remembering devah pager: the mark of a mentor

Last November, sociologist Devah Pager passed away. At the Eastern Sociological Society meetings this past weekend, a group of her former students, colleagues, and mentors came together to celebrate her life and her work. These comments, by Michelle Phelps, were delivered as part of the event, which was organized by Jessica Simes, and also featured Robert Hauser and Bruce Western as speakers and Monica Bell as moderator.

We encourage you to contribute your own reflections in the comments.

 

The Mark of a Mentor

First, I want thank our panel organizer, Jessica Simes, and all of you in the audience for joining us today. It is a privilege to speak here, especially in Boston, about Devah–and an intimidating privilege to have such company up here.

Six years ago, when I left grad school and started my job at the University of Minnesota, one of the first decisions I had to make was what furniture I wanted in my office and in what layout. Did I want a couch? More filing cabinets? A standing desk? The furniture would be used, of course (this was a state school, not Princeton anymore), but I could have nearly any configuration that would fit in the office. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I agonized about these choices. I drew diagrams of the to-scale office with various configurations. I thought about my new life and what I wanted in it (couch, definitely a couch). I got it just so. When you walk into my office, there’s bookshelves on the left and a couch in the back corner. In front of you are two desks in an “L” shape so that there’s an obvious place for students to sit and chat, and an obvious space for me to work on the computer.

So I go into the office on my first day on campus, and all the furniture is set up as described. And I realize all of a sudden that I had exactly replicated Devah’s office layout at Princeton. The office was smaller and the colors were different (purple and black, not white and red), but there it was. And as I stood there staring at what I’d done, I remembered a conversation I’d had early on in grad school with Devah about why she set up her office that way. The key is to have an obvious place for visitors to sit and to block easy access to the couch.

I think remembering Devah will be like this. She so profoundly influenced the ways I think about sociology and organize my professional life–in ways big and small–and in ways that might not always be apparent at first.

People often ask my what it was like to work with Devah. There’s always a slight trembling in their voice when they ask the question, treating her even before her death with reverence. I never know how to answer it. How do you summarize someone like Devah? And how do you boil down a decade of mentorship into small talk? Sometimes I think too that we all have such unique relationships with our advisors/advisees–you can’t summarize someone as a mentor, but rather, how they were as your mentor.

Despite these reservations, here’s how I typically describe Devah as a mentor: Indefatigable. Intimidating. A beaming presence. And brilliant. Many here today will talk about Devah’s brilliance, both figuratively–sometimes it felt like she was a lap ahead of the rest of us–and literally–she was just so alive. She was also incredibly warm and a champion of her students and colleagues. I can’t recall how many meetings we had, how many times she helped me navigate academia and its unspoken rules, how many stupid questions I asked.

I can tell you how many archived emails I have from Devah: 1,132–and that doesn’t count the hundreds of deleted messages. It’s a number that is both overwhelming and insufficient to describe our relationship.

Yet behind that gleaming smile, and continual cheerleading, was an insistence that I do my best possible work. Devah had high standards! She thought her students could do exceptional work. And she believed in a vision of sociology as transformational for society–a perception bolstered by the tremendous impact of her own research.

When I was in grad school, Devah was a nocturnal creature. If I sent her a paper at 10pm, she could have comments back to me by 4am. And they would be in-depth critical feedback on everything from big-picture concerns about the analysis to line edits. She constantly used the phrase “MTV generation” to push me to get to the point quicker for readers who had a “short attention span.” And she taught me the difference between “compliment” and “complement.”

My first research paper, Devah probably read 10 times, helping me to cut and hone the text from a stream of consciousness account of everything about the data I’d ever thought to a digestible empirical contribution. She would go to talks or read papers and send me thoughts about what kind of analysis I should run for my dissertation that week. When I moved to Michigan in year four of grad school, people worried if I would drop off my advisor’s radar. I just laughed. Not possible with Devah.

Devah was particularly committed to empirical evidence and solving social puzzles through data. When I wanted to ask questions about policy discourses or the perceptions of bureaucrats, she would push me to ask how these discourses translated into actual practices, something that became a hallmark of my own research.

This kind of intense focus continued well past my Ph.D. In fact, one of our last substantive conversations perfectly encapsulates this brand of “tough” Devah love. I sent her a draft of a paper that had just been accepted for publication. She wrote me back the next day to tell me the paper was “meaty and important” but that I’d obscured the good analysis with “mumbo jumbo” of “theory/jargon.” In characteristic Devah fashion, she ended this statement with a winky smiling emoticon to convey what I’m sure was her beaming smile, which made even the most critical of feedback feel like it came with love.

The other thing you have to know about Devah is that she did all this while remaining bizarrely humble and curious about the world. If you had read a new book, or gone to a talk, or really anything at all, Devah wanted to know what you had learned. She saw her students as sources of wisdom even as we struggled to learn how to do sociological research and writing. In my first week at Princeton, she dropped a casual aside that she often felt like an imposter. I had two reactions: 1) Shit. 2) If Devah had imposter syndrome, there was hope for us all.

Right as I was finishing up my Ph.D., Devah had her son, Atticus. She came to my dissertation defense, I think, while still on her maternity leave. While I was still two years away from having my first kid, seeing Devah embark on that new adventure helped to remind me that people can have multiple passions–even at the same time. After I had my first, and then second, baby, Devah was always there to “like” their photos on facebook and would gush about them whenever we spoke by email or phone.

After her diagnosis, Devah faced the future as resolutely and energetically as only she could. She travelled. She loved up on her family. She cheered on her students near and far. And she started some major new research projects–projects she believed could make a real difference in people’s lives. I saw her at ASA in Montreal two summers ago and as she beamed at me in the sun, she told me that while for some people, a terminal diagnosis made them reconsider all their life choices, for her it only made her lean into her prior life with renewed strength.

After getting the news of Devah’s prognosis, I reached out to Devah’s former and current students to create a photobook for her. The idea was to thank her while we still could–and before we had to write eulogies like this one. And it was also to provide an easy compendium for her of defense pictures and her students’ adorable kids, nieces and nephews, wedding photos, and more. And it won’t surprise you to hear that each page was filled with effusions of gratitude for Devah’s mentorship. And cats, a lot of cats.

I have one last story about Devah. It’s my very first memory of her. I was an undergraduate at the time and was submitting an application to go to graduate school at Princeton Sociology. Like so many other students, I was given the advice to reach out to potential mentors. Obviously I had heard about Devah’s work and was excited about the prospect of studying with her at Princeton. So I emailed Devah and asked to chat about the program. As I recall it, she was effusive, but politely and firmly rejected me, telling me that it was better to wait until you knew which programs you were accepted into to start chatting with faculty. It’s great advice, and one I routinely give to my undergraduates and students who reach out to me about Minnesota’s Ph.D. program. This story always felt to me a fitting introduction to Devah–the warmest critical feedback you’ll ever receive.

I tell this story periodically, but there’s one problem. It’s not true. I searched those 1,132 archived emails when trying to figure out what to say today. And this is in fact the very first email correspondence between us. I’m going to read from the emails, if you’ll indulge me.

I start — “Hello Ms. Pager” [Ooof–if any undergraduates are reading this, please don’t address professors with “Ms.”] I then describe myself in some detail and continue “If you have any time to chat in the near future, I would love to talk with you over the phone or via email about your work and the Sociology program in general.” Answering these kinds of vague (and performative) questions is, of course, what every faculty person wants to do with their time.

Devah’s reply: “I can tell you in complete honesty that I think Princeton has one of the best graduate training programs in the country. I am on leave this year so I will have nothing to do with the admissions process. But I do hope your application will be successful. I’d be thrilled to work with you. If there’s specific information you want in preparing your application, feel free to email or call.”

True story: I forwarded the email to my mom. [Sidebar: My mom is also the reason I’m here today. When Jessica invited me, I hemmed and hawed about the travel logistics. My mom happened to call and I told her I was thinking about it and without a moment’s hesitation, she yelled, “Of youse, you’re going. You have to. For Devah.” So I said yes. #millennials.]

Of course, I made it worse. I emailed Devah back and asked just generally if she wanted to tell me “what kind of research you see yourself doing in the next few years?” and also if “there anyone else in the department who does this kind of work that you think I should reach out to?”

Devah, true to form, wrote back a full paragraph on her research trajectory (which of course she completed in short order) PLUS a generous paragraph on all of her wonderful colleagues at Princeton at the time, including Bruce, and how terrific they were as mentors. She then told me, with great tact “I might recommend, though, that you wait until after the application process to get in touch with additional faculty, unless talking with them directly will have a big impact on your personal statement or other application materials.” So, Bruce, that’s why I don’t have an embarrassing email in my archives addressed to “Mr. Western.”

So, as you can see, it was quite the rejection. These kinds of stories haunt me a bit as an advisor–such small comments we make offhand can have profound impacts on students, who are sometimes reading into every word and gesture to evaluate whether they (we) are good enough to be here, to do this work. Devah was the rare mentor who could convince you that you were good enough–you were a rock star, in fact–but you better bring your best shit to the table.

If you’ll allow me to end on a saccharine note, I want to wrap up by thinking about my opening story about the office. I know that I take Devah forward in my work everyday. She is in my mind, shouting for me to “find the puzzle!” and “write for the MTV generation!” She’s also there cheering me on as I juggle academia and parenthood. And she’s there as I work to give my students the same intellectual rigor, passion, knowledge, and time she gave to me. If we multiply that by all of the students whose lives Devah touched, all of her colleagues, the legions of rightfully adoring fans, and the love of her family and friends, it is an incredible legacy.

Michelle Phelps is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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