Something Electric

Linda Dittmar



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We were a ragle-tagle group at UMass Boston during those early days at Park Square, where we occupied an assortment of empty spaces and called ourselves a University. When I first came there my English Department was at the top floor of the building on the corner of Columbus Ave and Clarendon Street, across from the headquarters of the Salvation Army. It was one cavernous, noisy space divided into cubbies by flimsy partitions. 100 Arlington Street, across from old Armory that served as our Library, was our main building, where the lurching elevator that ferried us up and down still had a live operator announcing each floor and where CPCS—our most “urban” college—remained long after the rest of us migrated to Columbia Point. Some departments were housed in what was then the Statler hotel, where faculty suites came complete each with its own bathroom.

We, faculty, were gleaned from a range of other universities, many of us idealistic about establishing an urban university, some just happy to have a job. Our students, too, seemed to be scraped off from the surface of the earth. After all, we had no campus, no history, no hearsay reputation, no pennants or letter sweatshirts or teams, not even a hymn. We were not yet a university in the picture book sense, and loved what we were.

The students who somehow found their way to us were amazing. Many were Vietnam veterans piecing together a civilian life. Many others were activists in the spirit of the times. Just about all of them were self-supporting working class or modest middle class people whose lives were in transition. Many students were first in their family to go to college; many still are. We were a restless bunch, seemingly flotsam and jetsam, reaching for new vistas yet often unsure how to get there or, for that matter, what that “there” might be.

There was something electric about the challenge and discovery that were going on in the classroom. Hesitation gave way to discovery, anxiety morphed into triumph as we forged a way forward, exploring what we want to teach and learn and shaping a curriculum. One of the recurrent questions concerned “relevance”: Is what we are studying relevant to our lives today?

In all this we benefited beyond words from being in Park Square, surrounded by the “real life” that swirled around us—the homeless man that meandered into a class, the sound of sirens outside our windows, the greyhound station and Patzio’s greasy spoon just a block away, the Kitty Cat club near by, and the frequent anti war rallies and demonstration into which we poured out in large numbers. It was scruffy, but also bucolic. In fine weather we held classes under the trees of the Boston Garden, within earshot of the bells of the venerable Arlington Street Church (Unitarian) that rang its bells for all our marches and demonstrations.