“Wisdom and Humility:” A Fitting Tribute to David Mayhew

Blog contributor 
Graduate Student

Last week, several Yale graduate students and I had the distinct privilege of attending “Representation and Governance: A Conference in Honor of David Mayhew,” hosted by the Center for the Study of American Politics at ISPS. The scholars who presented papers at the conference were a veritable “who’s who of congressional scholarship,” as Columbia professor Donald Green put it.

As a relatively newly minted graduate student, I should have been apprehensive about sitting among scholars whose ideas and research constitute the core of most syllabi in Congress studies, American institutions, and American politics generally. But, as David Mayhew has taught a generation of scholars by example, brilliance and unmatched scholarship need not make a scholar haughty or unapproachable. Yale president-elect Peter Salovey remarked at the conference that Professor Mayhew’s character is defined by “wisdom and humility,” two things that do not always go together. The conference in Professor Mayhew’s honor was then a fitting tribute, as it was packed with wisdom, and marked by the humility of great scholars speaking in praise and deference toward their mentor and friend.

More than anything, the conference was a testament to the continuing importance of Professor Mayhew’s work on Congress and parties. I read Congress: The Electoral Connection as an undergraduate, and I remember finding it hard to imagine how a book that still resonated so clearly could be decades old. As several conference participants remarked, nearly 40 years after its publication the book’s underlying theories remain powerful in explaining contemporary legislative behavior. With several participants responding to Professor Mayhew’s work or discussing the ways in which his work has shaped their own research, the conference put into perspective his work’s central importance to the field. Princeton professor R. Douglas Arnold said it best, telling the attendees that the academic literature on Congress can be cleanly categorized as coming “before” or “after” Congress: The Electoral Connection.

The conference was not only a fitting tribute to Professor Mayhew, but also a forum for developing and sharing a large body of new and excellent research on Congress and parties. Given the illustrious list of presenters, this is no surprise. For me, and I imagine for other graduate students, the conference was also an opportunity to see firsthand the importance of teaching and mentoring in building strong academic careers. As several conference participants emphasized, Professor Mayhew has been exemplary in both roles. I found especially moving the stories Yale professor Alan Gerber and others told of chatting with Professor Mayhew during their undergraduate days as he read the Sunday papers each week in Morse College.

From my short time at Yale, I can add my voice to those who described Professor Mayhew’s generosity with his time and his sincere encouragement of good ideas, no matter what the source. University of Pennsylvania professor Rogers Smith put it best, saying, “David only cared that you did it well.” And, as Professor Mayhew would say, “Well, there it is.”

See photo gallery of Mayhew event.

Congressman David Price’s keynote transcript.