"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> In Memoriam: Deb Kim Emery

In Memoriam: Deb Kim Emery

Chris Hoadley

“It's amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” —variously attributed to Harry Truman, William James, and Ronald Reagan

“Let there be light,” is inscribed in the seal of UC Berkeley. I didn't know Deb during our common time there, but I vividly remember my first encounter with Cal. Simultaneously scruffy and stately, the university and the community positively teemed with big ideas and ideals, authority and rebellion, detachment and engagement. As an undergrad on the East Coast, I sought reassurance in the importance of knowledge as authority, and it wasn't until I got to Berkeley as a very young grad student that I was thrown in with those who thought ideas matter, not because they are elegant or refined or historic or elite, but because they could light a path of action, a way out of darkness, a way to change the world.

We have an idea of what sort of person changes the world. It's the swashbuckler, the hero, the genius. I'll confess I've aspired to be those things—somebody who matters, somebody people listen to. But what Deb taught me was that it's the listener who often knows the most. When we met at Stanford, we were both playing roles we weren't sure we were ready for. I was the newly minted PhD, in my first teaching position, an adjunct. Deb was the graduate student in charge of coordinating a brand new master's program and served informally as a TA. Initially, I think we were both afraid of disappointing the professor in charge of the program. But we quickly got to work, strategizing about what would be taught, how to architect the curriculum, and what role we would play with the students as they came through.

People who choose academia often try to prove they are smarter than anybody else. That never described Deb. She ignored status and visibility in exchange for listening well and helping get things done. Sometimes what students needed most, more than any piece of advice, was a sympathetic ear. Other times, they needed somebody to encourage them to grow or to contribute. We both grew in our respective roles, and Deb and I became confidants, worrying less about who we might please and more about what might work in the business of teaching.

Perhaps one of the strangest things about academia is that it turns smart people into stupid ones...the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to know. The illusion most of us had, through high school and maybe even through college, was that we could learn 90-100% of what was thrown our way. Getting tossed into the boundless ocean of scholarship leaves one realizing that the work to be done is vast, and that being authoritatively right is impossible. One possible reaction is to hunker down, pick a harbor near to shore, and to own it as if it was your own fiefdom; to fight to the top of the heap, and be the expert. Another possible reaction is despair—the number of people dropping out of grad school ABD is a testament to this. But the third possibility is to simply roll up your sleeves and start working on making a difference. The work is endless, but important, and laboring like a yeoman to cross the uncharted waters may not lead to fame and fortune the way arrogance and hubris do, but really it's the only effective course of action. Although I think in many ways Deb doubted her own contributions more than anybody around her, she didn't despair. She rolled up her sleeves and got to work—whether it was helping kids in a community center after college, or doing research in graduate school, or working to foster that Master's program, or leading others in her quiet way.

Another funny truth about scholarship is that the best scholars often say the least. The stereotype, and reward structures, assume that if you are successful you should be creating knowledge by writing the grand treatises that end up in libraries. By speaking, not listening. But writing torrents doesn't necessarily solve problems. Deb taught me the value of listening as a way to build knowledge. One well-placed question in a conversation, one well-elicited interview in an evaluation study, one perfect guest speaker in a class; the path to wisdom is not traveled by setting up soapboxes. Deb knew this, and the insight of her research and teaching showed it. Over time, Deb became more and more confidently humble—satisfied that she needn't be the center of attention or the loudest speaker in the room to get done what she cared about. And over time, her academic stature grew. I remember the last faculty meeting I participated in for that Master's program. Deb served as a conscience and a trusted voice. Especially in the status-conscious world of academia, the idea that a grad student was the expert in a faculty meeting sounds absurd. And yet, that's exactly what she was—her views not only permitted, but actively solicited, without any perceived threat to anyone else's authority.

When Deb graduated, we became coworkers at SRI (my 'day job'), and we shared the joy of each getting engaged around the same time and then planning our respective weddings. Later, I left SRI, and Deb moved back to Stanford, again in a role of supporting communities and finding big ideas that mattered for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the vulnerable people, especially children.

When we heard that Deb had been taken from us, a lot of people were devastated. Hundreds of students whose lives had been touched by Deb in that Master's program inquired, waited, and grieved. Before Deb had even left grad school she had the kind of impact on students’ lives that most faculty strive for their entire career. At the time, I spent a while rereading email correspondence with her. I hadn't fully appreciated before the degree to which she was single-handedly responsible for taking a program and turning it into a community that transcended the short four academic quarters that students spent at Stanford. She was always exhorting people to stay involved, and to do and be their best. The gap she left was similar to the gap I felt when my grandmother passed away; for years, our family had relied on her as a convener and touchstone, and it wasn't clear any of us were up to the task of caring for the family as a whole. In many ways I think those hundreds of students, and handful of faculty past and present, felt the same way. One of the last emails I received from her captures her philosophy perfectly. It was a 'staying in touch' email, but it barely talked about her own life, nor was it a typical list of other people's activities. Instead it urged people to stay connected, and to find ways to help the latest crop of students. She closed with, “Hope you are all relaxing and finding new places to learn, contribute and have fun.” That's exactly how she defined, and lived, success as an academic.

I miss you, Deb. I'll try to get back to learning, and contributing. But it won't be as much fun without you.

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Copyright © 2008 Christopher Hoadley. Last updated 7 July 2008.