Teaching Thompson

David Hunt



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Soon after arriving at UMass Boston, I offered a topic course on E.P. Thompson’s 800-page masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class. The class was packed with student activists of various stripes, and I had a sense that everyone learned something from the text and the discussions it occasioned. I know I did. I spent a lot of time with people in that class both on and off campus. One apartment occupied by a couple of them was a dingy place, with mattresses on the floor and leaflets, underground newspapers, and books by Fanon, Magdoff, and Malcolm X “strewed” about. On the wall, no, covering the wall corner-to-corner, floor-to-ceiling, was the red and blue flag with a gold star of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. A bunch of people were sitting around listening to music and talking politics. I said to myself, “This is what Thompson was talking about.”

Stepping onto the campus with the hope of bringing socialism to the students, I discovered that, while they were interested in what I had to teach, their intellectual and political project was already well launched before my arrival. That was when I gained a certainty about the kind of scholar I wanted to be and certainty, too, that UMass Boston was where I wanted to teach.

On arriving at the downtown campus, I also found many young faculty colleagues, brilliant and attractive people full of energy and idealism and seemingly as avid for friendship, for comradeship, as I was. They called my attention to many an important text I’d never heard of, including Thompson’s book (never mentioned during the six unhappy years I spent in the graduate program of a nearby Ivy League university). We talked incessantly about our courses and our students and frequently exchanged classroom visits and in the process fashioned a teaching culture at UMass Boston that still survives today.