Oct 30, 2011
This story has to do with professor accessibility.
I love getting mail. Actual mail, that is: packages and postcards and letters with actual human handwriting. I was therefore super pumped to find a package slip in my mailbox earlier this week; I passed it to the desk worker, who put a big squishy brown envelope in my hands. I read the name of the sender; it was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
Mystified, I tore off the flap, and a brand new book slid out. I yelped (alarming the desk worker) and dropped the envelope. I knew this book. I had read a very old, very tattered copy of it a couple weeks back, which a professor in the physics department lent to me. For privacy, let’s call him Professor Dumbledore, and let’s call the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We had met to discuss my interest in astronomy, and our meeting ended something like this:
Me: Do you have any suggestions for things I could do to find out what it's like to be an astronomer?
Dumbledore: Hmm...well, actually, hang on. *pulls out old tattered book from shelf.* This is a wonderful book - it captures the lifestyle perfectly.
Me: Oh, wow! Thank you.
Dumbledore: Don’t lose it.
Me: I won’t. I’ll give it back within a week.
Dumbledore: Good. If you don’t, I will find out where you live and hunt you down.
I flew through the book in a night or two, and fell in love with it. I returned it the next week, and told Professor Dumbledore that it had inspired me to find a UROP in astronomy.
Fast forward a few weeks, to the New House front desk, where I stood slack-jawed with my new book as it dawned on me where I had seen the sender's name before. In a daze, I slowly turned the book over, and read the name of the author. Let’s call him (again, for privacy) William Shakespeare. I picked the envelope off the ground, and re-read the name on the return address. William Shakespeare. Acting on a hunch, I flipped through the first few pages, and stopped when I reached blue ink. There was a note. “Dear Anna,” it read. “Best of luck with all your adventures. Keep looking up. Sincerely, WS.”
WHAT?! My brain exploded. I ran upstairs to show my friend, who knew how much I adored that book, and with what reluctance I returned it.
Friend: ...does Professor Dumbledore know William Shakespeare?
Me: I...don’t know. WAIT.
I flipped to the credits section. Sure enough, on the second page, there it was: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.
WHAT?! I was stunned. What. A. Ridiculously. Nice. Thing. To. Do. I saw him the next day, at the weekly Physics Colloquium, and made a beeline over to his seat the moment the talk was over.
Me: Professor Dumbledore!
Dumbledore: Hi Anna.
Me: So...I got this package the other day. It was a copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Dumbledore: Fancy that.
Me: I thought you might have something to do with it.
Me: *gushing with thanks*
Dumbledore: No problem at all. I sent William an e-mail saying how much you liked the book, and he said - hey, why don’t I send her a copy.
Me: *blown away by how nice people can be*
Dumbledore (with a crinkly smile): You know, Anna - as professors, we want to help you find what you love. That’s what we’re here for. If a student comes to MIT and leaves knowing what he or she loves, then we have done our job.
I hope you’ll agree that this was an incredibly kind gesture, both from Professor Dumbledore and from Mr. Shakespeare. I was (and remain) totally flabbergasted. An e-mail I got from my mom sums it up nicely:
“I am continually amazed at how personable the MIT professors are, at least the ones you come across, which admittedly is a self-selecting subset of the total professor population. I would never have expected a professor to take the time to write to a colleague to tell him how much an undergraduate likes his book. I gather Shakespeare is quite well known, so it’s not as if it’s his first book and he is dying to have an undergraduate notice him. And then for Shakespeare to actually send the book…”
She’s right. I’ve reached out to a number of physics professors (I can't speak for other departments) with questions about psets and/or life decisions; I get responses to my e-mails within a day or two (or, often, within minutes) and have never had trouble setting up a meeting. As an example, here is the response I got from Professor Dumbledore, back when I first got in touch with him:
I would be delighted to talk sometime next week. Please suggest 3 times that would be convenient and we'll find something that works for both of us.
Before coming here, one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn’t find the professors approachable. My high school was small, and I could swing by a teacher’s office anytime to chat. I was scared of losing this accessibility. I've learned, though, that while one can't necessarily swing by a professor’s office anytime (he or she will often not be there)
help conversations and guidance are always given at Hogwarts in the MIT Physics department to those that ask for it take the initiative to reach out for them.