My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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RIP Peter Lyman

I had dropped out of grad school and was determined not to go back when my undergrad advisor encouraged me to meet Peter Lyman. I went to Berkeley to meet him only to find out that he had been called away to do jury duty. There was a message for me, telling me to come over for dinner with other grad students. So I arrived at his house, completely uncertain about what I was supposed to do or say. His casual, open, and supportive demeanor made me love him instantaneously and we chatted about all sorts of things. I felt an immediate connection and he encouraged me to apply, even if the deadline had already passed.

After I was accepted, we began plotting. We were always quite good at playing good cop/bad cop and working together to bend whatever rules faced us. We spent long hours talking about everything under the sun, going out for lunch or just sitting in his office grabbing books to debate about. I loved listening to Peter’s stories about starting the Free Speech Movement Cafe at Berkeley or talking to telcos in Mexico. Both of us had an activist streak and we loved plotting about how we would change academia or mediated society or whatever.

When Peter was first diagnosed with brain cancer, it was a complete shock. He went into surgery and I took over his class. We were all convinced that everything would get completely better and that optimistic outlook allowed us to plow through the worst of the pain. The surgery was successful, but chemo was a bitch. Even though he got better, the drugs ate at him and we had many painful conversations about how much life had changed because of the cancer. Still, we imagined a world when everything would get better and worked towards that.

Over time, new patterns emerged and we got back to plotting even though the pain never really went away. We talked about youth culture and academic publishing and regulation to suppress youth, albeit in calmer chunks than before. The MacArthur Foundation gave us plenty of room to plot and imagine a different future and we relished the opportunities to cause trouble together.

Four months ago, Peter called with dreadful news: the cancer was back, with a vengeance. Our conversations lost their plotting luster but Peter and I still got together and phone regularly to talk about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. As things grew worse, our conversations became more stilted, but his first student (Michael Carter) was always there to help Peter share stories. In the midst of all of this, Peter’s son Andrew and his wife gave birth to twin boys. Just the mere mention of the babies would put a smile to Peter’s face and a great deal of life revolved around those kids. But the cancer continued to do its damage and slowly, Peter faded away in the comfort of his home and with the loving support of his family. This morning, he left this earth.

Few students that I know have close relationships with their advisor. I was very fortunate in that way. Peter and I were always friends first, mentor/mentee second. Yet, he was always there to guide me through the perils of academic life. I wish that I could capture all of our conversations in a bottle. What I remember most is how much they always energized and motivated me to continue trying to change the world. I couldn’t have asked for more out of an advisor. He always knew who I should talk to or what I should read or how to make me think about a problem from a new direction. And no matter how crotchety I got in the field, he always gave me hope that change could happen.

I am going to miss him dreadfully. Peter was an amazing friend and an amazing advisor. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. May he rest in peace.

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18 comments to RIP Peter Lyman

  • Enginseer

    My heart goes out to you for your loss. May the memories of brighter days and better times help ease the anguish today has brought.

  • alicetiara

    Oh, danah, I’m so very very sorry for your loss. Take care of yourself & your friends. xoxoox

  • I am sorry for your loss, you have my condolences and best wishes. I wish you, his other students, his colleagues and family the best in these days of loss and grieving. I hope that you will find time to celebrate his life and work sometime in the future.

  • I’m terribly sorry to hear about your loss. What you had in your relationship with your advisor was and is remarkable.

    Jeromy

  • Oh, danah, what terrible news. I had the good fortune to meet with Peter the few times I visited with the DigitalYouth group in Berkeley. He struck me as a generous, warm and brilliant man, with a wonderful wife, great research, and a knack for making a stranger feel right at home. Please convey my sincere condolences to Barrie and the group for their profound loss.

  • I always felt dumbfounded around Peter, that anything I said to him was something he already knew. At the same time, he always looked to us to teach him the things that were foreign to him. And there was the time when everyone first met about the MacArthur stuffs where I said something that struck him, but I could never again remember what I had said 🙁

    His greatest joy was teaching students like us. He said it to me in as few words; “I do it for you” (students). That’s how I will always remember Peter.

    I’m very sorry that he passed on, and I hope that you’ll be ok. But if there’s any consolation, it’s that his spirit lives on in the people that he taught and inspired 🙂

  • Sarita Yardi

    Peter was one of the dearest and wisest men I have ever met. The two years I spent with him and the Digital Youth group was enough to completely derail my career path into something that I love and have been fortunate to continue based on what he taught me. I think he knew how much his students looked up to him and adored him… that is my comforting thought. He will be sorely missed.

  • Sarita Yardi

    Peter was one of the dearest and wisest men I have ever met. The two years I spent with him and the Digital Youth group was enough to completely derail my career path into something that I love and have been fortunate to continue based on what he taught me. I think he knew how much his students looked up to him and adored him… that is my comforting thought. He will be sorely missed.

  • Thanks for your wonderful post. It’s been several years since I’ve seen Peter but this really reminded me of what a gem he was. He’ll be very much missed.

  • danah, thanks for sharing such a loving account of Peter. I’d never met him personally but am a big fan and can see his influence in all the people from the Digital Youth project. Thankfully I have not lost my greatest mentors but the way you communicate your respect and love for Peter is something I sincerely share. I hope that Peter’s death reminds us all to continue to show our mentors how much we appreciate their friendship and support.

  • I met Peter once – he welcomed me into his home, listened as if he profoundly cared, was generous with his time and ideas. The universe is in motion because of folks like Peter – their hope and dreams fuel stuff, in a way that fossils just can not.

    Thoughts & prayers to you & all others who mourn his passing.

  • Sincerest sympathies; condolences to his family.

  • I am so sorry…I remember when I met you a couple months ago, you told me about your situation with your advisor and his failing health. I really appreciated reading what you wrote here about him, and I can get a taste of what your experience with him was like and also your loss. You are so right about few people having a close relationship with their advisors, as I can attest. Thank you for sharing this, and remember that Peter’s lessons live on through you.

  • Matti Rantanen

    I join you in this grief. I am heart broken. I will always remember Peter as a person who did not believe in the status quo, who redefined circumstances, who braved to include people from the fringe of systems, who saw beyond the surface, who made people feel as one, who included, not excluded, who saw boundaries where others did not, and who redefined the boundaries others lacked knowledge of. Peter was a person who lived by such high standards, who went to the field and changed the life for the benefit of his students and who did not think twice at the cost of that effort. Missing Peter, Matti

  • Diana Nicholson

    I have had a quote by Peter Lyman on my office wall for several years. Today I decided to re-search his work to see if I could locate the source of the quote I have long since misplaced. His words:
    “The tension between theory and practice becomes a chasm of alienation when private sorrows are suffered silently, unredeemed by collective reflection and response.”

    I am sorry to hear of his passing. His words live on even among those such as I who did not know him personally.

  • Sarah Price

    Peter – a giant who casts a long shadow. Very very sorry.

    Sarah (Edinburgh)

  • It is the few who can incite energy within us to push for change and the few who help us to understand it to be truly possible.

    I am truly sorrowful for the loss of Peter Lyman and his possible future contributions to our great, but flawed world.

    May his passing inspire you to do your greatest work, to incite the same fervor and energy in your students and in yourself to bring about the forms of radical change you and he had so hypothesized in public and private venues.

  • anon

    I have only regrets