Office Treasures

Their CVs tell one story, but the things professors surround themselves with tell another

Ray Jackendoff and his train set

This summer, Tufts Now published a series on curios found in professors’ offices. Here it is again, all pulled together in a single piece to kick off the academic year.

A Linguist’s Train of Thought

Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies

When he was a small child in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Ray Jackendoff spent many hours happily staring out his living room window and watching trains travel the tracks at the end of his street. Nowadays his favorite train-spotting happens in his office. Whenever Jackendoff wearies of work or is stuck on a problem, he can flick a switch on his desk and set into motion the Medford Belt Line, his model 10-car freight train that chugs along his bookshelves and filing cabinets on a 12-foot, wooden horseshoe-shaped track platform.

Jackendoff builds two or three cars a year, each one consisting of hundreds of wood and metal parts assembled with epoxy, superglue and solder. “It’s very focused work,” he says, “but a different kind of focus than when I work on a paper.” He decorates his trains with decals: one’s the “Oscar Mayer” car, another one advertises “Drink Old Heidelberg Beer.” One car is filled with coal while the engine holds the tiny figures of an engineer and fireman.

In addition to his expertise in linguistics and cognitive science, Jackendoff is a repository of train lore. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore, he and his friends would go to the train yards in nearby Philadelphia just to scan the goings on. Nowadays he ventures to places like Steamtown, a national historic site in Scranton, Pa., which boasts that visitors will “hear the chuff-chuff-chuff of the smokestack” as they travel on old steam engines preserved at the park.

He has thought a lot about steam engines and the skill it took to operate them. “They give you a sense they are alive, breathing and gasping with all their moving parts,” he says. “If you read what engineers used to say about running steam engines, you realize there’s an art to it; you had to know the engine and what it could do.”

Jackendoff builds his models at home, on a Saturday afternoon or a weeknight. Right now he’s working on a 27-foot layout in his basement, and is adding scenery, buildings and landscaping to his trains and tracks. And what does his family think? He smiles. “My wife tolerates it, and sometimes she even encourages it.”


Bow Down to Me

Photo: Alonso NicholsPhoto: Alonso Nichols

Beatrice Lorge Rogers, professor of economics and food policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and director of the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program

Back when Bea Rogers was teaching economics and food policy on the Medford/Somerville campus in the late 1980s, there would be days when her daughter, Leah, didn’t have school. So she’d bring the six-year-old to class, where the child would dutifully sit in the back of the room. Sometimes Leah, now 28, would stay in her mother’s office, coloring with markers.

On one such occasion, Leah drew a sign, complete with skull and crossbones. It read: “Bow Down to Me … I am the teacher, and you are nothing but sea scum. Bow down to me. I can FLUNK you!” Along the bottom was a large X, with her mother’s “signature.” Rogers was amused, recognizing in the “sea scum” a family expression for something worthless. She enjoyed the drawing, but eventually stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Some 20 years later, Rogers was clearing out her office to get ready to move to the Friedman School’s new digs on the Boston campus when she came across Leah’s sign.

“I’m cleaning out my desk drawers and out pops this picture,” she says. “I couldn’t resist putting it up in my new office—I wasn’t going to throw it away.” Now it’s ensconced on a shelf that visitors can see as they enter. “Every once in a while somebody notices it,” Rogers says. When students come in and do a double take, Rogers tells them it represents her educational philosophy. “I hope they know I’m joking,” she says.

Leah is amused by this artifact from her childhood. “I didn’t raise a child without a sense of humor,” says Rogers.

Rogers says it reminds her of her own childhood, when her mother was teaching high school in New York City. Rogers particularly remembers sixth grade.  There was an entire month when Rogers was finished with school and her mother was teaching. She came to school with her mother every day and sat in the back of a business class, where students were learning how to touch type. Rogers followed along and learned, too.



Photo: Alonso NicholsPhoto: Alonso Nichols

Sam Sommers, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences

When Sam Sommers was a student at Williams College in the 1990s, he so treasured his poster of Kramer, the wacky character on the hit TV show Seinfeld, that he carefully rolled it up and brought it to graduate school at the University of Michigan. Moving later to Massachusetts, he rolled it up again and, nearly wrinkle-free, it now adorns a wall of his office wall at 490 Boston Ave.

The poster of Kramer, whose hairstyle and physical awkwardness were his trademarks, gives more than just a hint of Sommers’ interest in the sitcom. He is a walking compendium of everything Seinfeld: characters, individual episodes and the dates they aired. He has seen all 180 shows numerous times, and remembers the intricacies of each episode, with the disparate plot lines that are somehow resolved at the end.

But his Seinfeld mania is more than a hobby. Sommers uses clips from the show to illustrate points in his behavioral psychology classes.

“Seinfeld shows the minutiae of daily existence, and its characters question what norms are acceptable,” Sommers says. Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld, Sommers says, to ponder the pressing question: How many dates are too many to break up on the phone? Or take the episode when Jerry’s friend George Costanza deliberately leaves something behind at the home of a first date, giving him an excuse to return and retrieve it. Sommers uses the clip to show that it’s not necessarily physical characteristics or personality that draws us together, but proximity and familiarity. After all, George thinks that if he does this enough times, the woman in question will grow to like him and consider his visit a second date.

“I don’t show clips to pander or get a laugh,” says Sommers, “but when it shows something with a specific example, it makes the abstract more concrete.”

One of Sommers’ specialties as a social psychologist is race and social perception—so having a poster of Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer, seems ironically appropriate. In late 2006, Richards was caught on video in a racist rant while doing standup comedy, and spent the next year dealing with the fallout. “I wound up adding a thought bubble to the poster that referenced the controversy,” explains Sommers. “I had to do something—suddenly it became almost as if I had a Confederate flag up in my office.”


Banjo Tales

Photo: Alonso NicholsPhoto: Alonso Nichols

Mark Pokras, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Population Health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Ask Mark Pokras, V84, about Betsy, and he’ll tell you a story. Betsy isn’t his wife or daughter—she’s his banjo. Even though he went to high school in Venezuela—his father managed a chocolate factory there—growing up in the 1960s, he was a fan of the Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger. On a vacation back in the States during high school, he bought what turned out to be his favorite instrument—a banjo. He named it Betsy, after Davy Crockett’s rifle, because, he recalls, it invoked a spirit of independence and the frontier.

Betsy has been with him ever since, through a high school hitchhiking adventure around Latin America and later a trip around the United States, when he took time off from college at the height of the Vietnam War. “I had to take her,” he says. “It wasn’t a choice. I had to have something musical with me.”

In his trek across America—Pokras hitchhiked through 47 states in a little over three months—he’d earn money by washing dishes at diners and restaurants, and bed down on rainy nights in churches or even jails. At campgrounds, he discovered he could eat by playing the banjo, as other campers grilling their meals offered him hot dogs and hamburgers. “My banjo is absolutely a part of my life and has traveled everywhere with me,” he says.

Betsy now sits in Pokras’ office in the Barbour Wildlife Building on the Grafton campus, along with an array of other instruments he plays: guitar, mountain dulcimer, flugelhorn and bouzouki, a lute-like instrument used in contemporary Greek music. He’s got more instruments at home, too—quite a collection for someone who never studied music. His secret? Plenty of teach-yourself-to-play books.

One of his favorite activities is open mike night at the Cummings School, which he hosts every six to eight weeks with veterinary and community participants ranging from just a handful to close to 40. He’s pleased when students bring their instruments, and even when they just sit back and listen.

“We’re in medicine, and these students spend so much time every day focusing on the technical and quantitative stuff,” Pokras says. “The relatively rigid, relatively linear kind of thinking we do doesn’t necessarily make you a well-rounded human being,” and the music helps add another dimension, he says.

Pokras will pluck away at the banjo in his office early in the morning or when he’s on call at the Wildlife Clinic, and students don’t need him immediately. “I love being a veterinarian,” he says, “but there’s more to life.” Just ask Betsy.


A Landscape in a Lamp

Photo: Alonso NicholsPhoto: Alonso Nichols

David Guss, professor of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences

Being an anthropologist, says David Guss, gives you a license to collect. His home is filled with so many objects from his travels that his daughter has jokingly suggested they could charge admission. In his office, Guss has a cornucopia of artifacts: masks and headdresses from Latin America and dozens of the South American noisemakers called matracas.

But what he prizes most was made in Piermont, N.Y., a small town on the Hudson River where Guss and his wife were living just after he finished his doctorate at UCLA. An Italian shoemaker had died, and when it came time to distribute his belongings, the local priest, who knew both men, decided Guss should have a lamp the cobbler had made.

“It was a small town, and I was active in the town politically,” Guss says. “The priest said, ‘Listen, I think the lamp should go to somebody who would value it and perhaps keep it, because it’s quite extraordinary.’ ”

The lamp base is made from a burl, an uneven knob of wood taken from alongside the Hudson River. The shoemaker had polished the wood, inserted a rod to hold a brown-and-white lampshade and added tiny plastic animal figures to the base. “He created this incredible landscape,” says Guss, who has added some plastic animals of his own over the years.

“We would call a person like this an outsider artist, a naïf, a popular artist,” says Guss. “It demonstrates the whole notion of what I call visionary art, made by people who don’t necessarily define themselves as artists and often have other professions. But they create an environment in which everything has been transformed to some degree, and generally are using found objects.”

Guss’ interest in the lamp goes beyond the academic. It evokes a time and place, around 1985, when he was finishing his dissertation and teaching at Vassar and his daughter was born. “The longer I’ve had it, the more I love it,” he says. “We’ve aged together. It’s a wonderful object.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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