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Tuesday, September 8, 2020


During Chris Mulvaney’s delightful comment about getting bounced from Georgetown, he mentioned my UMass course Introduction to Social Philosophy. There are several nice stories connected with that course which I thought I would tell on this first day after Labor Day when the weather is getting a bit cooler and my anxiety level about the election is rising.

As part of my first teaching job at Harvard, I served as the first head tutor of a new undergraduate interdisciplinary concentration called Social Studies. (Close readers of the news may recall that Merrick Garland, Obama’s ill-fated nominee for the Supreme Court, majored in Social Studies as an undergraduate.) When I got to UMass in 1971 I decided that I wanted to create what was essentially a left-wing version of Social Studies, to which I gave the name Social Thought and Political Economy. The UMass computer rendered this as STPEC, or stepic, as it was usually referred to. Since this was an extremely low budget operation (the initial budget for the program was zero), I hit on the idea of having students in the program take an assortment of courses in the relevant social sciences and humanities capped by a senior seminar that would be taught by two senior members of the faculty from different departments (thus guaranteeing that it would be “interdisciplinary.”) The first year, the senior seminar was taught by myself and my friend and colleague in the political science department William Connolly (who, among his many other accomplishments, was the key figure in transforming the economics department into the best collection of Marxist economists in the United States.)

Word got out to juniors in the program that the senior seminar was brutally hard and in response to their anxiety, I created a junior seminar that would prepare them to take the senior seminar. I got a young professor at Mount Holyoke College, Tracy Strong, to teach the junior seminar but he laid a heavy rap on the students and word got back to the freshmen and sophomores in the program that the junior seminar required preparation that they did not have. Once again I responded, this time by creating a new introductory course – philosophy 161, Introduction to Social Philosophy – to prepare the students to take the junior seminar so that they would be ready to take the senior seminar. Thus began a tradition in the program of making its development student – driven, a tradition that was maintained and greatly expanded by Prof. Sara Lennox when in 1980 she took over directorship of STPEC because I had moved to Boston and would only be commuting back two or three days a week.  STPEC still flourishes and in three years, when I am 89 years old, I have every hope of returning to Amherst for its 50th anniversary celebration.

One day during the first year that I was teaching philosophy 161, a young woman in the class came up to me after a lecture with a complaint. I should explain that the Pioneer Valley where UMass is located had an extremely vibrant women’s movement and UMass itself had a strong women’s studies program that in time became an independent department. The young woman objected to the fact that when I lectured, I always used the male pronoun even when I was referring to groups of people that included women as well as men. I thought about that for a bit and realized she was right so starting with the next class, I adopted the practice of alternating between the male and female pronouns more or less ritually (I prefer this solution to using “they” or “them” or “their.”)

It was typical of UMass in those days that the needs, interests, and demands of students played an important role in what professors did and said. I have thought about this from time to time and it seems to me that it would have been much less likely for students at Harvard or Columbia to play such a role, for all that they were willing to seize a building or organize a strike. (I leave aside the University of Chicago which, in the early 1960s when I taught there, was very much a world of its own.)


Unknown said...

Merrick Garland is who you mean, not Gorsuch (ill-suited if not ill-fated).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite right. My bad. Thank you, I have corrected it.

LFC said...

Re STEPIC, you say that you wanted "to create what was essentially a left-wing version of Social Studies."

Just thought I wd mention in this connection (w/o getting *too* detailed) that when I was majoring in Social Studies in the latter part of the 1970s, while those who taught in the program had a range of views (as did, to some extent, the students), I think it's definitely fair to say that it had a left-ish vibe. The curriculum and, obviously, the faculty have changed somewhat in the intervening decades, and I don't have an esp good sense of what the program is like today, or what it was like c.1960. But in my sophomore tutorial, which may or may not have been completely typical, Marx was definitely the centerpiece, though we also read other things, namely Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud (plus a bit of history at the beginning). Adam Smith and J.S. Mill were usually on the syllabus too, but for some reason they were omitted in the particular year I took Soc. Stud. 10.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, I know that at Harvard Social Studies was considered as far left as it was permissable to go without falling off the edge of the earth. Which tells you something about Harvard! By the way, when Bob Rawls, John Rawls' son, went to UMass he majored in STPEC.

Danny said...

'It was typical of UMass in those days that the needs, interests, and demands of students played an important role in what professors did and said.'

everybody gets an "A".

Jon said...

At the same time, my recollection from the same time period as LFC is that Soc Stud was a selective concentration; you had to apply to be admitted. I majored in Government, in part because I felt that Harvard was already elitist & hierarchical enough without adding in concentrations that saw themselves as too good for the common herd. (I'm not saying this was the right choice, but it's how it seemed to me at the time.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jon, in 1950, when I was a freshman, one had to apply to one of the Houses and be interviewed. I was so offended I did not go for interviews, and ended up in a cavernous single in Claverly, an "overflow" building for those who could not get into a House. It was that Ivy League attitude writ large that led me, in 1971, to leave a tenured professorship at Columbia and go to UMass, the best professional decision I ever made.

LFC said...

Jon is right: one did have to apply and be admitted to Soc Stud. What has happened over the intervening years, however -- and I think this is a good development -- is that Social Studies has expanded to the point where now I'm pretty sure, though not absolutely positive, that anyone who wants to "concentrate" in Soc Stud is able to do so.

Another selective concentration in the time period in question was History and Literature. I am not sure whether it has expanded over the years to take on more students in the way that Soc Stud has.

The quality of advising in Soc Stud has also probably improved over the years, and students these days seem to be required to formulate a coherent program of study, whereas in the late 70s that wasn't as much the case. I certainly took a few courses that were pretty much a waste of time and conversely I did not take some courses I should have -- better advising would have helped here. As a sophomore I did wisely decide to take Ec 10, as the big intro to economics was then called, even though at the time Soc Stud did not require one to do that. I say "wisely" not because I'm a big fan of mainstream neoclassical economics but because it was useful to be exposed to that version of it at the same time as I was reading Marx in S.S. 10.