During his 43-year career as a member of the Smith faculty, and since in his active emeritus status, Peter Rose has published numerous books and articles documenting his sociological observations on people’s lives, livelihoods, histories and social identities. Among his best-known works is They and We, published in 1964, and about to come out in its seventh edition, celebrating the book’s 50th anniversary. But not until his latest book, Postmonitions of a Peripatetic Professor, has he turned his sociological lens so thoroughly on himself—analyzing his own life, categorized into decade stages, with the same insightful perspective that he has practiced for well beyond half a century in observing others.
Postmonitions of a Peripatetic Professor is due for release on October 1, by Levellers Press. Rose will read from the book on Wednesday, Oct. 2, at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room, an event sponsored by Levellers Press, the Kahn Institute and several Smith departments. Rose recently responded to questions for the Gate.
Gate: What prompted you, at this point, to write a retrospective of your life?
Peter Rose: A few years ago several colleagues in my field suggested that I put together a compilation of selected essays on race, ethnicity, immigration and refugee policy that I had published over the past 50 years, noting both continuities and changes in my thinking about matters long central to my interests and concerns. As I started to pull things together, I kept thinking of specific times and events—and people—that had prompted me to carry out certain research projects, get involved in political campaigns, or express opinions and write about then-current events. Within several months, the earlier plans morphed into a quite personal memoir on six decades of academic life in the U.S. and abroad, my work as an editor, researcher and consultant, my various excursions as a mobile don and as a travel journalist, and some intimate portraits of those I met along the way. Not to lose sight of the roots of the project entirely, I decided to interweave the narrative with extracts of some of those previously published writings.
Gate: You’ve observed and written about numerous other people around the world. What are some ways that looking at and reflecting on your own life has differed from looking at other subjects?
PR: Writing about others is what most social scientists do and I am no exception. I have been doing so for many years. Yet I have to confess that when I started out as a teacher of sociology and anthropology, I already found myself facing a conundrum. I would tell myself and try to teach my students to minimize the projection of personal views or judgments as they sought to probe social and personal sources of beliefs, attitudes and actions. For a time I used a variety of quantitative methods to keep the lid on my—and the students’—subjective opinions, but over the years I found myself writing more and more about my own reactions to others. Postmonitions of a Peripatetic Professor is, I suppose, a full-blown extension—or, perhaps better stated, a no-holds-barred expression of that proclivity. In its pages I have tried to reconstruct the way my twig was bent, where I came from, what I did, and how I came to be interested in the things I taught and wrote about, my very personal Weltanschauung and my somewhat unconventional career.
I also became a writer and an editor and, in addition to my principal works on race, ethnicity, immigration and refugee policy, I wrote about a number of other subjects, general sociology, the process of socialization (framed – a la Shakespeare — as the seven stages of life), the history of our “nation of nations,” and travel in this country and overseas. But I never move completely away from my first theme and the title of my first book, They and We. Whether writing about confrontations between natives and newcomers, intergroup or international conflicts, relations between refugee workers and their clients, tourists and those they gawk at, or professors on short-term visits to foreign climes, I continue to be struck by differences in the perceptions of outsiders and insiders and their social and political implications.
Gate: In the exercise of reviewing and organizing your life into words, did you discover anything that you did not expect?
PR: Yes. In working on the new format, I thought a great deal about how privileged I was to have been anchored in Northampton and to have witnessed its renaissance, to have taught at Smith from 1960 to my official retirement in 2003, and to still be able to feed my addiction: my travel sickness.
I started the project by jotting notes about highlights of my years at the College—the inauguration of the American Studies Diploma Program, the establishment of the Ada Comstock Scholars Program, the founding of the Department of Afro-American Studies and Kahn Institute. I thought about the presidents under whom I’d served—and the one I never met yet think I got to know best, William Allan Neilson. I wrote brief comments about some of the temporary appointments I’d had at various American universities, the times I served as a Fulbrighter in England, Japan, Australia, Austria and The Netherlands, and some of my experiences doing field work in rural counties of New York State, in Puerto Rico and in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon. I started having flashbacks of long nights spent doing research in libraries, interviewing people in very different circumstances and pounding out my notes on an old Royal typewriter, then a fancy IBM Selectric, then the keyboard of a bulbous Mac in my office in Wright Hall, and of working with colleagues at Smith and with editors and publishers in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Amherst. But the more I reflected, the more I came to realize that what was most important and certainly that which gave me the greatest reward was knowing and, I hope, touching the lives of so many undergraduate and graduate students at Smith, at the two places I taught before coming to Northampton, and at those other institutions where I have served as a visiting professor.
Gate: What is your objective with this book?
PR: Once committed to writing the book, it became a challenge to try to tell the story of one academic’s life, concerns, involvements and takes on the fads and foibles of American society and culture while living through some pretty horrendous periods in our history.
Those who read Postmonitions of a Peripatetic Professor will realize that despite all the flashbacks, side tracks, extracts, and anecdotal spiraling relating to what I refer to as “my lucky journey,” at bottom I am still interested in trying to reduce persisting forms of prejudice and discrimination, to celebrate rather than abhor diversity, to welcome strangers and to learn from them, and to strive for comity among all people.