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Indira Nair discusses valuable life lessons and journeys

Nair is Carnegie Mellon's former vice provost for education. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Managing Editor) Nair is Carnegie Mellon's former vice provost for education. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Managing Editor) Nair is Carnegie Mellon’s former vice provost for education. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Managing Editor) Nair is Carnegie Mellon’s former vice provost for education. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Managing Editor)

Indira Nair speaks about her life journey.

Indira Nair, Carnegie Mellon’s former vice provost for education, retired at the end of last year following 32 years of dedication to the university. This past Tuesday, she returned to campus to deliver a lecture as part of “Journeys,” one of Carnegie Mellon’s University Lecture Series and the successor to the “Last Lecture” series. Her topic was “Teachers All Around Me: My Life of Learning.” She spoke about the “lessons learned along this journey and the worlds they opened up.”

More a narrative than a memoir, Nair’s lecture discussed the most important learning opportunities of her life and what she described as her “intellectual journey.” She used her life as a learning ground for four significant themes: the ethic of care; identity, authenticity, and integrity; respect for time and questions; and literacy versus expertise.

In her introduction, Amy Burkert, the current vice provost for education at Carnegie Mellon, welcomed her as “the creator and architect of the Journeys series.”

Nair began her lecture with her childhood experiences in Trivandrum, Kerala — a state on the southwest coast of India — where she grew up with a unique, statewide emphasis on education and literacy. Offering a sample of the atmosphere, Nair recounted one story where a government official came to her house demanding to know why she, a five-year-old girl, was not in school when children were required to begin their education at age four. Even today, she said, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in all of India.

Nair’s family reinforced this early government-based focus on education, insisting that she achieve her bachelor’s degree and teaching her a lasting lesson about the value of internalizing knowledge.

As she moved on to her experiences in higher education at Elphinstone College’s Institute of Science, graduate school in Kansas, and a Ph.D. at Northwestern University, Nair talked with passion about her love of physics. Once she graduated from Northwestern, she and her husband decided to come to Pittsburgh; a decision that eventually led her to Carnegie Mellon.

After some time teaching science classes at Bishop Canevin High School, Nair joined Carnegie Mellon’s department of engineering and public policy (EPP). She began as a part-time research assistant, post-doctorate, and a part-time administrative worker.
According to the University Lecture Series website on Nair’s lecture, “She founded the Carnegie Mellon chapter of Student Pugwash to encourage students to think about the social responsibility of science and technology.” While working as a professor in EPP, Nair developed strong relationships with students, she said she would sometimes “[advise] whole fraternities because one [student] was [her] real advisee.” She also grew close to fellow faculty members and mentors.

Reflecting on her success at the university, she stated that “freedom and a trust in our abilities,” was what allowed her and her colleagues in her department to develop.

Nair also commented on the lessons that she learned from unexpected sources — her children and time. She credits her younger daughter with having taught her the importance of wonder “in life and in teaching.” Time, she said, was responsible for a different side of her learning: the differences between economy and ecology, cure and care, and efficiency and efficacy. Time is also responsible for what Nair described as the “only edge [professors] have over [their] students.”

Nair ended her lecture with a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet, that addresses the issue of living and learning.
“Love the questions themselves,” he wrote in Letters to a Young Poet. “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.... Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually ... live along some distant day into the answer.”