The Art of Losing
The promise that we will all see each other again after the pandemic cannot always be fulfilled
This is normally a paid subscriber-only day, but I am sending it to all subscribers because I am memorializing an old friend. Please feel free to:
Ann Wightman (right) at her final Wesleyan commencement, May 2015; President Michael Roth is at right (Photo credit: Wesleyan University/Flickr)
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.”
Yesterday my Wesleyan University colleague Ann Wightman, a prize-winning Latin American historian, teacher, friend, loving, and much-loved spouse, passed over into the beyond. She had been sick for several years. If you knew Ann, you know she would not want me to dwell on that illness as if it defined her. You also know that whatever she did, she did thoughtfully, courageously, and to the highest standard. That is how she lived, and I am quite sure that is how she died.
Ann was born into a working-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, and, if I remember correctly, won a scholarship to Duke University. Her family was skeptical about the whole project because they didn’t think a young woman should be so far from home by herself. Fortunately, a (male) cousin was already attending Duke, and he reassured everyone that he would “take care” of her.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
That was a ruse: no one needed to take care of Ann. She excelled at Duke and subsequently received her Ph.D. in history at Yale, where she met her husband, Mal Bochner. In 1980, she was the first woman to be hired by the history department at Wesleyan University, having arrived as a lecturer in 1979. Until another woman was hired a year or so later, Ann used to say, department meetings would start with whoever was the chair saying, “Hi guys—and Ann.”
Ann was tenured in 1988. Her book, Indigenous Migration and Social Change: The Forasteros of Cuzco, 1570-1720 (Duke University Press, 1990), won the 1991 Bolton-Johnson Prize from The Conference on Latin American History. She was also devoted to Peru: on the first day of the semester, when we were reading students our version of the riot act, Ann would look at them with mock-severity and explain that she invited rigorous debate. However, there was a single, non-negotiable truth—which was?
“Cuzco is the most beautiful city in the world!” A student who had taken one of Ann’s classes before would pipe up. “Correct,” Ann would respond and turn around to write it on the board.
I came to Wesleyan in the fall of 1991, and Ann soon became an ally and a close friend. By then, there were seven women in the history department, what you might call critical mass compared to the Economics department where there was one, or the Chemistry Department, where they didn’t hire a woman for another decade. Ann also became one of my mentors: for reasons I do not recall, she always called me “Potter,” except when students were around when she would address me as “Professor Potter.”
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
One of Ann’s great talents was faculty governance. She was one of several women who taught me everything I knew, not just about how to function in a university on a daily basis but also how to succeed as a scholar and a faculty member who could take charge of things.
Ann occupied a big, political middle. I would characterize her as a progressive, but she was also good at winning the confidence of the faculty's more conservative members. As a result, she played an outsized role in faculty leadership. Ann was chair of the faculty three times and repeatedly sat on the tenure and promotion committee, otherwise known as Advisory, the faculty's most powerful committee.
From Ann, I learned the difference between “a committee of the faculty” (which is accountable to the faculty and advisory to the administration) and a “university committee” (which is appointed by the administration and accountable to the leadership and the Board of trustees.) I learned that everything we did as university citizens derived from the rights and freedoms accorded to faculty in our university handbook: it was known as “the Blue Book,” because it was bound in blue paper. And from Ann, I learned that intricate knowledge of the Blue Book was power: how you ran a meeting, made a motion, took a vote, reviewed a colleague—it was all outlined very clearly and provided a template for success.
Ann knew the Blue Book the way Brigham Young knew the Book of Mormon.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Ann was the kind of person who got elected to everything important because she was so good at her work, took it seriously, and was ethical. Honestly, she should have been a United States Senator. But instead, we at Wesleyan were lucky enough to work with her. When Ann first became chair of the faculty, before we went to faculty meetings, a bunch of us would meet in the bathroom, you know, to go to the bathroom.
One thing led to another, and the next thing you knew, there was a gang of women packed into the tiny, two-stall facility, strategizing that day’s vote. We started calling ourselves “The Bathroom Cabinet” until one day, some of the guys complained that we were having policy conversations in a place they had no access to and that it was sexist.
No, I am not kidding. So Ann, using her authority as chair of the faculty, reconstituted us as the Executive Committee, and we met in public after that.
Ann and I team-taught a class on and off for almost 15 years, possibly one of the more intimate relationships there is. She was the stern one, and I would goof off: we had an act, and it worked. My favorite was to do the macareña behind her back until the students started to giggle, and then she would pause and say to the students: "Is Professor Potter" (pause) "doing the macareña?" And then all 60 or 70 of them would explode with laughter.
In real life, Ann was also exacting, tough-minded, and one of the most caring teachers that I have ever known. She was also a blistering hard grader. The course we taught together, “Colonialism and its Consequences in the Americas,” was so reading-heavy that outstanding students would find themselves melting under the pressure of graduate school-level work. But together, we would spend whatever time we needed to help students learn.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
And they did. Ann had this unspoken deal with students: whatever time they were willing to commit to improving, she would commit the same amount of time. I would sometimes see Ann in her office, going through a five-page paper line by line for an hour, showing a student how to fix it, get a better grade on the revision, and write a better paper next time. If you were willing to do the work, she would stay as long as she needed to get you over the line.
One of my favorite days of the year was when Ann and I were doing final grades in the course: we had a mathematical equation and would calculate grades according to the marks they had received on their papers and exams. Then, for several more hours, we would talk over each student, one by one, to evaluate their progress throughout the semester. We would then find an excuse to raise nearly everyone's grade. Sometimes there was no reason to raise someone’s grade. Then, Ann would look at me and say: "It's Christmas, Potter." And we would bump the grade up a notch.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
If there is heaven, dear Ann, you are in it: you were one of the best people I have ever known.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m Reading:
Caitlin Flanigan explains that private schools are the leading edge of social inequality. (The Atlantic, April 2021)
John Stoehr noticed something: there is no Hyde language in the American Rescue Plan Act to prevent stimulus funds from being used in abortion-related enterprises. (The Editorial Board, March 11, 2021)
Harold Meyerson notes that the brilliance of ARPA is that “it doesn’t pit the middle class against the poor.” (The American Prospect, March 11, 2021)