This past Saturday, I hooded my first doctoral student, K. It was an occasion for happy reflection. Like when K came to my office many years ago, planted herself in the chair facing me, put one arm on my desk, leaned forward, and said matter-of-factly, "I want you to direct my dissertation." I was still quite new to faculty life, and I wasn't even sure if directing was something I was supposed to do, but she didn't let me protest; instead, she listed for me the reasons we were a good match. And we were.
Having been a secondary teacher before coming to graduate school, K was the kind of person who knew what she wanted, so there were many, many moments when I felt like she was training me rather than the other way around. We had our share of disagreements, but they were just disagreements, never arguments, never bitter fights. And she coaxed me to her side just as much as she capitulated to mine. She let me be tough on her, and by maintaining the frankness with which our advising relationship began, she taught me how to let someone find their way while still providing strictures. Her maturity (and my year away) kept me from becoming a helicopter mentor. She also spoiled me just a little because she is fantastic with deadlines, not something that all graduate students--or many academics for that matter--observe. She even gave birth during it all, but still didn't slow down, learning to focus and write during her son's naps, which is really amazing if you think about it.
And K can write. Oh, can she write. But even more than that, she can revise. She would internalize feedback from her writing group, from me, from her other advisor (who is also a hugely important mentor for me), sort through what she wanted to do and what needed to be done, and she would work steadily and regularly, through frustrations and breakthroughs, through to good drafts, and finally to damn good final versions. K thinks about writing as a craft, and she knows that a craft takes regular and protracted contact with that which is being crafted.
So she returned this weekend, at the end of her first year in her fabulous new job, along with her hubby and her friends A and J, who also returned from their fabulous new jobs, and whose dissertation committees I had the privilege of working on. Having them all back here, smiling in their regalia on the quad, mixing news from their new jobs (and new grants!) with sweet nostalgia for their grad school town, brought to light yet another way that this job can be, really, breathtaking.