. When he sent the novel to editors for consideration, many returned rejection letters which Wallace summed up as saying, "Best of luck in your janitorial career."

Even Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, by far the most important writing in history, was not recommended for publication by most of the editors. One editor just happened to take a chance on Darwin.

There are two lessons to these interesting anecdotes. First, if you have an idea you truly believe in, regardless of what others say, NEVER GIVE UP! Second, when teaching and advising students, remember that though you are are indeed something of an expert, you are indeed certain to be wrong at times. Students hate an arrogant professor, because they know the arrogance is not justified - and it isn't, not for anyone.

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