The words jump out of the letters, 27 nomination letters in all, each lauding the talents and skills of Cal State Northridge sociology professor emeritus Jane Prather.
“She is a patient, caring, compassionate teacher who recognizes students (and colleagues) as whole individuals who learn with hearts as well as minds.” “I have had only a few teachers who compelled me to go on when I was not sure I could. Ms. Prather was one of these teachers.” “Dr. Prather was the first college professor who made me feel comfortable enough to approach and ask for help when I felt challenged.”
Praise that teachers treasure, and has helped earn Prather one of the top honors offered by the Pacific Sociological Association: its “Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award” for 2009. Prather received the honor earlier this month.
“You never know how you influence people,” Prather said. “It’s not like people come up and say ‘you really helped me.’ It’s nice to get recognition and confirmation that I had done something helpful for students.”
Herman DeBose, chair of CSUN’s Department of Sociology, said Prather more than deserved the recognition.
“In her career, Dr. Prather has been a pioneer, breaking new ground for women in academia, a role model for students and faculty, and an advocate for improving the educational environment for all students,” DeBose said. “It is deeply gratifying for those who have benefited from her example and generosity to see her recognized with this award.”
Prather joined Cal State Northridge’s faculty in 1969 as one of the first full-time female faculty members in the Department of Sociology. She quickly drew on her interest in gender issues to create what were considered at the time cutting-edge courses that examined the role gender played in society, including such courses as “Sex Roles and Work” and “Sociology of Sex and Gender.” The demand for such classes was so great that it led to the creation of the university’s Women’s Studies program.
CSUN psychology professor Brennis Lucero-Wagoner was a student at what was then San Fernando Valley State College when she took Prather’s “experimental topics” course, “Sex Role Stereotypes,” (team taught with psychology professor Linda Fidell) in 1970. “The course, which later became a popular general education offering, was a transformative experience for me,” she said.
“As a mother of three small children, working 30 hours a week and enrolled in 18 units of course work, I was the prototype for the first-generation, Latina/o student we see in today’s classrooms,” Lucero-Wagoner wrote in her nomination letter.
“I was a transplant from a small coal-mining town in southern Colorado and my vision of the possible was pathetically limited until I encountered Dr. Prather,” Lucero-Wagoner continued. “Her course and the ideas she disseminated made me realize that I wasn’t a mutant for wanting to do more with my life than ‘stay home and bake cookies.’ Her confidence in my potential was and is treasured still.”
That sentiment was echoed by more than a dozen of Prather’s former students, all of whom wrote letters to support her nomination for the teaching honor. Among those was Sue Fisher, professor emeritus of sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
A married woman with several children, Fisher took her first sociology course from Prather in 1971 after transferring from Pierce College, where she regularly got top grades. On her first test in Prather’s class, she got a B+, not her usual A.
“I knew I had answered the questions on the exam by giving Jane all the information she required. I did not understand how I could have ended up without my desired grade,” Fisher wrote in her nomination letter. She made an appointment with Prather to find out why she didn’t get an A.
“Jane explained ever so gently that in my desire to show all that I had learned, I vomited it all onto the page, with little reference to the questions asked and no organization at all,” Fisher continued. “She took the time to show me how to structure an answer, suggesting that I take the time to think about the question. With the question firmly in mind, she instructed me to start with a thesis paragraph that set out what would be in my answer, organizing the rest of the answer in the process.
“What a gift that B+ became,” Fisher said. “It was my first lesson in writing an argument and it stood me in good stead, very good stead, as I continued with my coursework at CSUN and beyond to my graduate degree and my own teaching and scholarship. As a professor myself, I realize now that it would have been much easier for Jane to give me an A on that first exam. She must have known that a B+ would bring me to her office and take up much more of her time. But her commitment to teaching was more important to her than the protection of her time.”
Though Prather taught her last class at CSUN last year, she still serves as a mentor to several of her former students and colleagues in the Department of Sociology. And she hasn’t stopped being an educator. She spends several months of the year as a volunteer teacher at a women’s prison in New York, where she now spends half her time.
“When I retired, I wanted to do something intellectually meaningful, something that would give back in a volunteer kind of way,” Prather said. “This just fit perfectly.”
Looking back at the 39 years she spent at CSUN, Prather said the most exciting times were those she spent with her students.
“I really felt I was helping students who have never had this kind of opportunity before,” she said. “So many of them were first-generation students who often lacked self confidence and who had to work full or part-time. They didn’t have time to study or complete all the readings but their goal was to finish college and they were going to juggle everything in order to do it. It’s nice to think that I was able to help them.”