When Vivian Curran spoke at a recent panel event with Jeannette South-Paul, she highlighted the connections between her own work in comparative law and South-Paul’s work in family medicine.
“She has done so much ground-breaking work on the use of language in medicine and how physicians need to address the language of their patients,” said Curran, Distinguished Professor of Law.
South-Paul, the Andrew W. Mathieson Professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine in the School of Medicine, surprised audience members when she noted the two had first met as freshmen in high school.
“You couldn’t have two more different preteens meeting in an all-girls academic public high school in Philadelphia who became great friends,” recalled South-Paul. “It wasn’t until I was selected for the position of chair, and the first person who wrote me and said ‘Congratulations — we’re going to get to be together again!’ was Vivian.”
South-Paul and Curran were joined on the panel by Gretchen Bender, assistant chair and director of undergraduate studies in the History of Art and Architecture in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and assistant dean of academic affairs in the College of General Studies, as part of an event honoring women faculty members promoted during the 2018 calendar year.
The third annual Celebration of Newly Promoted Women Faculty was held on March 6 in Wesley W. Posvar Hall and was hosted by Laurie Kirsch, vice provost for faculty affairs, development and diversity, and the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns. The event drew 55 attendees, including 11 women faculty members who were promoted during the year.
Along with Kristin Kanthak, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, and Anne Robertson, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in the Swanson School of Engineering, Kirsch led Pitt’s IDEAL-N initiative, which this year comes to a close.
“It’s just been a pleasure to collaborate with Anne and Kris and others to continue our efforts to foster an environment at Pitt in which all faculty can thrive and be successful,” said Kirsch.
Kanthak and Robertson moderated this year’s panel, which featured discussion about the panelists’ drive for their work, the importance of mentors and the power of resilience.
On passion and drive
“My work is my passion,” said Curran, studies differences in international law systems. She recalled a moment of realizing that when you read and speak in different languages, concepts are embedded in something much bigger. “It has really been the basis for what I would call all the intellectual adventures of my life.”
“I have worked to show what we share, as opposed to what differs between us,” said South-Paul. “And the things that unify us, rather than the things that divide us. Because if we are going to build societies that work well together, it is going to be so important.”
Bender mentioned that her dissertation was on a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, but noted, “I don’t think that’s really what I do. At a fundamental level, I teach art. This is not just a vocation; it’s who I am and what I do.”
On mentoring and the value of networks
When asked about mentoring, South-Paul discussed approaching those with different experiences. “When you’re mentoring someone who is different, try and understand the journey,” she said. “So that when you’re sitting down to meet with them, you don’t assume — because those assumptions create divisions between you and the person you’re trying to mentor.”
Bender echoed South-Paul’s advice to try to understand the perspective of those you’re mentoring. “Everything I learned about mentoring I learned from being an advisor of undergraduate students,” she said. “You have to bring humility to mentoring. If you just sit in a position of authority and dictate to people what they need to do, that’s not a mentoring relationship. The first thing you have to do is understand where they’re coming from, what challenges they’re facing, what their needs are, and only then can you actually begin to work to give them some advice.”
Curran spoke about the benefit of joining professional organizations, in her case the American Society of Comparative Law, of which she is now honorary president, which enabled her access to a global network of colleagues. “They were so kind, so generous, and many of them gave me great help.”
On resilience and overcoming perceived setbacks
Curran recalled that as she began to practice law, she saw that she wasn’t happy. “Teaching is what always made me happy. I’d been a teaching assistant all the time I’d been a graduate student,” she explained, and she used that experience to begin teaching law as a professor.
South-Paul noted the importance of access to resources and the value of colleagues who can help navigate what’s in those resources — and what’s not. “Because the things that really make the difference between whether you survive, or thrive, are all of the other things that are not in the handbook.”
Bender acknowledged that it took her time to reconcile her status as a non-tenure-stream faculty member with her own expectations of her professional trajectory. She recalled her process for coming to terms with that by considering her strengths: “It took me not too long to realize that my strengths were my passion. I gave myself at a certain point permission to fully embrace the role of being the teacher, and to not be so hard on myself.”
She also spoke of Pitt in particular as a place where the people she’s encountered in her career “care about what you do, who you are as a person, what you contribute on a regular basis to whatever it is the team is doing, and they treat you with the utmost respect. They are colleagues who would do anything they could possibly do to help me advance and to become a better person.”