When you stop and think about it, there have been people in your life that have shaped you in ways so deep that you begin to take their lessons for granted. Dr. Cora Louise Nelson was one of those people for me. She was my economics professor at Davidson College and I just learned in the alumni journal that she passed away at age 90 last November.
If you’ve ever seen the classic movie, The Paper Chase, with John Houseman as the intimidating grand inquisitor of first year law students at Harvard, then you have the initial picture of Dr. Nelson. She set an unyielding standard of excellence and expected her students to live up to it. With a mixture of respect and fear, her introductory econ course was known on campus as “Coranomics” because of the distinctive way in which she taught it. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I gathered the nerve to sign up for it at the beginning of my junior year.
In our first class, she began by explaining the virtues of the textbook we would be using, Economics, by the Nobel Prize winner, Paul Samuelson. In Dr. Nelson’s mind, no other text was worthy of her student’s need to learn the discipline that she described as “the division and allocation of scarce resources.” It was as if that book was a sacred document to her. Apparently, I agreed because I still keep my copy of Economics on the book shelf in my office.
Dr. Nelson expected us to be as passionate about economics as she was. As the Davidson Journal reported, she ascribed to what she described as the credo of economists – “a dedication to freeing mankind from the servitude of deprivation.” It was serious business to her and she expected us to take it seriously. Her deal was simple. If you did the homework and the reading every night, you would do well in her class. She told us up front that she would reserve the right to test our commitment by giving us unannounced “writs” (her term for a pop quiz) at the beginning of any class. She had this uncanny knack for sensing when the time was right to send a message by standing at the front of the room, casting her steely gaze across the students and announcing with the slightest trace of a smile, “Put your books and notes away, I think we’ll have a writ.” You could feel the groans of agony barley being muffled.
I’ll never forget her description of how she could tell the students who were not ready for final examinations. She used to say that she would stand in her office on exam day and look out the window as the students walked from their dorms to Chambers (the main academic building on campus). She would note that some students would walk in a perfectly erect fashion not tilting their heads even the slightest bit to the left or the right out of fear that the “knowledge they had crammed into their heads the night before might run out of their ears.”
Dr. Nelson was a pioneer. In 1942, she was one of the first female cashiers of a state bank. Beginning in 1956, she enrolled at the University of North Carolina where she earned her bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in economics in just eight years. She was the first female faculty member of the North Carolina School of Banking and the first female professor at Davidson to be granted tenure and a full professorship when the college was still an all male school.
What did I learn from Louise Nelson? Certainly, a lot about economics that I still remember and utilize to this day. (I’m so glad that the knowledge didn’t fall out of my ears.) The bigger lesson was about the connection between preparation and positive results. That approach made a complex subject pretty simple actually. I think the other big lesson from Dr. Nelson is that high standards matter. If, as a teacher or a leader, you are clear about them and hold people accountable to them, they will not only meet your expectations but learn and accomplish more than they thought they could.
Thank you Dr. Nelson. Just want you to know that I’m keeping up with my reading.