When Cornell Fleischer first arrived at the University of Chicago, he had spent nearly 14 years teaching undergraduates.
But when it came to graduate teaching, “I didn’t really know what to expect,” Fleischer admits. “I was used to preparing survey courses and advanced undergraduate courses. And now all of a sudden I was employed primarily to raise a significant part of the next generation of scholars in my field.”
The transition wasn’t easy at first, yet over time Fleischer began to see the unique rewards of graduate teaching. While he enjoyed working with a “generation of young people who actually took seriously what I had to say … the greater satisfaction is when your students become your colleagues in scholarship,” he says.
As an undergraduate instructor, Fleischer had become skilled at “building up a body of knowledge, a foundation that is initially broad and general and increasingly broad and particular.”
But with graduate students, “I had to make sure a foundation was solid before I could then go about imparting the not only specific, but also particular sorts of skills and ways of approaching primary material.”
Tackling primary materials is no small feat for students interested in Ottoman history. Most Ottoman scholars must be able to read a minimum of five languages, Fleischer says.
“There’s no textbook for this sort of thing,” Fleischer says. “There’s no textbook for learning how to use the Ottoman archives, so there are very tangible as well as basic skills that you can pass on. As I have gotten really outstanding students, it’s not only become easier but also much more pleasurable.”
In addition, Fleischer has found that working with graduate students helps shape his work. “There’s often, I’ve found, a kind of crystallization of concerns that then does find its way into your own work, how you look at your own field and your own scholarly production,” he explains.
“A decade ago I was already getting increasingly interested in the intellectual and religious history of the 15th century, which is pretty much unmapped terrain in the context of Islamic history at large,” he says. “The conversations that have developed around those themes have given me my next scholarly project, one that is both an individual and a group effort.
“As a result of a number of dissertations that have been done here in the last few years, there is now a critical mass of people interested in similar issues although working in different contexts, and we intend to pursue this work together in the coming years.”
As for working with his graduate students, Fleischer says, “I guess for me it’s a little like raising a family. People become assistant professors, and you’re able to give them advice. Nothing stops [when they finish] the dissertation—not the friendship, not the mentoring, not the help.”