Sam Richards

SamBryantParkIn spite of my unwavering commitment to iconoclasm and supporting unpopular opinions from all sides of the political spectrum, I was included in David Horowitz’s book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. I was also the only one of the 101 that was dropped from the list when the book came out in paperback–because of our work with the Race Relations Project. You can read my section of the book if you’re interested, but be aware that it is all half true…which is infinitey more “dangerous” than something that is totally untrue. You can also read my “official” response (which was vetted by Laurie) to an article that appeared on Horowitz’s web site.

Title: RRP Co-director

How do you identify yourself? “I’m a white guy from Toledo.” That’s what I generally say to people who ask. Somehow I get the sense that being from Toledo says something about me that nothing else can. It’s just one of those enigmatic middle American cities that produces quirky characters. I could add in that I’m “straight,” but that would only be true in the one sense of the term…and so far from being true in the other (sense of the term) that it’s almost disingenuous to say. In terms of my ethnicity, my cultural heritage is incredibly mixed such that I don’t identify with any (sub)cultural group.

What’s your background? I was never much of a student throughout my early years. I always read voraciously but I didn’t find school to be very interesting. I considered it more like being in prison and I didn’t have many free thinkers around me who had developed their intellect through formal education. I enrolled in college on a whim and it took me nearly three years to earn enough credits to call myself a “sophomore.” But one day, just as I was about to drop out for good, a light bulb went on and I decided that sociology was my calling. That next semester I took my studies seriously for the first time in my life and I have never looked back. [Click here to see a short video on this]

I finished my B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Toledo, both in sociology. Then I moved to New Jersey to study for my Ph.D. at Rutgers University, which was in field of political sociology and development with an emphasis on Latin America and Africa. During these years of study I spent a considerable amount of time abroad—Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, Central America, and throughout the United States. My doctoral research was on the Catholic Church and socioeconomic change in Ecuador. I came to State College in the fall of 1990 upon returning from a year in Ecuador because Laurie had started her doctoral work here and there was no other place that I wanted to be except with her. I started teaching at Penn State that semester and I’ve never been able to leave.

Ironically, I never seriously studied race and ethnicity while in college; I never took an undergraduate or graduate course on the topic. I started teaching the Soc 119 class (Race and Ethnic Relations) in 1991 because my department couldn’t find anyone to take it over and I’ve been teaching the course ever since. I started the discussion groups during the second semester I taught the class because students wanted another forum in which to discuss the topics. There were five TAs and five groups of ten students. This went on for a few semesters, until I realized that the groups could be considerably more gratifying for students if the TAs had some coordinated training and supervision. With that in mind, I talked Laurie into helping out. We then began offering more discussion sections and having two TAs facilitate each group and, ultimately, to making the discussion section a mandatory component of the course. This final shift all happened 2001, at the same time the class doubled in size and became a four-credit course.

The idea for the Race Relations Project actually came from TAs who, over the years, asked us to find ways for them to stay involved with both the issues and the class. From time to time I sent them in my stead to facilitate conversations on topics such as multiculturalism and affirmative action in residence halls and to student groups. Their successes led me to realize that we were missing an opportunity to tap into a remarkable resource in the insight that some of the more motivated and inspired students offered. So the RRP remained tucked away in the back of my mind, waiting for a day and an opportunity for its birth. That came in late 2001.

Have you always thought about race and ethnicity? As a child I was always aware of racial and ethnic differences. My parents, and my mother in particular, were always interested in food and sought out different kinds of “ethnic foods” to try. When my mother met someone who was tied to their cultural heritage she would often barter with them for food samples. (Something I now do today!) One job she had was as a bookkeeper for an anesthesiologist and with the approval of her boss she would sometimes make deductions on people’s bills in exchange for food. From time to time I was pulled into her “schemes” and, for example, I remember going to the home of an elderly Syrian woman to do odd jobs in exchange for huge platters of stuffed grape leaves and baklava. My mother was always searching out new “ethnic restaurants” to try and so all throughout my childhood I tasted foods from around the world. And my mother maintained the idea that if the cooks couldn’t speak English “then the food had to be more authentic and therefore better.” So I seem to have always associated “difference” with “intriguing” and something “positive.”

I had “associations” with people of different races and cultures, but I never had any close friends, although my fifth grade class was one of only a handful of classes selected by the Toledo Board of Education in 1970 for an experiment with “bussing” (several black students were bussed to my school but not the other way around). And while I had traveled back and forth to Canada since I was young, it was not until 1979, when I visited French-speaking Quebec at the age of 19 that I felt as though I was in a “foreign” land. I was immediately captivated the moment I started reading street signs in French and had to try to communicate with someone who didn’t speak English. I will never forget the excitement I felt trying to “drink in” the experience. The next year I studied Spanish and within the first week of the term I began making plans to study in Spain, which I did.

It is this fascination with “the other” that has fueled my travels and my desire to experience life outside of the United States. Laurie and I have taken sabbaticals in Eastern Europe and in Spain but I have spent several years living abroad. Most recently I have travelled to Japan, Israel, and Haiti.

What do you get from working with the race relations project? Working with the RRP has reawakened me to the power of conversation, something I first learned from Laurie. As well, unlike teaching, which is more bounded and ends with the close of the semester (at least as far as the teacher is concerned), the RRP offers the opportunity for me to realize some of my “entrepreneurial visions” of race relations work because it is more open-ended. In fact, over the years I have had innumerable ideas about what is possible and I’ve never been able to fully put them into practice because I’ve been constrained by the classroom.

At the same time, as the Soc 119 class has grown I have lost touch with students to some degree. I used to always have a small cadre of TAs who I knew personally and who inspired me in meaningful ways with their optimism and energy. Today, as their numbers have grown and my administrative duties have multiplied, I no longer have the time to get to know the TAs, who are now Laurie’s students. My relationships with the RRP staff and facilitators, by contrast, have reconnected me to the synergy that exists between students and race issues, a synergy that has reinvigorated my teaching.

The other thing I get from the RRP is an opportunity to realize an essential component of my self–my need to innovatively build organizational structure. I’m a perfect ENTP on the Myers-Briggs scales. [read]

Why do you spend so much of your life dealing with these issues (race and ethnicity)? I sort of fell into this work by chance and for some reason I was good at it. By this I mean that I was “effective” at inspiring people to think in new ways about the issues. Of course I think that I’ve gotten better over the years as I have “grown into my whiteness.” This has happened as I have abandoned my feelings of white guilt and embraced a more grounded and balanced perspective on race relations and inequality. Unquestionably, Laurie and I have helped one another grow in this way, and the growth has spilled over into other domains of our lives by allowing us new perspectives on so many aspects of our lives that have too often remained hidden to us. In effect, each day I see something new in myself that I never say before. I am certain that this would not be true if I were studying, for example, health policy or political issues.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most intriguing part of the question, through this race work I am rewarded with the opportunity to “travel” by meeting people every day from different cultures, including cultures here in the U.S. For me it’s exciting to meet someone from Maine or Louisiana or Oregon, not just someone from Mexico or Eritrea or Cambodia. So if I cannot be on the road to go meet the world as much as I’d like, I can bring the world to me and make it a direct part of my job!

What are your other interests and activities? My favorite past time is traveling. I suppose this is evident from all that I’ve said. However, I enjoy traveling inwardly (i.e., inside my head and within my close relationships) and not just outwardly (i.e., to physical places). For example, one of my favorite “activities” is sitting with Laurie face-to-face for extended conversations; it’s very much like “traveling” when we do this. It’s a practice we have carefully cultivated in our nearly twenty years together and it keeps me (us) in check and our relationship focused.

Aside from this, I enjoy reading (it is my “addiction” I think I could say), playing my drums (where I most fully experience the sensual), cooking (the closest thing I have to a hobby), and riding my recumbent bike (where I always achieve a natural high).

What is your philosophy of teaching? “A great teacher never tries to explain their vision. Rather, they simply invite you to stand beside them and see for yourself.” – Rev. R. Inman

This quote illuminates my philosophy. All I try to do when I “teach” is be myself and talk about how I see the world. As I’ve matured and become more comfortable with my own ignorance–that is to say more comfortable with my sense that my vision is amazingly limited–I have become more accepting of the visions of others. I no longer view their visions as weak or dumb or right or wrong but, rather, as more or less complex. This is not to say that greater complexity is better, but I do have the idea that most of us arrive at “truth” only by weeding through more complex information or visions of the world in the form of paradox and contradictions. If we can find a way to manage these, then we are more likely to stumble upon a “truth” that feels right to us.

What does this mean for my teaching? Well, I spend my “teaching moments” trying to confuse students by showing them interesting and complex ways of seeing the world. I try to spin their heads by undermining their belief systems in as many ways as I possibly can. And since I’m a youngest child and an iconoclast at heart, it’s not particularly difficult to do. So at the core of all of this is the idea that if we’re not confused we don’t know what’s going on and that people will find a “truth” that works for them if they have the opportunity to “start over”–which is what college is all about.

In other words, I just have a hell of a lot of fun when I teach. And as I’ve grown more comfortable with the idea that I will never have it “right” and that I’ll never be as bright as some very brilliant people that I know (including many students I have taught), I just have fun.