Reflections about 42 years at GW

Professor Paul Churchill
Paul Churchill, Elton Professor
June 19, 2017

Changes at GW

When I began my career at GW faculty responsibilities were much different than they are today.  For many years—and well past my tenure and promotion—faculty taught 3 courses each semester and often had 6 different preparations a year.  Often classes were very large, with the introductory, and often upper-level courses never closing and reaching 60 or more. My largest class was well over 120 students, without a TA, and it was not uncommon to have as many as 140-150 students in a single semester. Needless to say, while research was required as 1/3 of committed time, it could be pursued only in the summer and the first month of each semester. David DeGrazia (who joined us just on the “cusp” between our old model and the newer GW) once said at one time or another I taught every course we offered, and that was perhaps true, as we needed to scramble to cover sabbatical leaves, given a very small budget for adjuncts. One odd outcome of this imposed versatility was that Dick Schlagel, who normally taught Analytical Philosophy, had to vacate it for a semester and I stepped in. Dick nevertheless insisted on coming to very class meeting, and couldn’t agree with my interpretations of Wittgenstein or other figures.  I didn’t protest, but I also got marvelous evaluations from the students!

Despite the common notion that in the 1970s-80s GW was a “commuter school”, the truth is that our students were always very diverse and came from all over the world. Our best students were as good as any we have now, although we had large numbers in the bottom two tiers and many of the top students sought to transfer to marque universities. It is clear, however, if one compares syllabi from that era with those used today that students were expected to work much harder and did read and write far more.

Although we were hard pressed by our teaching loads, in some ways GW was a happier place back then. The faculty as a whole were closer throughout the college, there was a greater level and degree of faculty participation in self-governance, a much stronger esprit des corps, a greater congeniality.  One institution I sorely missed was the common lunch hour: from 12:00-1:30 no classes were scheduled. The third floor of Marvin Center consisted of a homey and genial “faculty club” open for lunch and dinner and where you could always find friends. Faculty in our department also occasionally had lunch with majors either in our department conference room (we were in Rice Hall then) or in the cafeteria on the first floor of Marvin—a large and attractive space, arranged with alcoves to encourage group conversation and filled with large palms, tall, leafy philodendrons, and seasonal flowers.

One obvious change over time is the expansion of GW physically and in terms of facilities.  When I first came, the department was located in Rice Hall, and Funger Hall, Gelman Library, and the Smith Center, and Ross Hall were brand new, many departments operated out of townhouses, Quigley’s (now Tonic) was still a drugstore, and there were many smaller restaurants in the area such as Col. Mustard’s and the “Froggy” Bottom where department faculty often went for a drink at the end of the work day. There was a movie theatre at the corner of 21st. and PA Ave.  As the campus was constantly expanding, there was much noise and dust (as today). One day, while teaching in Monroe Hall, the pneumatic drills being used to repair the outside wall were so loud I couldn’t be heard; in fact, the wall was vibrating. I walked over to the dean’s office and reported that the situation was a glaring example of preference for “bricks and mortar” over education, and asked the associate dean whether I should cancel the class.  At least on that occasion, something was done right away. The drilling stopped, and classes went on.

In the 1970s, there were no copiers or faxes and course syllabi and handouts were made on an old blue-ink mimeograph machine you had to crank by hand. We had typewriters in our office and always needed supplies of white-out. Only secretaries were lucky enough to get a good Selectric with a rolling typing-ball. My first computer, purchased personally was a Kay-pro on which I produced my logic book, Becoming Logical.  I don’t recall when we first received office computers and email, but for a long time all messages were hand-typed memos delivered by GW mail. Think about receiving a dozen or more of these, every day! Of course, there were no lap tops or cell phones (the same old desk phones in faculty offices were not replaced until 2015-16). Students were less distracted in class, and came to visit on office hours much more frequently.

Notes on administration

Of the 3 presidents under whom I served, I believe Elliott, had the best sense of the university as an academic enterprise. Much of the congeniality enjoyed by the faculty, was lost, I believe when Pres. Trachtenberg decided to dramatically increase undergraduate enrollments (as GW was “tuition dependent” which also meant that the endowment was used to expand the physical plant and not on instruction).  As the new class schedules created bizarre time bands (e.g. 12:35-1:50) affecting every department, it was no longer possible to get together for lunch. The steady decline in faculty self-governance developed more slowly, but was due largely, I think, to the increasing size of the administration and its increasing scrutiny of faculty performance beginning under Pres. Trachtenberg and VP Lehman, and most especially the increase in reliance on adjunct and contract faculty, not to mention the shift to student as “client” and ever-increasing emphasis on teaching objectives and program assessments.

During my 42 years at GW I survived 6 deans and 4 interim deans, and for the first 8 years I belonged to two different faculties, the CCAS and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences which was then a separate entity, occasioning dual faculty meetings, communication systems, requirements, etc. I served as chair of the department for 10 years, 1986-88, 1992-94, and 1997-2003. For my first 6 years as chair the department head did not receive a course reduction. In addition, for most of the first 6 years I was also Director of the Peace Studies (1984-88) teaching the senior’s capstone course, and the major in Liberal Arts (subsequently discontinued). In some semesters my teaching load was 4 courses.

When Clara Lovett became Dean of CCAS a few chairs followed my lead in establishing the Dean’s Council which was originally a faculty body (the dean was invited to meetings) to establish greater equity among departments and programs. (The large departments such as PSC and Econ were receiving disproportionate shares of college resources. I believe I was the first chair to insist that we cap the size of classes for pedagogical reasons, and I am glad Dean Lovett appreciated the argument. I served many, many years on different faculty senate, CCAS, and university committees, including chairing a search committee for a dean, and committees studying the 3-semester AY, and the Senate education policy committee.

Major interests

My primary professional interests while at GW were four. First, I was always interested in educational experimentation and the innovative design of educational processes and institutions. Second, I enjoyed and felt good at interdisciplinary work. Third, I thought it crucial to help non-philosophers understand and appreciate the significance of philosophy for their own enterprises. And, fourth, I was keen to promote my students’ development, especially in one-on-one readings and research courses. Not surprising, then, two of my earliest publications were interdisciplinary, one in a law journal and another in a PSC journal.  Among the dozens of students I mentored—including students with Reynolds-Thacher and Gamow awards and those writing Honors thesis—was a student who travelled to London with me to co-present a paper on altruism (subsequently published) and a student in our BA and MA program who worked with me on a book to be published by Oxford.

I collaborated with a psychologist in using the MBTI to study student’s learning of logic, consisting of a large sample from three classes.  The results were presented at two major conferences and informed the development of my well-received logic texts.  Between 1990-92 I was co-director of the University Teaching Center, the predecessor of the University Teaching and Learning Center. I was a member of the team group that received a large NEG grant to develop the team-taught interdisciplinary humanities program which required that I know a variety of texts not usually thought of as philosophical, such as Beowulf, The Inferno, the Decameron, Mort d’Artur, Canterbury Tales, and many others. I team-taught in the program for years, and once with Linda Salamon, then Dean of CCAS.

Courses developed in the Humanities Program provided the basis for what became the University Honors Program which began in CCAS. I offered the inaugural course in 1990 when Susan Strasser was the first director, and continued to teach in the program for several years. Until the arrival of Jonathan Moreno, I was the department’s go-to person for the team-taught interdisciplinary bioethics course, and I also gave lectures to first year medical students. I helped organize the Freshmen Advising Workshop and took part in it (each section was led by a professor and a staff member) for 7 years. I was among the first to offer a Dean’s Seminar and offered 4 different ones; in addition, I was on the faculty team that received Pew funds to implement problem-based learning, and was among the first to become involved in distance education. The development of the Peace Studies Program, in which Peter Caws was also involved, has to be included. This program—now a major—was a direct result of student demand, and faculty mentors were able to persuade the powers that be that students should be allowed to co-teach some courses. The Capital Area Peace Studies Consortium was developed early in the 1980’s consisting of faculty and students from American, Catholic, Trinity, and George Mason as well as GW. Faculty assisted students organize and present papers at an annual conference that rotated among the universities. In good years we had 50-60 presenters divided into undergrad and grad panels.

Among the more unusual ventures was a course I developed for employees of the Washington Post (mostly pressmen and copy editors) held at a hotel on Sheridan Circle (near the Post headquarters), a logic course developed for Social Security employees in Arlington, as well as course on the morality of war for Air Force officers, also in Arlington. I collaborated with Bob Park on colloquia in law and philosophy at our National Law Center, and I was very active in a number of interdisciplinary faculty research groups including environmental sustainability, ethics and international affairs, and political psychology. Finally, I presented and published professional articles on pedagogy and higher education.

Our M.A. program in Philosophy and Social Policy was inaugurated in the second or third year after my arrival. Initially we explored the possibility of organizing a joint program with American, but decided to go it alone. The M.A. program—interdisciplinary by nature—was congenial given my interest in getting philosophy to policy makers. In the first 10 or so years, most of our MA students were employed in policy related work in DC. The breadth required to prepare courses (adding in the policy “half”), was daunting and always made it more difficult to find time for strictly “philosophers’ philosophy.” Altogether, I created and taught 4 grad course: one on law and social policy, one on environmental policy and philosophy, one on normative issues in foreign policy, and the last on the philosophy of human rights and policy. My seminars drew students from ESIA, the law school, and other programs, as well as philosophy. The seminars were fertile ground for experimentation, and those most satisfying involved organizing students into investigative committees required to study a policy problem and to prepare a committee report and policy recommendation to me, as an imaginary politician. It was refreshing to find students taking to the projects so seriously; on some occasions they wanted to publish the results.

Personal/Professional highs and low points:

I would certainly have to include among the low points the fire that occurred once in Thurston Hall.  I heard the news on the radio while driving in and was very anxious for the students. Fortunately, there were no casualties due to the fire, but a few were injured escaping, and one was seriously injured attempting to leap onto the adjacent roof of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Another low occurred on 9/11, when we all worried that Capitol Hill or the White House might be attacked, there were sirens everywhere, and multiple reports of bomb threats. As chair, I could send the faculty home, but what were we to do about the students? Where would they be safest? Ultimately, the university decided to shelter them in their dorms. Finally, if not lows, the following events are certainly unusual. At one point shortly after the appearance of Becoming Logical I was approached by a person who was a government contractor who asked if I would be interested in the conversion of spoken English into logical code. I replied that working for a defense contractor was not compatible with my ethical beliefs.  In another episode, Bill Griffith and I served as “Confidentiality Analysts” for the director's office of the Census Bureau. This was at a time when BC was thinking of allowing its data to be combined with IRS rolls. But Bill and I were able to determine that doing so would lead to the identification of specific individuals, thus contravening privacy rights. We had to withstand a tough grilling by disgruntled bureaucrats, but they heeded us. Bill and I were also summoned for what we called the “Friday night massacre”: an evening meeting in the board room with the VP for Academic Affairs and Dean Lefton. We expected their response to our department’s annual review, but found instead that they wanted us to discontinue the M.A. Program. Again, we were hard pressed, but prevailed after a heated argument.

I’ll close on the high points. One of my happiest and proudest moments at GW was being on the stage of Lisner Auditorium and placing the GW hood around my daughter Rebecca as she came forward to receive her doctorate in psychology.  Another special high was a private audience with the Dalai Lama in the Madison Hotel while I was serving as faculty advisor for Student’s for a Free Tibet. Selected students and I discussed a range of topics including the preservation of Tibetan culture for over an hour with the Dalai Lama, and we were impressed by his charisma and his intelligence. He insisted that we all sit together on the floor and at the end he wrapped the hands of each of us in a prayer scarf which he blessed.

Among other honors and awards, those that pleased me most include receiving the James Wilber Award for “extraordinary contribution to the humanities” from the Society for Value Inquiry, and the CCAS citations for excellence in research and undergraduate advising. I am happy to have had a part in the hiring of every member of the department today, and hearing from many former students, including the dozen or so presently in the professoriate.  For the profession, I find most satisfying my central role in founding the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World 24 years ago. SPCW was the first philosophical society to offer annual conferences at which families were welcomed, and in which all attendees stayed together in the same lodge and took meals together.  I served as executive director for the first 6 years and oversaw the development of the journal, the financial stability of the Society, and its non-profit status.