Remembering a New School professor

Arthur Vidich’s son wrote me a letter asking me to contribute to a scholarship in his father’s name, which made me remember a brief but important encounter I had with the sociology professor, in my graduate studies times in New York City.

Before I tell the story, let me say I am deeply grateful for the New School for Social Research, which gave me so much intellectually. The teacher I am has to do with many things, but on the top of the list is the New School, its teachers and the city where it belongs. I show this gratitute passing this tradition along, this fortunate mixture of European depth and American pragmatism. In terms of professional training the school was back then a disaster, and my modest income of 100 thousand reais a year, for which I share the responsibility together with the school, makes me unable to be as generous as I would like to be. Maybe in the future, “who knows…?”, as a psychoanalys professor once responded to one of my inquiries.

Back to Vidich. I didn’t take classes with him, but he was a member of the department and once, when we had a kind of student protest, the sociology students called a meeting with the department faculty, in one of those cozy New School rooms. It might have been during the Lang students’ hunger strike, I am not sure. We sailed the wave and decided we had our own share of demands… Lang students wanted an ousted professor back. I don’t remember what we wanted. What do grad students want? I think they want some kind of respect, I don’t know.

We made our demands. The answers were various. I might be here lumping together different answers from different meetings, different contexts. I don’t remember exactly who was there and who was not. Based on the personality, Jeff might have been baffled by not being seen as being “on our side”, which was legitimate. Like Americans who free Iraq, using an innapropriate hyperbole. Why are you bombing me, among all people? Then Arato – I don’t remember him in the meeting, this is from other situations – tried to teach us what are the right demands. Nothing wrong with the protest, or with directing it against us, but please do some reading and fight for the right stuff.

And then the women. The dean, I forgot her name, said – I am sure she said that, maybe in another meeting, but that is her for sure – she said we should be grateful to just be at the New School, as foreign students. Not that we weren’t, but it’s bitter to hear this and disgusting to say this as a teacher or administrator. And then there was another woman who studied culture, she said: “You are all young adults – and some of you not that young adults…”, using this as a preamble to excuse herself from responsibility for whatever our problems were. It was meaningless to point out that we were not all fresh from college. If they wanted top American fresh-from-college students, what where they doing at the New School, anyway?

So far, 4 lessons on what not to do when students present their demands. I just remembered one demand: we wanted more dialogue with the teachers! Actually, that makes me sad to remember. Was that all? A bit more dialogue with the teachers? Am I giving this to my students? Is that all they want? A weekly seminar, a few collaborative projects, is that all? Anyway. Vidich.

He was older than the average. So to him there was some sort of benign respect that might be sometimes be also some respectful indifference, as if the people in their 50s were “the real guys” by then. It’s my guess, I don’t know. And he acted like an elder, speaking after everybody, as if giving a final sermon. Here is what he said, and I often quote him.

He said that as he listened to our demands, he wondered if we had read what he and our other teachers had written. He actually asked us: “Have you read the books and the papers we have written?” We didn’t quite grasp it. “Because maybe you are demanding too much from us. Go to the library and read what we do, understand what we can do. Get a sense of our limits.”

To me the meeting stopped right there. That is the image I have of it, a long white table, I’m towards the left, he is on the other side, on the right, almost at the head of the table. He was not diminishing himself or his colleagues, he was not ironic or disrespectful. He was actually telling us to go to the library and read and learn our teachers’ limits. I didn’t know Vidich a lot. I don’t know if he was a sensible man, or if at a certain age he became a serene person. I don’t know if he considered himself a great scholar or teacher or not. I have no clue.

I just know that at that meeting he showed himself capable of listening to us. Of thinking about our institution. And of presenting his ideas in a way that was transformative and respectful. For that reason, I see him as a good sociology professor.

In the academia, we use obscure words, like “empirical research”, “analytical tools” and – it’s starting to give me the creeps – “research ethics”. Empirical research sometimes stands for amassing a lot of meaningless data and text, analytical tools for using some jargon to prevent the data you amassed to reveal something about the world and ethics I’m not even ready to say what it means. It has a Orwelling subtext to me…

But Vidich’s intervention was simple. He listened, he thought, and he said something with respect. I wish I could always act like that.



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