charles bidwell: 1932-2016
Charles Bidwell passed away a few weeks ago. He was a professor of sociology and education at the University of Chicago and well loved by his students. He was one of the most prominent researchers in education in the mid 20th century, so you’ll likely see tributes and commentary from education researchers in the months to come. I won’t repeat his many, many professional accomplishments. Here, I want to offer some personal thoughts since he was my M.A. adviser and served on my dissertation committee.
First, he was an extremely charitable reader. When you discussed a new book, or a new theory, he really enjoyed getting down to the bottom of things and seeing what was really interesting about the book. Even though he was a very even keeled writer, he seemed to enjoy authors who could say flashy things. For example, remarkably, he was the only instructor I had in the sociology program who taught Foucault. He loved picking sentences from Discipline and Punishment and just mull over the cryptic meanings. This also carried over into student writing. Even if a student struggled, or was less than perfect, he could always find the good and gently guide the student. I think this charity reflected a deep joy of scholarship and a desire to be surprised by writing. It is not surprising that mentored students who went on to do things that were unusual at the time, like network analysis in education, or social movement studies in higher education.
Second, he was extremely charitable toward students, myself included. He was easy to find and easy to talk to. His students surely remember going to his office and sitting in this nicely crafted wooden chair with the UoC logo on it. Even when he was clearly exhausted, and getting on in years, and even sick at some points, he found an amazing ability to smile and be encouraging. At an institution known for its world class leadership in grumpiness, Charles was a beacon for many.
This final story illustrates these two tendencies coming together. My dissertation defense was a tense affair. One faculty member was known for really hammering students during proposal hearings and dissertation defenses. The defense made me so incredibly anxious that I literally ate an entire box of Pepto Bismol tablets just to suppress my nausea.
The hearing starting as usual, with my summary. But right before the hostile prof could begin the Q&A, Charles begins with a very lengthy commentary on my work. And it went on, and on, and on. And then Charles would alternate with a third professor, who also had his own lengthy commentary. This third professor then dropped three separate drafts of my dissertation on the desk and then starting talking about which revisions worked and which didn’t. It was clear what was happening. Charles was “running interference” to prevent a blow up at the hearing.
After a while, crank prof said, “Charles, I can’t get in a word edge wise.”
Charles responded, “I’m emeritus and I’ll say what I please.”
“We couldn’t get you to stop when you were chair.”
Twenty minutes later, I had my Ph.D.