The truths of teaching: Retiring Dyson School professors reflect on their careers
For those in academia who have spent their careers teaching, researching, and advising others, retirement isn’t the end of professional achievement—it’s actually the beginning. For Dale Grossman ’72, retired senior lecturer and director of undergraduate advising, and soon-to-be retiring professors Edward W. McLaughlin and Deborah Streeter, this time of life has become an opportunity to pause and see the true fruits of their labor: the students whose lives they’ve touched, the careers they’ve helped shape, and the impact their research and work has made on their communities and beyond.
Grossman, McLaughlin, and Streeter were honored at the Dyson School’s Last Lecture event in New York City, where alumni and other guests heard them reflect on their extraordinary careers and had the opportunity to ask questions about what’s next. The consensus among the three speakers was that some things—the things that matter most—never change.
Human connection is everything
An alumna of the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, Dale Grossman taught courses in estate planning, communication law, internet law, and business law. As an academic advisor, she mentored more than 1,000 undergraduate students. In the past 40 years, the biggest lesson she hopes she has imparted on her students is that “the rules of law don’t change very much, but the circumstances under which you can apply the law can change drastically,” as she said in her address.
There have always been, for example, five key components to a contract: offer, acceptance, consideration, mutuality of obligation, and competency and capacity. The definition of “acceptance,” however, has shifted dramatically over the years. Some of the earliest legally binding contracts required written agreements before any exchanges of goods or information took place. But today, data and information are exchanged at astronomical speeds and the contracts that exist between, say, consumers and brands that are interested in collecting their data, are transient at best. “The landscape has changed,” Grossman said, and it’s this transition that has made her teaching career so rewarding, she emphasized.
Not only has technology evolved the subject matter of Grossman’s courses, but it has also transformed the relationships that professors and advisors have with students. When Grossman began teaching, there was no email—if a student wanted to see a professor, meeting face-to-face was the only option, and, as a result, professors knew their students as more than a name on a registration list. College was also intended more for intellectual exploration, where finding a job wasn’t necessarily the immediate goal.
Today, college is still about finding oneself, but the pressure to choose a major that helps secure a job or path right out of school is greater than ever, leaving advisors to face an uphill battle, according to Grossman.
“I’ve heard students tell me, ‘I’m failing at college,’ and I’ve had to tell them that that’s impossible,” she said. “You can’t fail at college simply because you’re getting bad grades. If you’re struggling, you have to take a step back and look at what you’re doing. Is it really something you love?”
Grossman’s other key piece of advice for students was to talk to advisors or mentors in person when things get rough. “Today, with the rise of email and other communication technology, the default relationship between students and professors or advisors is minimal contact, and that simply doesn’t work,” Grossman said.
Much like law, human relationships do not fundamentally change, but circumstances do. More than ever, students need advisors and mentors to help guide them through the rigor of college life, Grossman said, and it’s up to both parties to take time to form meaningful relationships.
When you give to your community, your community gives back
As the Robert G. Tobin Professor of Marketing at the Dyson School and the director of the Food Industry Management Program, Ed McLaughlin spent a significant portion of his career working on industry extension efforts, which involved bringing university research to various stakeholders in the United States and beyond. As a result, McLaughlin had the opportunity to build a relationship between the university and the client groups his research served, not only working with them on designated extension/outreach programs, but also bringing them into his classroom and involving them in his research.
“You really get to know the clients you work with and if you’re able to help them with something—a new technique, a business insight—they’re always grateful. They generally tell me, ‘if you need anything, give us a call.’ And throughout my life, I’ve made a lot of calls,” McLaughlin said.
Often not recognized, McLaughlin pointed out, are the mutual benefits of industry outreach activities for both the university and society. He recalled a time when he and a colleague were working on a research paper about advertising expenditures and were looking for a specific type of data that just wasn’t publicly available. McLaughlin decided to reach out to a number of consumer packaged goods companies and retailers that he had worked with as part of his outreach programs to request some data, and the companies obliged. The resulting analysis was published in a highly prestigious journal, and the editor even agreed to publish it with no changes (a rarity in academia) if McLaughlin and his team would allow the findings to be shared on a public website since the data was inaccessible to other researchers.
Just one example of many, Mclaughlin said, this experience demonstrates how critical the relationships he has formed have been in making valuable contributions to research and student learning. He has continuously been able to rely on past participants in his outreach programs and former students to either return to Ithaca and speak in his classes, offer insight into his research, or contribute in other ways.
“Last semester, I had six guest speakers—one CMO and five CEOs,” Mclaughlin said. “It’s another demonstration that some fundamentals of academia don’t really change. When you engage your community and your students, they return the favor.”
There’s nothing more memorable than good storytelling
Even before digital video became popular Deb Streeter, the Bruce F. Failing Sr. Professor of Personal Enterprise and Small Business Management, began recording videos to show in class, made possible by an entrepreneurship education endowment that she received. Her biggest goal was to create engaging and interactive experiences that remained with students throughout their lives because they’ve become ingrained in their “memory palaces,” the mental structures that store memories as meaningful stories versus disparate bits of information.
What began as discs and DVDs shown on clunky equipment that she had to drag into class on a cart, eventually transformed into an elaborate collection of thousands of digital eClips housed on Prendismo, an online database of videos related to business, leadership, and entrepreneurship featuring industry experts and other leaders. With her video prowess, Streeter gained a reputation as a tech guru on campus over the years, and many often attributed her success in the classroom to her tech savviness. But Streeter always knew it was more than just the technology that enabled her to resonate with students.
“I realized early on that learners aren’t empty vessels. They have to construct their knowledge. That’s why it doesn’t really matter if it’s a grainy old video or one that uses the latest and greatest technology. It comes down to finding a way to really connect and tell interesting, memorable stories,” she said.
Classroom teaching has become increasingly difficult, Streeter reflected. Due to the growth of mobile devices, social media, and other forms of always-on entertainment and technology, attention spans have come down to just eight seconds. (For comparison, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.) This is something Generation Z educators have to think about constantly, Streeter pointed out.
Still, despite this challenge, the “secret weapon” hasn’t changed. Whether learning involves simulation software, real-time polling, a video-based seminar, or a podcast, one thing is certain: it’s not the medium that counts—it’s the story it delivers.
“Educators need to put students in the middle of stories to help them build their memory palaces,” Streeter said. “That was true 20 years ago, and it’ll remain true 20 years from now.”
The best is yet to come
When asked by the audience about what’s next for each of them, the three professors had very different answers, but agreed on one thing: They still have much to learn about the world and are eager to watch it change.
Streeter, for example, plans to stay involved with the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell, which currently has 3,000 students in its program and 7,000 on its waiting list. McLaughlin, meanwhile, hopes to reach his goal of traveling to 100 countries—he only has 20 to go, he said. Grossman is still figuring out exactly what she wants to do next, but is currently enjoying the opportunity to take the next phase of her life one day at a time. “It’s never too late to start something new,” she said.