Recently, two of my mentors passed away. Getzel Cohen and Rick Witschonke were both outstanding gentlemen and I’d like to share some of the lessons that their lives and success can teach us about teaching, scholarship, and lives in general:
- Be kind. Both Getzel and Rick were incredibly well respected and well liked. Part of this is their great kindness. They tended to not make enemies and were just all around good people. After all, we’re in this together–be it teaching students or furthering our knowledge of the ancient world. Why make our worlds hostile?
- Enjoy lunch with colleagues. They also liked to go out to lunch with visiting scholars. At the ANS, Rick often went to lunch with the summer seminar visiting scholar, and Getzel often went to lunch with the Tytus Fellows visiting the University of Cincinnati. This was part of how they made many friends and helped outsiders feel more welcome. One of my friends, who was a Tytus Fellow, was so happy to see Getzel cheerfully arriving for their regular lunches.
- Be generous, supportive, and mentor others. Both Getzel and Rick were generous with their time and their advice. They were both concerned with the state and future of their fields, and they supported their students. Getzel spontaneously offered me an abundance of advice during our conversations in his office, the library stacks, and the hallways. He happily checked on my dissertation progress whenever he saw me. During my first term of graduate school, Getzel’s comments on my first major paper were incredibly encouraging and supportive. During the summer seminar, Rick was there to offer advice on how to proceed with my die study, talk to about my ideas, and to check my work as I honed my skills. Rick also made sure that the summer seminar students understood all aspects of numismatics and the trade in ancient coins. Both men recognized that in order to train the next generation, we must treat them like people, support them, and give them the knowledge and the skills to be the scholars or teachers they want to be.
- The importance of digressions. During many of Getzel’s classes, he often said “Now don’t take notes on this” and then launch into a digression about the Revolutionary War, World War Two, his own childhood, or a scholar’s life or work. These digressions may have seemed odd and quirky at the time, but they were a way to help students develop connections between their world and the ancient world. They broke up class time so that you weren’t always furiously scribbling or typing notes. They were interesting digressions and drew you in. They were part of what made him such a powerful lecturer.
- On failing students. One of the ways Getzel was supportive was how he dealt with students who were failing. He always told his Teaching Assistants that if a student’s test was particularly bad, don’t outright fail the student but give them a 50% or a high enough bad grade that it might give them hope and encourage them to work harder than the 10% that they might actually have deserved. This grade inflation isn’t too bad if you remember that they may just fail anyways, but at least you were trying to help.
- Bibliographies are wonderful. Both men liked to share bibliographies of helpful and useful books and articles. Getzel, in particular, loved to share them so that our job as teachers, or researchers, would be easier in the future–we would know exactly where to look when we needed to teach or write about various topics. Getzel’s love of bibliographies was most apparent on the first day of a graduate seminar. He would distribute a bibliography and discuss the contribution and value of each book. While some students found this exercise a little tedious, it helped us understand the field better: who did what, who did what well, who responded to what works, what is the history of the scholarship on a problem (His lectures about the Athenian Tribute Lists spring to mind here). It was incredibly useful when we began working on our own research projects that term.
I’ve been saddened by the loss of both Getzel and Rick. They were great men who taught me a lot, and I hope I can better take many of their lessons to heart.