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.)