A letter from Ron to his Queen’s College colleagues on the occasion of his retirement, but including a life/professional sketch:
From Ron Lawson, March 24, 2009
Thank you all for a wonderful shared celebration yesterday—both company and food were excellent. I had mentioned to Marty, only half-seriously, that there was story most of you would not know that I would have liked to share with you, but the fact that we would not have a room to ourselves would make that impossible. Last night I dreamed about the department and the celebration, and woke up wishing I had had an opportunity to say more in response to the warm remarks of so many of you, and this led to the question of what I would have liked to say. Eventually I turned on the light and wrote some notes before returning to sleep. What I am about to write is based on those ‘night visions’ and subsequent thoughts.
I begin with the story I mentioned above, which will begin to suggest why the department is especially important to me. As most of you no doubt know, I grew up in Australia and received my Ph.D. there in 1970. After that I set out on international travel, which had been long delayed by studies and distance. A friend and I hitch-hiked to Darwin, in Northern Australia, and from there flew in stages to what was then Portuguese Timor and then to Bali. An accident there on a rented motor scooter put me in hospital with internal bleeding around a knee. When it became clear that something serious was wrong that the doctor there was not diagnosing, I flew home to Brisbane, where the hospital found I had a blood clot in a lung, put me on a blood thinner, and forbade me to resume the trip until a total of 8 weeks had passed. I used the intervening time to think about what I might do after the big trip was over, decided on post-doctoral work in the US, and started writing some letters to people whom Charles Tilly had suggested in response to a letter to him seeking advice. One of these, Eugene Litwak from the U. of Michigan, wrote to say he would be in Tel Aviv on sabbatical, and invited me to look him up if my route took me that way. When we met there, he offered me a spot on a grant starting the following September. However, a letter from him at a mail drop in Lund, Sweden, a few months later told me he had taken a position at Columbia U. He would not have any money to pay me a salary there, but a friend who was chair of sociology at Hunter College was willing to employ me as an adjunct professor there, since CUNY had adopted open enrolment and students were pouring in.
However, when I arrived at CU on Sept.1, 1971, I found that Litwak had stayed on at Ann Arbor for an extra semester. CU was expecting me as a post-doc student, and there was a note from Litwak putting me in touch with Nelson Foote at Hunter. Foote offered me two courses per semester that year at $900 per course. I initially had no idea whether $3,600 would allow me to survive for a year in the Big Apple, but survive I did, thanks to cheap rent for a room in a rent controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. I was also helped by the fact that the would-be robber who stabbed me in the stomach in the lobby of a building on Riverside Drive one night about six weeks after I arrived in NYC managed to hit nothing important. (Yes, in 1971 New York City was already on track for its economic collapse a few years later.) Fortunately for me, Nelson Foote thought me a talented teacher, with the result that he engineered an appointment for me as a Visiting Professor 2/3rds time for the next year, which enabled me to rent an apartment of my own.
Meanwhile, since Litwak was absent, I initially used my time at CU to audit the classes of the famous professors whose books I had read back in Australia--Merton, Lazarsfeld, Blau, Gans, and several others. The most important class, however, turned out to be a field methods course taught by Sam Sieber, a research associate at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Through that course I really began to explore NYC. We had to write a paper that was of course based on our own field research. I had nothing to suggest initially, but three friends there came up with a good idea, and we decided to work together. One of these was a friendly, able and radical student named Marty Hanlon—I still have a photo of him taken at a demonstration that appeared in the Columbia Spectator early in the semester.
A new law had taken effect in NYC on July 1 which made it impossible, for the first time since World War II, to move into a rent controlled apartment. When tenants moved out, this “vacancy decontrol” law allowed rents to rise to “market rates”—and these represented so great an increase that many landlords were doing everything feasible, legal and illegal, to “encourage” their tenants to move out. Consequently, tenants were up in arms and tenant organizations were booming. Since two of our number lived in Washington Heights, we four students decided to study the dynamics at two neighborhood tenant associations in abutting parts of that section of Manhattan. I attended meetings where threatened, angry tenants raised their voices. I also got to know Blacks and Hispanics for the first time, and heard a lot of “pinko” rhetoric at the meetings of one of the two organizations in particular. I reveled in it all. Moreover, since I had been trained in history as well as sociology, I became interested in finding out if this was the first time that tenants had joined together to defend their cause, and I began to find evidence of earlier mobilizations.
Another seminar I became involved in focused on historical sociology and was taught by Sigmund Diamond, the then chair of Sociology at CU. When it was my turn to present there during the Spring of 1972, I talked about tenants. One student apparently paid close attention. She was a student assistant to Amitai Etzioni, who was officially on leave from CU and was building up his Center for Policy Research (CPR), which was seen by the Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR) as an illegal interloper, since it was independent from CU. The next time I saw Etzioni’s assistant she astonished me by telling me that Amitai wanted to see me. It turned out that she had told him about my presentation to Diamond’s class, and he was eager to hear more, asking lots of questions. Near the end of our discussion he told me that my idea was fundable, and offered to pay salaries to me and two other helpers for two months while we wrote a proposal for Elliot Liebow’s “shop” within NIMH. Fortunately Marty and another of our group, Charlotte Ellis, were willing to help, and Etzioni persuaded Herbert Gans to lend me his name as the other non-functioning Principal Investigator. When I left Australia it had been my sense that $500 was a large grant there, so I was amazed when I saw the budget that the CPR office helped us develop. Several months later I received word that NIMH had awarded me $200,000 to study the history and current status of the tenant movement in NYC. That was a large grant in those days.
During 1972-3, as I geared up to begin the tenant movement study, I made my first presentation to a sociological meeting—at the Eastern Sociological Society, which met that year in NYC. To my total surprise, Nelson Foote of Hunter College attended the presentation, and he was impressed. As a result, I was hired to the Assistant Professor position the department was filling that year. Having a “tenure track" position suggested that my stay in the US would be much longer than the two years I had originally anticipated. I quickly noticed that there was a deep gulf between tenured and untenured faculty in the department at Hunter College: we second-class citizens had small desks in a converted classroom, we taught introductory courses in various buildings scattered within a 15-block radius, and the department (College?) encouraged a strongly competitive atmosphere which undermined cohesion among the untenured faculty: for example, the three assistant professors hired a year in advance of me, all of whom seemed to be excellent, had been told that only one of them would be awarded tenure.
In 1974, after years of internal struggle flowing from my strongly conservative Christian background, I finally came out as a gay man. That year I attended a meeting of the American Sociological Association for the first time. When I checked out the program I noted a session on homosexuality in the meeting’s first time slot. The session turned out to be a travesty, organized by an anti-gay professor at CCNY whose intention was to attack the new research, friendly to gays and lesbians, that had begun to sprout following the beginning of the movement in 1969. For example, the organizer grilled Laud Humphreys, a married Episcopalian priest who had presented a paper based on his dissertation, which was about to be published as The Tearoom Trade, concerning whether he was homosexual! Outraged, I approached another member of the audience whom I figured was gay that at the end of the session, when we quickly drew up and posted notices announcing that the “Sociologists Gay Caucus” would meet in my room the following night. When over 30 people showed up we had to find a free meeting room, where I found myself, a neophyte in the movement, elected as president of the new caucus. Our first concern was to showcase the new research. When we found that the incoming president of ASA the following year had not planned for such a session, I grabbed him at the end of the business meeting, where we had a strong and ultimately successful discussion. However, we were suddenly interrupted by someone who, agitated, informed us that the whole conversation was coming over the public address system. That was how I came out to the ASA.
However, even though I became very proud of what I was doing with the Caucus, I had not come out at Hunter College, where I feared that my mentor, Foote, who had spent most of his sociological career working for GE, might not respond positively. However, when he went on sabbatical in 1976 and resigned as chair, I became strongly involved in the successful campaign to elect Alphonso Pinkney, a charismatic black radical, as his successor. A few days after his election, Al and I met for brunch on a Sunday. Naively assuming that a black radical would understand and support the gay movement, I told him about my role in the Caucus and on a major related ASA committee, and said how pleased I was that I could now put these items on my vita. I was unnerved, however, when he did not say a word in response! When it came time for my annual reappointment to my 4th year at Hunter, the Dean, with whom I had become close since I had organized a 5-course, 4 professor module on housing and landlord-tenant conflict at her behest, told me that even though the department committee had voted for my reappointment, Pinkney had asked his fellow chairs, at their next level up, to vote me down, which they had done, she said, without even asking questions. I later discovered that Pinkney was a closet case who was very threatened at the thought of having an openly gay colleague.
The faculty union, the PSC, fought the decision, telling me that they expected to win. However, in May I found that this was not the result, and that I would have no job at Hunter come September. This presented me with a crisis, for I had applied for a “Green Card” which was due to come through that Summer, at which point I would have to prove that I was still employed in order to receive it. The chances of finding an academic post for September at such a late date seemed remote. However, the next Sunday I saw an ad for a line in our Urban Studies Department at QC, and I immediately applied. Bill Muraskin, who was the chair of what was then a tiny department, called me within days—my large study of tenants and housing had caught his eye. I feared that my inability to bring a reference from Pinkney could cause a problem, but when I explained the situation openly to Bill he understood and smoothed the way with our crusty Dean. So I was hired—and even though I had been let go from Hunter as an Assistant Professor, I now found myself on the next rung—as Associate Professor. Moreover, everything was in place when the Green Card came through. Whew!
It was also a huge relief to discover that Queens College was the reverse to Hunter in one key respect, even though both colleges were part of the same University: rather than encouraging competition and isolation, the QC culture was extremely supportive of new faculty, for it was regarded as a black eye for any department whose candidate did not gain tenure. Our department put me up for early tenure, and by 1984, aided by the timely publishing of my book on the Tenant Movement, I was a Full Professor. My being gay presented no problem, neither did the fact that I was not Jewish in a department where, at that time, everyone else was. As someone put it, the surprise was not that I was Christian but that I was religious rather than secular. As far as I was concerned, I had arrived at what seemed like academic heaven. By this time I was doing a study for HUD on the impact of tenant strategies on the social process of housing abandonment. I employed students in my research, which helped attract some of the best students to my courses on housing and protest movements. The environment was friendly, the classes stimulating.
I mentioned above that I was raised in a conservative church, the American-born Seventh-day Adventist Church. When I took a course on the sociology of religion back in Australia I suddenly understood Adventist dynamics in a new way, and I suggested focusing my dissertation on this topic. However, this was the time when Mainline religion was declining and most academics assumed this meant that the future was secularization. When my advisor retorted, “Do you want to get a teaching position when you are finished?!”, I turned my attention to urban historical sociology. However, those of us who were aware of the dynamics of the conservative groups, especially American-born ones such as Mormons, Adventists, Witnesses, and Pentecostals, knew that these groups were growing rapidly worldwide. My work on the tenant movement in New York showed me that the strongest tenant organizations were often sponsored by churches: the Catholic Church, for example, had seen too many churches and schools decline as housing abandonment forced its members in the surrounding communities to move on, leaving behind huge barely used buildings. My work as organist and choir director in West Indian-dominated Episcopal churches, as well as my familiarity with Adventist congregations in New York, taught me that churches played a key role as a bridge between old and new cultures for immigrants—a place where they could feel at home as they celebrated their own cultures and yet where they could get help finding employment, housing, and legal status. I wanted to develop a course on religious movements, in which I purposefully defined "movements" as having two meanings—the evolution and dynamics of the American-born religious groups that were seeing huge growth in the Developing World, and the role of churches in providing a bridge for new immigrants from those countries to the US. It took some years to persuade my secular colleagues that such a course was significant to a program in Urban Studies. Later, as the power of the Religious Right expanded from the 1980s onwards, I developed a course on Religion and Politics, which also looked closely at the Religious Left--far earlier than it attracted attention in the press. In many ways this course took off chronologically where my course on Protest Movements ended—the latter had focused on the impact of the movements of the 1960s and 70s on social movement theory, and thus on our understanding of the dynamics of the phenomenon.
With the publication of my book on tenant-landlord conflict and politics, and my growing interest in these religious dynamics, I decided it was time to launch a revised version of the study that had been rejected when I had proposed it as a dissertation topic. Initially my goal was to complete a study of Adventism in the US, but as I got into the research I realized that the most interesting things about Adventism flowed from its rapid growth in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific: for example, the dynamics of such changes within a body that had long been run and financed by Americans, and the impact on both society and church when Adventists, who have never had the numbers in the US to aggregate political influence here, increasingly found themselves ascending to high positions in countries in the Developing World. As a result, my research became global, taking me to 59 countries where I completed 3,500 in-depth interviews. (I had switched initially from history to sociology because I found research in archives rather lonely and tedious, while I loved interviews, especially when they opened windows to new societies.)
I fear that with my retirement, and without me being present to make the case for the relevance of courses like Religious Movements and Religion and Politics to the mission of our department, that the department could return to secular mode, or perhaps content itself with some exotic courses instead. Don’t let that happen! Perhaps I should remind you that in the 1970s and 1980s most of the courses offered at US universities on religious movements focused on the then new movements, like the Moonies, Hare Krishnas, and the Children of God (later known as the Love Family). These have gone nowhere, and their lifespan has been so short that even though they initially created interest because they were exotic, there was little to learn from them about either their impact or their dynamics over time. My interest in the longer lasting movements allows for the development of a much deeper theoretical understanding. Moreover, my concern for the interrelationship between religion and immigrants from the Developing World was ignored by those courses and indeed by academia until recently.
Finally, let me come to what it has meant to me to be a college teacher and what I have to offer here in terms of some ideas and concerns. I have found teaching at QC immensely satisfying—in general, a great privilege. The rewards have been great—both official and personal. Some of you may remember that one of the big surprises of my years at the college was the unexpected decision of the Student Association to create a “Teacher of the Year” award, which they awarded to me the in its first year. (To be honest, I have no idea whether it was ever awarded by the SA again!) The story behind that is that for several years when the SA was going through a fairly radical phase my classes became very popular with those running the SA, and apparently these decided on a new way to show their appreciation. I am pretty sure that this surprise award became, in turn, a major reason why I was awarded the College’s Award for Excellence in Teaching the following year. I keep the SA plaque on my wall, for it is for me a symbol of the many close relationships I formed with students: it was astonishing how many of them enrolled in several of my courses, and how many shyly came to me to say astonishing things like “your course changed my life.” One of the students who has played a major role in the revival of SDS on campus, who has spent a lot of time also on community organizing, and who is now committed to becoming a professor so that she too can “make a difference” has taken five courses with me. When she took the first of these I found that she had a spotty social and family background, including some severe social problems, and while she was clearly bright, she did not yet realize her potential. I have seen her develop, mature, and gain a vision for her future, and her grades have climbed consistently from the first A- to the last two A+--I have found her progress exciting and rewarding. Yes, we professors can help make a huge difference to lives, and through those lives to society.
What do I think makes a good teacher? I have no simple recipe, but I do have some ideas that may interest you and even prove useful:
(a) I believe that the way I chose to develop courses directly out of my current research interests, so that both research and courses fed into one another, giving me enthusiasm for what I taught while presenting the ideas and data in the classroom helped clarify them in my mind. My content was fresh, and I was eagerly interested in it.
(b) I developed detailed syllabi which laid out what would happen in every class and what was expected from the students for that class, and I stayed on schedule throughout the semester. I went through the syllabus with the students on the first meeting of the class and pulled no punches, making it clear that I was a demanding teacher and that there would be no compromises. At the same time I tried to give them a sense that our journey ahead together was going to be an exciting learning experience. The result was that those who were looking for an easy A took fright and changed to another course if they were not open to catch the excitement. In this way I ended up with higher quality, more committed students, though of course still with the problem we all know so well of having a wide variety of abilities in the classroom.
(c) I made a point to share myself and some of my personal story with the students. For example, I realized later how much I had lost, and felt isolated in my personal struggle, because I had never had a gay mentor while at university. I therefore vowed to let the students know gently that I was gay on the first day of each new semester, for example by mentioning my involvement in the gay and lesbian movement at the beginning of a Protest Movements course: I was not prepared, later in the semester, to talk about “them” when I meant “us”. I also drew on my own varied world-wide life experiences as examples in courses, which led students to think about the relevance of the course content to their own lives, and often to use their experiences in class discussions. This personal openness led to sharing, a general openness, and trust within the classes—and that, I believe, resulted in the students learning more and remembering the classes more vividly.
(d) I tried to show students that I cared about them. This was more difficult in our commuter college environment, where students often grabbed me for a minute after class because their lives were too full of work, study, family crises, and travel time for them to be able to come to see me during my office hours. Nevertheless, I tried to call or email students who had missed a few classes or an assignment in order to encourage them. As a result I heard astonishing things—about drug addictions and having to find time to attend NA meetings five times per week, unwanted pregnancies, lives that were just too full. I saw some of these students develop remarkably. For example, fairly early in my last teaching semester I took a call from a mother who wanted to know whether her son was attending class and preparing the weekly assignments: she said he was bright, doing well in many courses, but failing an average of one course per semester. Since I regarded the student as an adult, I told his Mother I could not answer her questions about him. However, since I knew he was indeed missing most classes and assignments, I called him, and was both stern and encouraging/friendly. The result was a transformed, appreciative student, who became one of the best in the class, and who earned an A in spite of poor grades for the first third of the semester.
I am sure that you have all had similar experiences with students, but maybe reading my take on my experiences has given you some new ideas. I cannot pretend that I have always followed up on students as I should have--I have been distracted, sometimes lazy. I wish, looking back, that I had been more consistent, especially in following up and encouraging those who were beginning to attend less regularly. I told students again and again that by far the most frequent reason for failing courses was dropping out, which was much more important than actually failing exams. Unfortunately, some of those who drop out are not poor students, but are those with high standards for themselves who do not persist when they think they are falling short of what they expect of themselves. I have found that taking the effort to contact and encourage them has often brought success in re-energizing them.
My years in our department have been very satisfying, bringing meaning and joy, and remarkably little frustration, especially in terms of my relationships with you all. I am grateful for the warmth we have developed for one another, and that our department was successful in avoiding so much of what can be irksome to a college professor. I thank each of you for the friendship and support I have received from you. I salute and thank especially all those who have been chairs of the department during my 38 years here: Bill Muraskin, Matt Edel, Marty Hanlon, and Len Rodberg. From the bottom of my heart I thank those who have served as Department Secretaries, and especially the current and recent ones whom we have learned to love and appreciate so much for informing and welcoming students, making our responsibilities less burdensome and, especially, for doing much to create a pleasant atmosphere and the all-important social glue within the Department.
I confess to being happy that my leaving is voluntary, even if I am the first of our professors to retire rather than die in harness. As a group we have really hung in there: I pause to remember the three who died at their desks, so to speak (Matt Edel, Paul Davidoff, and Herb Bienstock), and to note that I can recall only three who left for other academic positions in my time. By the way, in keeping with the QC culture mentioned above, our record is that no one among us failed to gain tenure.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the opportunity to get to know more of our adjunct teachers better and to mentor some of them. They introduce the department to many students, and they deserve to know better who we are, our academic interests, and a lot more about the department as a whole so that they can introduce it correctly. We continue to have a social class-like cleavage between full- and part-time faculty. When I think about that, it makes me uncomfortable--but mostly I have put it out of my mind and therefore done little to change the situation. Indeed, in many (most?) cases I only met and communicated with a member of our adjunct faculty when I was given the task of critiquing one of his/her classes. I tried hard to make that a positive experience for the teacher, but this was clearly inadequate.
I have not ceased to be an academic: the major factor pushing me to retire was not health problems but my desire to make use of all that research I did around the world in the three books I have promised to write but which were coming along far too slowly. I am glad to grasp the new title of Professor Emeritus. I may have officially retired, but this is still my department, and I intend to keep the ties strong and to return frequently to see you (don't forget to continue to include me in department celebrations!) and, from time to time, to teach a course. However, occasional courses from me will not be enough to cover my important courses as they should be covered: the College administration must approve finding a replacement for me, and the department must find the right person. I’ll be egging you on in this process! Indeed, if asked, I will be happy to recommend a candidate or two...