This weekend, Dr. John Fleeger is being inducted as a member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), known to us scientists as Triple-A S, because we’re too busy for real words. Tiple A S is like the Hall of Fame for scientists and has ties to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison in the late 1880’s. Triple A S is a big deal.
Why am I telling you about this Dr. John Fleeger, who most of you don’t know? Well, I could list his many accolades including over 150 publications in the scientific literature including topics from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to carbon sequestration in the deep ocean to community ecology of very small crustacean in the dirty, dirty mud. I could highlight his wonderful teaching career at Louisiana State University spanning over 30 years. But probably one of his most arduous and significant accomplishments was guiding yours truly to a Ph.D.
What I appreciated most about my experience with John was his mentoring style: his door was always literally open. And no matter the crazy nattering that spewed from my lips, he looked at the floor while nodding and waiting for me to finish. Then we would discuss. He never said my ideas were stupid, though he gently said they needed more ‘development.’
And he was patient. I can’t tell you how many times I heard him say without annoyance “Again David…” meaning that he already told what he was about to say and he was gently reminding me.
I appreciated how quickly he made comments on my scientific manuscripts. Well, how quickly he massacred them. My words were slain without mercy for their wrongness and their bodies littered the battlefield of my manuscript. It frustrated me because I prided myself as an excellent writer. But academic writing has its own style and language and John was teaching. Today I’m a better writer because of the time he took.
One Saturday morning in Baton Rouge I was at the scope sorting samples. John came in with a draft of my research proposal that he massacred. He asked me, “David, what are you trying to say here?” Then before I had a chance to answer, he looked at the draft and said with rare exasperation, “Do you even know what you’re trying to say?” I started to say something, but said, “Well no.” And then he took the time to help me start over.
I still seek John’s advice today on my manuscripts.
John and I spent so much time together that I learned his patterns. If I was in the lab and heard a slight shuffle of feet, the stop at the water fountain, and a slight “ah” of refreshment I knew I needed to stop watching funny cat videos.
And he learned that I was not the easiest of students. Brilliant though I may be, I am riddled with a brooding recalcitrance, hard-headedness, and fool-hardiness. John and I butted heads from time to time. I won’t tell you who was right most of the time. I will highlight most of the time.
The following is from the Acknowledgements of my dissertation: “In 2003, the brave or foolhardy Dr. John Fleeger, with his nodding head and seemingly infinite patience that I tested more than once took in my independent and sometimes irascible spirit and navigated it down a tortuous, yet productive path. I thank him for reading (and re-reading and re-reading) every word I’ve written as a graduate student, for swatting and cursing mosquitoes with me in the marsh, and for always having his door and mind open.”
Five years later, those words, unmassacred by John’s pen, still ring true.
Congratulations John. Your induction into AAAS is well-deserved on many levels. I hope you finally do some nice laurel sitting.