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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Elaine Marzluff

Topics/tags: Grinnellians, faculty, GSP

I am fortunate to work with a wide array of wonderful people - excellent scholars, innovative teachers, caring mentors and advisors. As I look back on twenty plus years at Grinnell, I feel particularly fortunate to call Elaine Marzluff a colleague.

Elaine and I both started at Grinnell in the fall of 1997 [1]. As folks who started at the same time, and who had offices down the hall from each other, we talked a lot. We shared frustrations, such as student reactions to our first semester of teaching [2] and the old policy that since we have no data on new faculty, they get below-average raises [3]. We both got invited to activities designed for young science faculty members, such as the Pew Midstates new faculty workshop and the PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century. We co-chaired the Science Teaching and Learning Group for a few years. I’m pretty sure we collaborated on other things too [4].

But this musing is not about our collaborations; it’s about Elaine. And it’s hard to pick just one or two things to highlight about having Elaine as a colleague. She’s an innovative teacher who challenges her students. She’s a scientist with a strong commitment to diversity. She’s a leader among the faculty. Plus, she’s one of the few people on campus who I trust to know policy and procedures better than I do [5]. We’ll focus on those first three characteristics.

It feels like almost every time I talk to Elaine, I hear about something new that she’s doing in the classroom. Early in our careers, she started giving first day of class quizzes to help students understand the expectations of the class and to help both the students and her understand what things the students needed to work on. She’s one of the people who figures out the ins and outs of Blackboard [6,7]. She finds interesting new uses of technology, such as finding ways to use Smart Pens to record class sessions and putting students at the center of that recording and note taking. I know that part of her sabbatical plans are to figure out better software for students to use in electronic notebooks [8], with particular consideration as to how she can make those accessible.

These activities show not just a creativity in teaching, but also a clear concern for her students. I see that concern reflected in many other ways, but most clearly in the Cookies and Cats study breaks she regularly hosts for her students at stressful times of the semester [9].

Elaine also cares deeply about promoting diversity in the sciences. That commitment is most visible in her work with the Grinnell Science Project (GSP). At this point, she is almost certainly the faculty member most visible as a GSP leader. I’ve had the privilege of co-leading GSP with her a few times and I appreciate not just her thoughtful approach and her willingness to put up with my disorganization, but also her memory of what we’ve done in the past and her reflection on how to make things better for the future. I appreciate the time she spent preparing the GSP 25th anniversary celebration [10]. I don’t know all of the other things she does for diversity, but one conversation stands out from early in our careers strikes me as particularly telling. If I recall correctly, Elaine said something like One of my highest priorities is diversity in the sciences. While I love Grinnell, I keep wondering whether I could affect a more diverse group of students. Fortunately, she stayed at Grinnell and Grinnell became more diverse. I hope that she feels she is now making as much of a difference as she wanted.

What about her roles as a faculty leader? Again, it’s hard to pick just a few things. New faculty now get an orientation session. Who started our faculty orientation program? Elaine. All tenured faculty [11] now get full-year sabbaticals. Who was instrumental in working with the Dean and the VP for Finance on the model to allow those sabbaticals? Elaine. Who made sure that the new Dean understood the complexity of the College [12]? Elaine. An amazing number of positive transformations happened in her two years as chair. And even after her time as chair, she’s clearly paying attention to a lot that’s happening on campus and providing important behind-the-scenes guidance.

I’m grateful that Elaine put up with me during her two years as chair. As most of you my readers know by now, I am sometimes a bit curmudgeonly. As chair of the faculty, Elaine received many of my concerns and complaints with good nature, responding to the ones that need responses, reminding me that I overreact when necessary, and filing away the ones that were clearly just pointless comments [14]. I also appreciate that most of the time I complain about something from the past, I discover that she shares the same frustrations.

Grinnell is so very lucky to have Elaine on the faculty. She makes a positive difference to our students and to her colleagues across the faculty. I feel particularly fortunate to have spent my career at Grinnell with her and to call her a colleague and friend.

Thanks Elaine!

Postscript: Once I finished the main draft of this musing, I realized that there was so much I did not say. For example, I appreciate that Elaine regularly shows up to support students at athletic events. I appreciate her hard work as NCAA rep [16]. I appreciate chatting with her the few times I make it to athletic events. I regret that I don’t see her as much as I did as when our offices were nearby. I really regret that signals have crossed at some important times in our careers [17]. And there’s more. It seems like getting everything down would take months and I’d still find that I forgot something or that I’d learn something new [18]. So I’ll need to accept that this musing is necessarily incomplete.

Postscript: One of my readers sent the following. I thought it was worth adding, since it encapsulates some aspects of Elaine much more succinctly than I do.

Elaine was on my committee for years, and was always amazing at the job. I knew I could count on her to be 100% prepared, to work collegially with the other committee members, and to give me constructive, useful feedback on how to improve my processes (her ideas [on one aspect] changed much of how we ran that process). Her wonderful blend of humanity and no-nonsense academic standards made her ideal for the role (and Grinnell!).

[1] The entering faculty of 1997 were a strong group. In addition to Elaine and me, the class included Tyler Roberts, Jenny Anger, Kathleen Skerrett, and Philippe Moisan. I also like count Claire Moisan and Minna Mahlab in our class. Although Claire did not start at the College until later, she did arrive in fall 1997. I’m also pretty sure that Minna arrived sometime in 1997.

[2] We both challenged the students a bit more than they expected. We’d both come from peer institutions and knew what Grinnell students were capable of. But they needed to learn our expectations.

[3] I am serious. That was the policy at the time. I hope that it has changed. Given that Elaine was chair of the faculty for two years, I’m almost certain that it’s changed.

[4] Oh, yeah. We served on Council together a bit more than a decade ago. But that was after both of us had earned tenure.

[5] For example, when I was complaining about the Administration’s failure to correctly acknowledge our nine-month contract, Elaine not only remembered an event that confirmed that, but knew where to find the details in faculty meeting minutes from a decade or so ago.

[6] Our Learning Management System (LMS), which everyone on campus refers to as PioneerWeb or P’Web.

[7] If I used Blackboard, Elaine would be the person I’d go to with questions.

[8] Like Jupyter notebook, for the techies out there.

[9] I know that she invites students to her house for other kinds of breaks, too. The Cookies and Cats (or Cookies and Kittens) is just a representative example.

[10] I also appreciate the work that other GSP folks put toward the reunion. Joyce Stern and Minna Mahlab, in particular, did a ton.

[11] Well, all faculty who participate in research with students.

[12] And, perhaps, helped the faculty understand the unreasonable workload the College had put on the Dean.

[14] I’m pretty sure that she ended up creating a Complaints from Sam [15] mailbox just for mail from me. But she did take the serious ones seriously.

[15] If it were me, I’d call the mailbox Spam from Sam.

[16] She showed up for events before she was NCAA rep. She showed up for events after she was NCAA rep. That is, her decision to attend events stems from her support of students, not from her status as NCAA rep.

[17] As far as I can tell, the crossed signals are almost exclusively my fault. Sorry, Elaine!

[18] For example, while writing this musing, I learned that Elaine was learning to make Croissants.

Version 1.0 released 2018-04-15.

Version 1.1 of 2018-04-16.