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Sy and Me and the Power of a Single Idea (Origin Story I)

Dr. Sydney Plotkin; Professor of Political Science, Vassar College

It’s 1983 and I am sitting, as a freshman at Vassar College, in my Introduction to American Politics section. It is the third class of the Fall semester. How do I remember that it is the third class and not the second or the fourth?  Because, at the end of the second class, my professor, Sydney Plotkin, handed back our first papers. I sat in utter despair and outrage for fifteen minutes after class as I could not see my own typed work under the barrage of red ink, followed by a “D” at the end of the last page. Never before or after had I ever done so poorly on a written assignment and, returning for the next class, I was in too much of an emotional blur to take in the lecture and discussion. He also “announced” to the class that he does most of his grading on the toilet which was another indication of what he thought about freshman writing.

Full disclosure, Dr. Sydney Plotkin (Sy, I would call him for several years at his own request) eventually became my advisor in the Political Science department and we engaged in conversation, debate, personal concerns and the direction of my general education for which I am eternally grateful.  He taught me to think, write and read better and I spent a number of election nights in his living room watching, old school, the big three broadcasters at the time deliver the results.

My ears perked up and for the first time in my life, I was overtaken and overwhelmed by an idea. Not just its rightness, but its clarity, logic, and moral imperative. I experienced and felt my entire mental and emotional framework shifting and changing in real time.

We were also in the age of Ronald Reagan (really scary -- the President’s rhetoric in his first term made everyone feel as if we are on the brink of a nuclear war), the beginnings of political correctness were hitting American campuses, and the country was riding high on one of the largest economic booms in the country’s history. Everyone seemed to be either getting rich or wanted to be rich. Wall Street was the preferred destination after school. And, college campuses felt like an intellectual desert.

There is a famous series of Doonesbury comics from this period where a college professor is doing everything humanly possible to get a response, a pulse, out of his students.  No one seemed interested, ready for a fight regarding ideas and values as in the 60s. I am amazed and shocked by the apathy on campus. Not only was there no real “conversation” going on, you know, the one that is the cliche about college -- the great debate, the high minded exchange of ideas that I was so pumped up for and was looking forward to for the next 4 years. Everyone I met either wanted to go to law school, head right down to Wall Street to make their fortune in the red hot financial markets or there was this emerging group of students going into this new area of computer science hoping to strike gold.  While the internet had not yet arrived, there was this fledgling idea that the technology industry was another avenue to make your fortune.

Class discussions were largely animated by professors. Students remained mostly silent or made comments that seemed meant to please the teacher and not cause too much offense. And, after class, it was worse!  Nobody, I mean nobody wanted to continue the conversation, discuss what was just put forth in class and when class ended, so did the ideas. Sy Plotkin’s class was not any different. Personally, I spent the next four years huddled around a few like minded students and in an out of my professors’ offices looking for a good conversation. They were more than willing to accommodate as their offices seemed more like empty tombs than places of engagement.

In class that afternoon, we were discussing social and justice movements in the United States. He began listing them and parsing through their impact: The civil rights movement, labor, indigenous peoples, populist...etc.  Most of it is a lot of blah blah blah in my memory because of that dastardly “D” on my paper.

Then, he turned and said, without much of a pause, “...and of all these social, political movements, none of them have the importance of the women’s movement.” My ears perked up almost more out of annoyance and a demand for clarity.

‘What is he talking about?’ I thought. He continued.  

“How can you have over 50% of the country’s population living under oppressive circumstances, treated unequally, and it not have severe ramifications for the ongoing development of the nation and the world?”  My ears perked up and for the first time in my life, I was overtaken and overwhelmed by an idea. Not just its rightness, but its clarity, logic and moral imperative. I experienced and felt my entire mental and emotional framework shifting and changing in real time.

And, yes, it did matter for this 18 year old boy in his freshman year of college that a man was making this statement.

It was Sy’s passion as an educator which largely inspired me to major in Political Science and ultimately go into education. I remember many of our conversations and many of his classes, but that third class had an intellectual and moral impact on me that influenced why I am doing the work I am doing today regarding gender and education. And, Sy also taught me that it could be one sentence, one idea, one thought that changes the world.

I will be writing other blog posts about the origins of my feelings, experiences, and thoughts regarding gender and educating children.  I just thought this was a good place to start.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

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