Jun 3, 2008

On Thanking a Mentor

Yesterday I attended a farewell event for Dr. Carol Bresnahan, a University of Toledo vice-provost who recently accepted a position as provost and executive vice president at The College of New Jersey. It was an awkward moment for me, as I struggled to find the words to thank in a two-minute conversation a person who helped me become a better scholar, and whose excellence in the classroom remains an inspiration to me years later.

How could I possibly capture in a brief exchange the many ways in which this accomplished professor encouraged me to develop my skills and navigate the paths of academia? I could not, and I thus decided to turn to a communication genre that gives me the time and depth to explore this topic: the mighty blog post.

I first met Dr. Bresnahan in one of my early semesters as a returning student, and it is only years later that I can appreciate her talents as an instructor in the course, historical methods. This undergraduate seminar teaches history majors the metaphorical nuts and bolts of history, and sharpens the research and writing skills that are necessary in the field.

I was at a point in my life where I was second-guessing my decision to return back to school, and wondering what the hell I was doing in classrooms with a bunch of people half of my then-mid-thirties age. In a conversation with Dr. Bresnahan that semester, she gave me some much-needed encouragement and advice that kept me going at a low point in my academic confidence.

Over the years I signed up for four additional courses with Dr. Bresnahan in subjects ranging from the Renaissance, the Reformation, European witchcraft, and early modern Florence. Dr. Bresnahan is one of those rare lecturers who approaches the classroom with the preparation and delivery of a stage performer, often constructing lectures with a thoughtful eye toward plot twists and well-crafted intellectual surprises. Even after taking so many courses with her, I found each lecture to be filled with useful insights and up-to-date research.

I also learned from her some useful lessons in classroom diplomacy and the importance of treating every student with respect. I recall a number of classroom discussions in which students uttered statements that might cause any thinking person to become flustered, such as a wild-eyed classmate who once ranted about what he believed to be the evils of Islam after 9/11, or the zealous students who sometimes overstepped the boundaries of decorum in a heated debate. Never once did I see Dr. Bresnahan lose her cool in such uncomfortable moments, and she always displayed that sort of detached confidence that allowed her to redirect a conversation back toward rational, respectful discourse.

I entered graduate school well-prepared for the rigors of the academic big leagues in no small part due to the influence of Dr. Bresnahan. I had racked up a number of academic and journalistic awards in the previous few years, yet one of the most important lessons I learned occurred early in my Master's program, when I deservedly received a less-than-satisfactory grade on an assignment from Dr. Bresnahan. In hindsight, this was her subtle way of pointing out that - despite some initial successes in my career change - I had a long way to go before I could consider myself a polished historian.

Dr. Bresnahan could have easily allowed me to turn in a paper that would have been passable - or even exemplary - work by an average graduate student, but instead she forced me to disdain academic coasting and to continually challenge myself. This, more than any other remembered encounter with Carol Bresnahan, was one of those pivotal life moments that also serves as a reminder that there are larger forces at work in our lives. I am convinced that - for me - Carol Bresnahan is one of those people that God puts in our lives for a specific purpose.

So I thank you, Dr. Bresnahan, for your tireless efforts to promote excellent scholarship and effective classroom teaching. Most of all: thanks to you for recognizing the academic potential in me that I could not see in myself, and for providing the right advice at the right time.


Anonymous said...

I took Dr. Bresnahan in the late 1990s for her witchcraft class. She was pretty tough, but fair, and I liked her lectures. Sad to see her go!

kooz said...

I remember when I was going to start at UT...the "advisor" said because of my grades in high school, he didn't think I was college material, "maybe you should go to Owens," he said. Well, after I graduated, I went to his office and thanked him for "inspiring me," Big jerk.

Robin said...

She sounds like the type of teacher that everyone hopes to get.

David said...

She was a fascinating scholar. I also had her in the witchcraft in the late 90s. She always seemed a much stronger scholar than most of the other folks in the department.

Anonymous said...


I don't know if I read lately how you are doing in the doctoral process?