My first entry into a UMass Boston classroom was also my first experience as a teacher. I began with a class of 30 diverse students, with Vietnam vets a small but powerful presence among them. What kind of knowledge did they want or need from me? I asked them to write a brief, anonymous journal response to the question: What do you hope to gain from a university education? Responses ranged from “I have no idea” to “I want to get smarter.” Getting a job was high on the list, but in contrast to my students in 2011, no one listed jobs as their only priority.
In those early years, UMass Boston seemed like a place where anything could happen. It was a new institution with no long-standing rules or traditions; pronouncements by the board of trustees, chancellors, and provosts were routinely adjusted or subverted in practice by faculty and staff. So it was a venue that allowed me the freedom to figure out how my social and political activism connected with my work as a scholar and teacher. These connections became much clearer to me during the late 1960s, when protests against the Vietnam War escalated at UMass Boston and elsewhere.
Sometimes, I was a leader in organizing the events, discussions, and direct actions that were now taking place on a daily basis. At other times, I was listening, learning, and following the students’ lead. Meanwhile, my students were inundating me with questions about what was taking place. An exhilarating sense of solidarity began to emerge between engaged students and faculty.