Caren Deming spent a significant amount of time in Rackham when she was a student and finds that 40 years later she’s still here often, albeit with much less writing to do. She has been frequenting the building most recently as a member of the Rackham Dean Search Committee. “It was an honor to be able to serve Rackham in this capacity. I’ve been on a lot of dean search committees over the years, but this is the most important one in terms of its lasting effect on graduate education. Getting Carol Fierke as the next Rackham dean was a real coup,” she says.
Caren came to U-M as an undergraduate English student. She remembers, “I was always going off into corners on campus. I spent much of my time between classes in Rackham study rooms. I was one of those people who really loved the building. It was a calming space, a quiet space, and those were at a premium.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree, she says, “I felt as though the university had so much more to offer me and I just didn’t want to leave. Frankly, my aspirations were to teach high school, and to get a permanent teaching certificate I had to get ⅔ of a Master’s degree. Once I got started, I really loved graduate school, so I stayed.” She laughs when remembering a conversation with her advisor at that point. She told him she wanted to do a second master’s degree and he responded that the only difference between two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. is a dissertation. “This was how I was recruited into the Ph.D. program – those certainly were the old days.”
The New Rackham
Graduate studies had their challenges. She remembers, “I wish I’d had a better understanding of my field as it was emerging, but it was a time of burgeoning new ways of thinking about media studies. It was hard to find guides because we were helping to invent a new field. I also spent way too long writing my dissertation. I wish I could have found the right people who could have given me better mentoring. I was right on the cusp of this big shift, and that made it something of a difficult time for someone with my multi-disciplinary interests. I had lots of support from Rackham, and I’m eternally grateful. At the same time, if the ‘new Rackham’ had been in place, I might have found the resources to negotiate all of that more efficiently.”
“I had some great moments with great professors, sometimes searching outside my own field and tapping into the resources that the university has to offer. After finishing, I traded on the fact that I had a Ph.D. from Michigan. When I mentioned that, it was always important. That’s Rackham. Now Rackham continues to take steps to assure quality, and that is just terrific. Students are better mentored now and have the resources to find what they need.”
A Life Dedicated to Teaching
After she left Ann Arbor in 1975 with her doctorate in hand, Caren spent a few years as an assistant professor at San Francisco State University before finding her academic home at the University of Arizona, where she taught for 23 years. She had her work cut out for her there, but the transitional nature of her graduate years at U-M prepared her well. She recalls, “Arizona recruited me because they wanted to build a fine arts program with a humanistic bent to it, evolving an old radio-television program into a department, and later a school, of media arts. When I look at the Screen Arts and Cultures department here at U-M, I see something like what we were doing at Arizona. It is one of the things that makes me excited. An antiquated program in a generation went through several iterations and found its way. Now it attracts world class scholars and graduate students.”
Thinking of the Future
“I owe a great debt to Rackham. My dissertation deployed two very different bodies of literature in two fields, and I had a mixed committee. Rackham’s financial support was incredibly helpful. I had two full years of Rackham fellowship funds, which were generally limited to one year back then. That meant I could spend all my time on my dissertation,” she says.
The importance of giving back now and in the future is critical to her. Caren supports Rackham every year, but has made a lasting contribution through her planned gift, a sizeable distribution from her estate. She explains, “Graduate students are the hope of the world. That’s how I feel about graduate students, especially Rackham students. They are the future. What they do is incredibly important, and supporting them is one of the most important things we can do. If we have money to contribute, that’s the place to do it. Where better place to invest in the future than with the best graduate students? I can’t think of one. That’s why I volunteer and that’s why I give.”
“I’m one of those people who came out of a small program, for whom Rackham is directly important, and I trust Rackham to do good things with the money. When you come from a field where the future always seems somewhat precarious, you look to an organization like the graduate school, whose stewardship is just superb with the money it raises. I trust Rackham to do the very best with it and help the very best students.”
Caren moved back to Michigan after retiring a few years ago. Making that decision was an epiphany for her: “I was in town for a visit and was walking on the Diag and I realized that this is where I’m the happiest. I feel the best when I’m in Ann Arbor. This has always been my home.”