Huffington Post. Hacker News. LinkedIn…. There seems no shortage of internet information on the key phrase “death of a mentor”: about 44,200,000 results (0.43 seconds), as a matter of ephemeral fact. So much. So little. Too fast. Too facile.
There is an embarrassing narcissism that emerges upon learning of the death of a doctoral mentor such as a key dissertation committee member: a stab of utter abandonment one imagines a small child must feel when a parent leaves, a blurted, “But you can’t leave! I need you!” Perhaps the prolonged “developmental childhood” that doctoral dissertation work and academic research assistantships seem to require is hidden under visible intellectual productivity: another article, presentation, grant report, case study, or novel inquiry. (But we know in our hearts: we are intellectual imposters hoping no one–least of all our mentors–will find us out.)
We who entered our Ph.D. programs with optimism, fledged under national multi-year funding, and—eventually—graduated, had by then spent somewhere between one quarter or half of our (young-ish) adult lives with our dissertation committee members; most of whom we had worked under, for, and with since our earliest graduate research assistantships. They became our greatest—and most infuriating—advocates. We always knew they’d be there: letters of recommendation, conference meet-ups, chance-city lunches, FB, Twitter, blog posts, advising emails, multi-authored articles, and chapters. Invitations (to contribute, participate, meet) were honors, confirmation of relation: family.
Once graduated and in our communities of work, we may mature (somewhat) and begin to think of our mentor-professors in the way children think of their teachers: that they must live at the school, will be there when we go back, and they’ll always be there.
Until they are not.
As one author of one of the 44,2000,000 pieces put it:
“I am a grown-up admitting that the loss of a mentor at any stage of life is a great loss…the learning never ends.”
I believe my mentor, Prof. Del Harnisch, would agree: learning never ends.
But I wasn’t ready for this particular lesson, Del. Not yet.