What is your legacy going to be?

A recent New Yorker article on Barack Obama by Ryan Lizza focused on his legacy. I wondered how his legacy will go past the first-term glory of health care reform. Then I wondered how often we academics think about our legacies, or if that is even a useful thing to do. Our legacies lie in the brains of other people, in their minds and hearts. They are expressed when those other people do things differently, or have other opportunities, or even remember us fondly. Obama’s legacy more than anything will depend on what he does for us, better healthcare, fairer rules, fewer guns, possibly cleaner environment?

Would we be better, more caring, innovative, and organized teachers if we decided that inspiring our students is where our legacy lies? Would we work harder at communicating our science to the public if we thought about our legacies? Might we work more slowly yet creatively if research was going to be our legacy? Or should we just take it day by day, doing the best we can and let our legacy take care of itself? I don’t think that would be good advice for our president. The problem is that approach is too reactive, making for a hodge-podge. For a legacy, you need focus.

Oh, no, you’re thinking, she’s getting old, thinking about her legacy. But what is the point of thinking about it when you don’t have any more time to accomplish it? I think legacy is something that you should think about from your first day on the job. It may take awhile to define, years, even decades. But you should do this, for it will help you decide when to say yes and when to say no to things people ask you to do.

Thinking about your legacy may even get you that first job. One of our recent job candidates brought an ecology textbook to her talk. She held up the book and said that this book and other ecology textbooks lacked a chapter on mutualisms. Her goal was to put such chapters in every ecology textbook. Then she went on to say why mutualisms are important for ecology, specifying how her own research would help fill out that chapter. It was a brilliant technique and got her the job. What chapter are you going to add to the textbooks as part of your legacy? Focus. It isn’t going to be more than one, if that.

According to Lizza, Obama has said that the most important thing he can go after in a second term is climate change. I’d have to agree with that. The other point Lizza emphasized was from a speech in Prague in April 2009 where he mentioned the ideal of a nuclear-weapon free world. This is another great goal, not easily solvable even by a powerful president who will have to address all kinds of messy domestic issues as Americans bicker self-interest and blame. We can’t even give American-raised but not born children a break, but I digress.

Your legacy may not center around climate change and nuclear peace, but it is still important. Back at Rice I had an ambitious and organized undergraduate who was reputed to have an advisory group for her career, kind of like a private board of directors that she got together periodically. She’s still very young, less than 15 years out of college, but has really made an impact in some important ways at local and national levels. I’m not nearly that organized, or as focused on work, but maybe it would be a good idea if we all did this. After all, isn’t this what mentoring is about, helping people find their way, making wise choices?

We professors have a lot of areas we might have legacies in. We can be legendary teachers. Decades after he retired, former undergraduates came back to the Rice University biology department and reminisced about Joe Davies, one of the very first biology teachers, someone Julian Huxley brought in at the very start of the department. But unlike Julian, Joe stayed to inspire thousands of Houston biologists.

In fact, I think we should all be legendary teachers. Find some special way of really engaging your students, some trademark, and stick with it. It is a big secret that it does not have to take more time to be a great teacher than to be a terrible one. Just pay attention to what works at the beginning, read a little of the literature, take advantage of the workshops and find a style. One legendary physics professor at Rice University was legendary because the demonstrations he set up at the front of a huge lecture hall always misfired. The students were therefore transfixed, waiting to see what would fail this time. The story I remember involved a lesson on pendulums. He held the large metal ball right next to the side of his head and let it go, swinging on a very long rope. The point, of course, was that it wouldn’t be coming back any farther than it had started. But then he turned his face to watch the ball approach and got smashed. I guess he forgot his head is narrower between the ears than back to front. This is not the kind of teaching legacy I would recommend.

Well, I could go on and on about research, outreach and other kinds of legacies, but I think you get the idea. One thing about thinking about legacies of various kinds is that it encourages the altruist in all of us. No one’s legacy is based on how much he got paid, or on how many fancy restaurants she ate at. Legacies are about what we do for others. Looking back on what good one has done can be so satisfying. It may even be the ultimate satisfaction. I just hope that Joe Davies knew what an impact he had. I hope our own James McLeod, much loved Vice Chancellor for Students, could have imagined the grief his early passing left on the Wash U campus where he had such an impact on students and their lives.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is your legacy going to be?

  1. Karin Hurt says:

    Spending time really thinking about our legacy can lead to more innovation and inspired work.

  2. Nancy Dudek says:

    The NSF CAREER award is a program that forces new faculty to think about their legacy and get it down on paper. Everyone should take the time to plan their career and specific activities they will do to improve the lives of others.

    • Good point. I love reading CAREER applications for my younger colleagues. It might be fun to do something new every year, then once a year take stock of what worked and is worth continuing and what did not work.

  3. Pingback: How to rock the teaching demonstration | the PhD mommy

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