By: Jeanne Cameron
The class had a reputation, and so did its teacher. Hardest course in the major, everyone said. Hardest teacher you’ll ever have, they added. Words, uttered in fear and in reverence. And so I walked into that classroom on the second floor of Old Main, on the first day of classes, in the fall of 1980, nervous in an excited sort of way.
And there was Frank. A lanky 6’1”, butt resting on the edge of the teacher’s desk, long legs, clad in well-worn jeans, spread out in front of him, smoking a cigarette and nodding hello to each of us as we entered the room. Oily wisps of hair framing the bald top of his head, the pocks of adolescent acne marking his white face. Big glasses magnifying a set of piercing brown eyes.
Like his intellectual mentor, C. Wright Mills, Frank suffered no fools. It didn’t matter if the fool was a self-important colleague or a student who loved to hear the sound of his own voice. You know the student I’m talking about, right? I once watched Frank ask just such a student if his mother had been arrested at his birth. Puzzled, the student asked, “No, why would she be arrested?” Peering over those glasses, Frank said, “For smuggling 10 pounds of dope into the country.” And without missing a beat, he moved on to the next thing in his head as if he hadn’t paused at all. A point had been made, there was no need to linger.
Born on August 12, 1948 in Fall River, Massachusetts, Frank was a child of the working class, just like me. He was rough around the edges, just like me. But unlike me, always so busy smoothing and polishing, Frank owned his edges. Seven years after I first walked into that class with him, I would find myself teaching introductory sociology in his department – my first teaching gig. I’d spent hours at the Salvation Army on the prowl for professional clothes, and I’d found a cream-colored linen skirt and blazer that I was especially proud to be wearing.
Passing me in the hall, Frank paused.
You look the part, he said, and then walked on.
It was not a compliment.
A point had been made, there was no need to linger.
To this day, that sociological theory class remains both the most difficult and most important class I’ve taken in my life. I was a dean’s list student, but I hadn’t had to work really, truly hard for any of the A’s I’d accumulated up to that point. In Sociological Theory, I worked my tail off for my A-. The course was devoted to competing theories of social structure and human agency. The reading was hard –Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills. My head hurt.
What are your thoughts on Durkheim’s theory of inequality? Frank asked the class one day.
My reaction was immediate – “It’s complete bullshit!” I asserted. With complete confidence, I might add.
Really? Frank asked. And exactly how is it complete bullshit?
It was not a rhetorical question.
I stumbled. Badly.
In Frank’s view, such certainty without the benefit of reasoned reflection was the very definition of bullshit. The point was made, he did not linger.
For Frank, as a teacher, there were no “right” answers to questions that mattered. He had no interest in convincing his students to think as he thought. In fact, during that class, I never knew what Frank thought. He could make Emile Durkheim seem like the brightest mind history had ever produced, on a Thursday. And then turn around and do the same thing with Karl Marx the following Tuesday. You see, Frank shared John Dewey’s belief that the only freedom “of enduring importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgment.” What appeared at the time as simply a gift for making each theorist sound as brilliant as the next was in fact designed to make us – his students – see the power of words and ideas, not just those we agreed with, but more importantly those we didn’t. Because here’s the thing. I still think Karl Marx was more right about inequality than Emile Durkheim. But I had to engage with Durkheim in a serious way, in order to construct a reasoned reflection of Marx. And truth be told, I came to admire Durkheim’s mind-craft.
No single person or event brought me to my vocation: sociologist/teacher/writer. My working class mother likely started the snowball’s descent by reading to me each night and by modeling what it looks like to listen intently to others. My high school English teacher, Lil Reed, introduced me to The Grapes of Wrath, inspiring the epiphany that biography and history are one and the same story. And Frank, by introducing me to C. Wright Mills, gave me a name for the ability to make sense of that singular story: the sociological imagination. And it was Frank who told me I needed to go to graduate school and become a sociologist, and the fact that his edges were as rough as mine made me believe I could actually do it. And while it is true that my style as a teacher is very different than Frank’s, it is also true that I would not have become a teacher had Frank not been mine.