In the early spring of 1967, I flew from a cold, gray Chicago to a beautiful, sunny, and wonderfully green North Carolina, and was met at the Raleigh-Durham airport by Charlie Bowerman, the then chair of the UNC Department of Sociology. Having finished my course work at the University of Chicago and perhaps half way through writing my dissertation, I had been invited to interview for an assistant professor position in the department, with an emphasis on the sociology of religion. From the airport, we drove to Charlie’s house, where we were joined, appropriately enough, by Gerry Lenski, whose book on The Religious Factor, which I had read as an undergraduate several years earlier, was partially responsible for my interest in this field. I still recall the next hour or so as thoroughly pleasant: good conversation coupled with Charlie’s excellent scotch and, of course, the remarkable weather.
The next couple days are now pretty much a blur, although I recall a set of individual meetings with department faculty and then a challenging session with the entire department faculty, While I have a vague recollection of thinking that I didn’t acquit myself particularly well at the latter, I knew as I flew home that this was a position I really wanted, and I was delighted when I subsequently received the offer.
So, in late summer of ’67, my wife Trudy and I moved to Chapel Hill and settled into a small rental house on Davie Circle. And for a brief period at the University, I shared an office with Tad Blalock in Alumni Hall, while overflow offices were being prepared in Pettigrew for several expanding departments. This was no doubt an imposition on Tad, although he never gave any indication of that; to the contrary, he was more than generous with his time and his interest in my still incomplete dissertation, and he remained one of the senior professors I most respected. But otherwise, that fall term was one I’d rather forget! For two reasons: One, of course, was the need to keep working on the dissertation, even while teaching. But the second had to do with the teaching itself. My only teaching experience had been serving as an adjunct for a year at the University of Illinois in Chicago, teaching multiple sections of the introductory sociology course. Now, suddenly, I was teaching, among other courses, a primarily graduate level course in the sociology of religion, with a number of students who were not only older than I but some of whom were priests, nuns, or ordained Protestant ministers. And it quickly dawned on me that at least some in the class had come to UNC to study the sociology of religion with Lenski! So there I was, no doubt knowing less about religion than many in the class and with some of the latter also feeling cheated! The upshot was my felt need to devote more and more time to preparations for each class session, and naturally this was time that didn’t go into the dissertation. It was not a surprise then, but neither was it pleasant, for Bowerman to call me into his office shortly after that term ended to say that unless my dissertation was completed and defended prior to the end of the academic year, I would not be kept on in the department. No scotch was served on this occasion!
The remainder of that first year did improve. I managed to complete and defend the dissertation, receiving my doctorate in the spring of 1968, and I grew more confident in my teaching. Moreover, while I believe I was still the only newcomer in the department, Trudy and I were invited to dinner by several of the senior members (I especially recall dinners with the Lenskis, the Wilsons, and the Simpsons), and we were of course included in the occasional department faculty parties. And the on-going warmth and care of Dick Cramer was especially palpable and greatly appreciated.
But it was in the second year, l968-69, that life in the department and in Chapel Hill more generally really began to engage me. Most important was the arrival of several new junior faculty. Of these, I was especially pleased with the arrival of two of my peers and friends from the University of Chicago: Chic and Paula Goldsmid, Chic joining the sociology and Paula the social work faculties. Both were devoted teachers and deeply engaged in the political movements of the time, and they brought their passions as well as, to Trudy and me, an on-going and ever deepening friendship. This was enhanced by their moving into a house directly across the street from us, as well as occupying offices in Pettigrew. I believe it was in that same year that Dick Roman also was hired into a sociology position and filled another Pettigrew office. Dick was a long-term democratic socialist, as were a couple historians also located in Pettigrew. Informally and then in a more structured manner, a kind of Marxian study group emerged, and I experienced something almost equivalent to a second graduate education, reading widely in the Marxian literature (virtually none of which had been assigned in theory classes at Chicago when I was there) and devoting substantial time to discussions of Marxian ideas and their relevance to contemporary political and social issues. Moreover, I was by then teaching the undergraduate sociological theory course, and was increasingly able to incorporate the Marxian tradition into this course. My point here is not that I had found “the truth”–in retrospect, I see the many limitations of Marxian ideas and consider myself much more of a Durkheimian. But I was reminded of and energized by the joys of serious and politically relevant intellectual talk. Put differently, and speaking of Durkheim, I began to experience the “collective effervescence” that provides a special joy in one’s life.
Whether in that second year or a bit thereafter, I also became part of the undergraduate studies committee, chaired by Ev Wilson, and I recall the stimulation I felt not simply from our committee meetings but from the many informal discussions I had with Ev. Here was this remarkably erudite and distinguished scholar who genuinely cared about teaching, a combination exemplified by the fact that he was the translator of Durkheim’s writings on moral education as well as the author of perhaps the most erudite introductory sociology text ever published. And yet he treated us neophytes as equals, often sharing our frustrations about the seeming inattention to the undergraduate curriculum and seeking our ideas about ways in which this role of the department could achieve the attention and status it deserved. To this end, by the way, Ev, along with Chic Goldsmid, subsequently developed a course on teaching for the sociology graduate students and somewhat later co-wrote and published Passing On Sociology: The Teaching of a Discipline.
What I wasn’t doing during these years, however, was publishing—or at least not very much. As with most of the sociology faculty, I periodically reviewed books for Social Forces, and I also wrote a couple reviews for other journals. And I did publish two articles in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. But that was it. I did apply for and received support from an NSF research grant to the university to study religion—or whatever substituted for it—in Sweden, spent several months over two summers in Sweden conducting this research and acquiring some basic reading knowledge of Swedish, and delivered a talk to department colleagues based on this research. Yet, while I was able to draw repeatedly on this experience in my teaching, as well as for a paper I delivered at the 1972 Southern Sociological Society meetings, I simply didn’t have sufficient evidence to write systematically about my impressions. (This experience did have one very positive consequence, however. Lars Bjorn, obviously a Swede!, began his doctoral work in sociology while I was engaged with this Swedish research, and this led both to help from, and a close friendship with, him, as I was doing this research and subsequently, facilitated by our both becoming Michigan residents.)
Because of this meager publication record, I approached the tenure decision year (1973) realistically. In short, I was pretty sure I would not receive tenure and I didn’t. It did hurt, of course, but it was hardly a surprise. And looking back, I ‘m glad that was the outcome. Thanks again to another UNC sociology graduate student, Paul Wienir, whom I had known particularly well as a neighbor in Chapel Hill and who had subsequently taken a position at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, I learned, not long after the tenure decision at Carolina, about an opening at Kalamazoo College, an innovative and beautiful liberal arts college. Within a week or so, I was invited to interview at the college and did so. Shortly thereafter, I received an offer and was to remain on the “K” faculty for the next 35 years.
So what do I take away from this? First, I’m glad I had the chance to experience life as a faculty member in a very good and I think a particularly collegial department at a major university. Not only was this an opportunity to make numerous friends but one in which to learn a great deal from some extremely bright and decent colleagues and to experience the dramas of the late ’60s and early ’70s on such a large academic stage. This experience also, however, helped me learn more about myself. I love the intellectual life, but I don’t have the temperament (nor probably the talent) to specialize at the level required by a major graduate department. I was much more suited to the life of a liberal arts college, with its usually small classes, the need to teach a fairly large range of courses, and the typical faculty experience of cross-disciplinary collegiality.
What I think about today, however, are the threats to both types of institutions. As more and more adjuncts assume the undergraduate teaching loads at large universities, what will be the impact on the quality of undergraduate education, not because adjuncts are necessarily less competent teachers but because they have so little time to invest in any particular class, let alone any particular student? And with regard to the small liberal arts colleges, will they be able to sustain their curricular coherence as general education requirements often become fewer or sometimes even dropped altogether and as courses frequently become ever more politicized? Or even more worrisome, will these usually small and private institutions, aside from the most famous, even be able to survive economically?
Maybe I should stop reading the Chronicle! But in any event, thanks to the sociologists of UNC and especially to Dick Cramer for this chance to reflect a lot—and to vent at least a bit.
In my retirement, I read a lot–“better” thrillers, some popular history, politics, the NYTs, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, and certainly not least, the New Yorker and the Chronicle. Very little sociology, per se, unless it appears in the “better” magazines. I play my trumpet in a 100-person community concert band and have done so most of my time in Kalamazoo. I’m also active in our neighborhood organization, and I belong to the local Torch Club, to which I’ve presented a couple papers (one on civil religion and another on higher education). Trudy, my wife, worked at Western Michigan University for a number of years, primarily heading the faculty senate office.
Our “children”–both born in Durham–have followed academic paths. Devin (and his wife, Dana) are both on the faculty at UT Austin, both teaching political philosophy. Devin is a genuine scholar and writer, with several books published and one on Hobbes near ready to submit for publication. Both are Straussians, albeit not fitting the stereotype of Straussians as inherently conservative. Nonetheless, they are good critics of knee jerk liberalism. I love to discuss politics with them. They have two children, 8 and 6, and thus we have two grandchildren Our daughter Tema is an accomplished art photographer and writer about same, leading to some significant recognition. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Concordia University in Montreal. (Check her Website: temastauffer.com.) Her wife is named Tawny. (Thus, we have D and D along with T and T!)
One of the best aspects of my life is a weekly lunch with several very good friends, two of whom are also retired K faculty. We borrowed our name, Romeos, from a similar group in NYC: Romeos–retired old men eating out. We’ve been at this for more than 20 years, and I look forward to it every week.
Submitted August 2016