Students often continue to collaborate with professors after earning their degrees. Sometimes, as in these four examples, those relationships move beyond collegial to true professional and personal friendships.
By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07, Christina Pillsbury, AB’13, and Amy Braverman Puma
Lauren Berlant received a call from a reporter asking about Kimberly Peirce, cowriter and director of the Academy Award–winning film Boys Don’t Cry (1999), shortly after the film was released. In several interviews, Peirce, AB’90, had said Berlant, her former feminist-theory professor, was a large part of why she went into film. Being remembered by a former student who went on to make such strides in her field, Berlant says, is “like being Michael Jordan’s basketball coach in high school.”
While in the College, Peirce had “absolute adoration” for Berlant, the George M. Pullman professor of English language and literature, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the College. Because feminist theory was a rare course subject in the late 1980s, Berlant’s class attracted students with no previous exposure to the topic. Now well known for her exploration of gender and sexuality in Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce says she didn’t understand its importance during the class: “Something was bubbling over that was way bigger than I realized at the time.”
Peirce’s respect for her teacher was not one-sided. Berlant noticed that Peirce was an “astonishing reader of film” who “could see things about storytelling, but also about visual intensity, that I had never seen a student be able to see,” Berlant said in an interview before a campus talk the two gave together this past October.
In class, Berlant showed Laura Kipnis’s film Marx: The Video, in which Kipnis compares eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia with Marx’s sexual appetite. Peirce “incited this riot in the class,” Berlant recalls, “because [they] were all really tired of women identifying with their eating disorders.” Her passion for the subject caught Berlant’s eye.
I felt like I finally found a home, in terms of my ideas.
Peirce had an “opinionated and slightly impatient” approach to theory, Berlant says. “But when it came to encountering art, she was astonishing in her eye for detail and narrative insight.” When Berlant suggested film school instead of a life of academia, Peirce says, it was “an amazing sense of permission from somebody that had authority and intellect and understood my desire.” With that push, she enrolled at Columbia University’s film school. Beyond Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce cowrote and directed the film Stop-Loss (2008) as well as a few small projects.
After Peirce gave several press interviews mentioning Berlant, the two reconnected, this time as friends. They talk frequently, often on Facebook, and see each other a few times every year. Their relationship, Peirce says, “runs the gamut; it’s both emotional and friendship, but it’s also really intellectual.” Berlant says they were lucky to stumble upon a situation “where people who saw a strength and a talent in each other at one time had a shot in creating a relationship with one another.” — Christina Pillsbury, AB’13
When School of Social Service Administration professor Dolores “Dodie” Norton suggested that her then research coordinator Karen Freel, AM’87, PhD’94, should apply for a fellowship to study infant mental health and development, Freel wasn’t so sure. “I said, ‘But Dodie, I don’t know anything about infants,’” Freel remembers. “Dodie said, ‘Well, you’ll learn.’”
Not only did Freel learn about children’s social and emotional health during her 1985–87 fellowship at Zero to Three, a DC-based nonprofit, but she also ended up switching her career path. Freel is now the vice president of research and evaluation for the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund, which operates programs to help children born into poverty.
Zero to Three — on whose board Norton has sat since 1984 — also shifted the career path of another of her students: Lorraine Kubicek, AM’80, PhD’92, whom Norton recommended for the 1987–89 fellowship class. Before working with Norton, Chicago’s Samuel Deutsch professor emerita, Kubicek had researched children’s cognitive development, without looking at social-emotional aspects. But infant mental health was always an interest of hers. At Zero to Three, Kubicek says, “I felt like I finally found a home, in terms of my ideas.” Now a clinical faculty member in the University of Colorado Denver’s psychiatry department, Kubicek is also involved with a Colorado infant mental-health organization, as is Freel in Illinois.
As the two women chat about the work they do now, Freel in her Ounce of Prevention office with Norton and Kubicek on speakerphone from Colorado, the mentor sits back and smiles, inserting a “that’s great,” every now and then. She first met the two in 1982, at the start of her longitudinal research project, The Children At Risk: The Infant and Child Development Project, studying children from families and neighborhoods considered high risk for delayed or stunted social and cognitive development from two days after birth to age 20. Kubicek’s role was to videotape the children just after birth in the hospital, and Freel went to their homes to record the same children months and then years afterward.
In Freel’s office, the women reminisce about their work together in the 1980s, laughing about the male student chauffeur — “preppy from the word go” — Norton hired to chaperone Freel as she videotaped families in the Robert Taylor Homes, or remembering the happy moment Kubicek, as Norton’s grad student, told her she was pregnant with her first daughter. Over the years the three have stayed in touch. Although Kubicek moved to Colorado, they see each other every year or two at the Zero to Three annual conference, grabbing dinner together or meeting for different sessions. Freel and Norton continued to collaborate, including planning a professional-development trip to Chicago for a set of Zero to Three fellows.
They got to know each other personally as well as professionally. “I got to know all about her sons, and I met her sons,” Freel says. She and Norton joined a walking group and attend the symphony together.
“It’s the same kind of warmth and meshing of personalities and views and interests as any friendship,” Norton says. The relationships changed from professional to personal as her students became successful in their own right. “It morphed into just friendship.” — Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, JD’73, whose careers have followed strikingly similar paths, have at least one divergence: how they interpret the law. Easterbrook bases his rulings on “concrete authority” from legal texts and history, what he calls a “textualist” approach. Posner uses a pragmatic interpretation, preferring “loose standards” such as negligence, he says, “as opposed to a rule that you can’t drive more than 50 miles an hour.”
In 30 years on the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals for Posner and 26 for Chief Judge Easterbrook, they’ve been so consistent in their opposing interpretations that “we’re a running experiment,” says Easterbrook. It’s no joke: legal scholar Daniel Farber used their rulings as data for a 2000 study on whether statutory interpretations matter. They don’t matter much, Farber found. In 800 cases Posner and Easterbrook heard together, the two voted differently only one percent of the time.
In Easterbrook’s chambers at Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Building this fall, where Star Wars and Star Trek collectibles, Supreme Court bobblehead dolls, and a large telescope stand out among the legal volumes, he and Posner (by speakerphone) discussed their long-standing relationship. Posner taught Easterbrook’s first-year torts class at the Law School. “He used the class as a test for economic theories,” says Easterbrook. Posner was at work on Economic Analysis of Law (1973), following up on UChicago Nobelists Ronald Coase and Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, to solidify law and economics as a field — applying economic theories of efficiency and incentives to law.
Posner recalls being a judge at Easterbrook’s first-year moot court argument. “I don’t remember students’ moot court arguments,” Posner says, “but that one I’ve remembered for the last 40-odd years.” The case, Williams v. Florida (1970), addressed whether states could use six-person juries in criminal prosecutions. Easterbrook read psychological research about group dynamics, arguing against groups of six because they’d reach more varied results than groups of 12. “He completely blew away his opponent,” Posner says, “and it was great.”
Frank Easterbrook completely blew away his opponent, and it was great.
After law school Easterbrook clerked for a year, as Posner had done a decade earlier after Harvard. Both men then worked in the solicitor general’s office and eventually became professors. Joining Chicago’s faculty in 1979, Easterbrook worked for a consulting firm Posner had helped to form called Lexecon. Before Posner joined the appellate court, the two collaborated on an antitrust casebook, Easterbrook says, “whose genesis is way back in the class taught by Edward Levi [U-High’28, PhB’32, JD’35] and Aaron Director, one of the first joinings of law and economics in the classroom.”
On the Seventh Circuit, the two discuss current cases and legal issues at lunch, before or after arguments, and at the Law School, where they remain senior lecturers. Easterbrook’s “encyclopedic knowledge” of science, the social sciences, financial issues, and legal doctrines and cases, Posner says, “is a special asset” in court, especially as the facts have become so complex in medical and financial cases, for example. Easterbrook appreciates Posner’s knowledge — he’s written dozens of books — and his critical judgment.
In addition to their judicial interpretations, they differ in their personal styles. Posner’s a slight man who speaks softly yet assuredly. Easterbrook’s towering stature and precise, booming tone are known to intimidate lawyers. And while Posner contributes frequent academic treatises to the blog he writes with economist Becker, Easterbrook is reticent about pontificating publicly. “I think it’s generally better for judges to say as little as possible in public that they haven’t had a good long time to think about,” he says. Posner counters that he generally doesn’t blog about legal issues. It’s another point, Easterbrook notes, on which they’ve agreed to disagree. — Amy Braverman Puma
As soon as Martha Alibali, AB’86, AM’91, PhD’94, started working in Susan Goldin-Meadow’s psychology lab as a College student, managing one of her grants, she no longer felt like just an undergraduate; she was a colleague. Around 13 years later her sister, Susan Wagner Cook, SB’00, PhD’06, also researched side by side with Goldin-Meadow. The women say Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml distinguished service professor in psychology, comparative human development, and the College, mentored them with such enthusiasm that they chose to study gesture, her specialty, in their own careers.
Both Alibali, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Cook, at the University of Iowa, say Goldin-Meadow shows respect for students and their ideas. “Susan cares a lot about the people around her. She values contribution at all levels,” Cook says. “And when you’re the lowest person on the totem pole, that’s really important.”
Cook, who studies how gesture influences learning and memory, says that if she presented Goldin-Meadow with an idea, credit was paid, “even nine meetings down the road, if something was brought up in a meeting, she would say ‘Oh, Susan, that’s exactly what you said.’”
For her dedication to her students, this summer Goldin-Meadow received the American Psychological Association’s Mentor Award in Developmental Psychology. In Alibali’s nomination letter, she cited Goldin-Meadow’s commitment to encouraging academic independence, teaching students how to think through research methods and how to define important work, and celebrating and promoting her students’ research.
Goldin-Meadow strives to cultivate passion in her students, and she pushes them to broaden their audience by presenting research clearly enough that “your grandmother can understand it.” During the American Psychological Association symposium, she says, she felt gratified that her former students “did indeed learn these things from being in my lab and now try to teach them to their own students.”
Alibali, who studies how gesture influences childhood learning and development, says Goldin-Meadow’s daily conduct reflected the lessons she passed on to her students. As a graduate student in Goldin-Meadow’s lab, Alibali called her mentor one evening in the midst of stress about a job application. Goldin-Meadow invited her over, coaching her through the application process. “She took everything pragmatically,” Alibali says. “And she handled it like she handles all stressful situations that arise in academic work — in a calm way.”
Now all three women conduct their own labs, teach their own students, and continue to collaborate. In 2010 Cook and Goldin-Meadow published “Gesture Makes Memories That Last” in the Journal of Memory and Language, and Alibali and Goldin-Meadow are at work on a review paper on gesture and learning. Because their programs are so similar, students often apply to all three; Alibali continues to mentor one student now at Chicago, where Goldin-Meadow advises him as well.
Goldin-Meadow has always treated the sisters as colleagues, but their kinship goes further, she says. “I feel like I’m a grandmother to their students.” — Christina Pillsbury, AB’13
Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine’s Jan–Feb/12 issue.