College commencement is the time, quite literally, for pomp and circumstance. And when professors shift to emeriti status, they’re typically recognized at the ceremony through formal citations that describe their scholarly accomplishments and service to the school.
But when Grinnell College’s Rachel Bly asked me to write the school’s emeritus citations, I wanted to take a different approach. At Grinnell, teaching is paramount. Professors electrify their classes with powerful ideas. And their impact lasts for a lifetime: many students carry their professors’ advice with them into their careers and lives.
In the past, Grinnell’s citations highlighted professors’ scholarly work over teaching successes, but I wanted to flip that emphasis. Why not showcase the work that professors say they were most proud of?
To learn as much as I could, I collected more than 70 stories from alumni, who shared their memorable moments, favorite sayings, and remarkable lessons from these professors.
I used these stories, along with CVs and phone conversations with the professors themselves, to craft short citations that captured these professors’ dedication to their students, the enthusiasm they shared in the classroom, and the high standards they demanded that their students meet. Through these stories, I hoped to share the profound influence they had on generations of Grinnellians.
The citations were a success, and Bly says she was relieved to have someone else focusing on the details. “[I knew the project was] in such good hands,” she says. “I love that I can just send you everything and I don’t have to give it another thought. I know they will be perfect!”
But that’s not where this story ends. Because I could use just a tiny number of the anecdotes I collected, I spent hours compiling, editing, and organizing the stories that alumni offered, and I shared them directly with the professors themselves. Though this was not part of the assignment, it became clear to me that the professors should know the kind of impact they had had during their decades at the school.
Professors were grateful, even overwhelmed. Said one professor: “Congratulations. I have managed NOT to cry about retiring … until this morning. You were so kind to take the time to put together these documents for all of us.”
For Grinnell, the nominal goal was to have written citations for a ceremony. But I understood that the real goal was to recognize and honor the incredible careers of longtime professors. That meant crafting citations that highlighted their best work. And it also meant using the materials I had collected in a way that would recognize them in a different and more personal way.
Many times, the traditional approach to a project is the right one. But whenever possible, I also want to improve on what’s already been done. I want to think more broadly about the best way to tell a story, and the best way to accomplish the larger goal.
Read the citations here. And to find out how I can help you think bigger about your projects by contacting me at erinspeterson [at] gmail.com.