Bill Durham, PhD ‘77

A Tribute to John Vandermeer

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I’d like to offer a simple tribute called, “Lessons I learned from John.” There’s an academic/ professorial slant to these lessons, I grant you. But even if you are not an academic, I hope you will recognize John here, and find some value in this list.

Lesson #1: Master the basics in your chosen intellectual field, so that no one can say that your science is “weak” or that you are “not a scientist.” Degrees and letters after you name mean very little, honestly: you really must know the basics inside and out. The basics include definitions, key theoretical principles, classic studies by others in the area, and certainly John would advise you to know the pertinent equations!

#2: Think through the social implications of what you do. As you focus in on what you care about and what excites you, consider its social, political and economic implications. Ask yourself, how can this topic or research build a better world? How can it help to change the status quo on race, gender, class, and inequality? How can it help the poor and marginalized? How does it promote social justice?

#3: Be really good at what you do, but don’t do it alone. If you are really good at what you do, people will give you more latitude, more slack. At the same time, always remember that you need friends and allies… No matter how well you start out, you can’t get very far alone. You will always need allies and friends to make things happen.

#4: Put effort into your community. Find one to join or build your own. Saving the world alone never works. In your community, take time to listen: remember that listening is an act of love. Give and take criticism as a way of showing that you care. Work against being an “uptight professional” (one of John’s favorite expressions back when): cultivate ways of having fun, letting loose, being wacky. Drinking a beer never hurts.

#5: Make sure you do some fieldwork every year. No hiding in the ivory tower: get your boots dirty at least once a year! The real test of theory is not in seminars and classrooms; it’s out in the world. Fieldwork doesn’t have to be a long and complicated, but do include students and friends in what you are doing. Fieldwork is life’s best classroom.

#6: Live and work in the field with local and indigenous people. You’ve already heard enough from elites and powerful people. Walk and talk with humble folks when you do your fieldwork. Practice “participant observation” and show that you are humble too. Eat grungy chicken and drink local ponche. Hang out in the pulperia. Make it reciprocal: Invite people to ask you questions, too. And above all, respect their local wisdom and “funds of knowledge:” you’ll be amazed at how much they know!

#7: Coevolve your science and your politics in a mindful way. This is a favorite thing I learned from John. Join organizations or start organizations that share your vision. When you go public in criticism or disagreement with others, make sure you are not alone. Meanwhile, be you own toughest critic: make it hard for your enemies to strike back. Anticipate their counter-critique and know in advance how you will respond.

#8: Teaching is fun: get past any fear you may have. Know the material well enough so you can relax and enjoy it. Work it without notes! Never ever read your lectures, it kills them. Set a high standard – ask a decent, fair amount from your class. And then listen to what students say – their feedback will help you improve. Don’t be afraid to socialize with your students: have a coffee, drink a beer, sit on the floor with them.

#9: Encourage your students, when ready, to do their own thing. Do your best to get students going: teach them the ropes, give them the background and tools they’ll need, and then let ‘em do their thing. Support their creativity honestly and candidly: tell them if & when you disagree, even though it may be difficult. John has always been really good about saying, “Well, Bill, that’s a great idea, but here’s something else to think about…” Above all, encourage independent thinking.

#10: Don’t worry about perfection. It’s an imperfect world anyway. Do the best you can with reasonable effort, and then don’t fret. Move on, let it be. If you do need help, ask for it. Allow others to help you just as you help them. It’s all part of being in your community.

These are 10 lessons I learned from John that have been so very helpful to me. Please add what you, too, learned from John to this list. I hope you’ll join me in saying…