It all started in May, 1973, when I received a letter from California's San Jose State University, which began: "Dear Ms. Mitford: I am writing to inquire whether you would be interested in being considered for an appointment as a Distinguished Professor for fall semester 1973." It was signed "Snell Putney, Ph.D., Acting Chairman, Department of Sociology" and was sprinkled with many an oddly turned phrase: "We are wanting someone such as yourself..." "The period of responsibility would be from late September, 1973 through late January, 1974..." "More importantly, we seem to be in a period of rather active intellectual ferment..." "The honorarium for the semester would be slightly over $11,000...”
What on earth, I thought. Was somebody pulling my leg—which of my fun-loving friends would have access to San Jose State's writing paper? And if Snell Putney, Ph.D., indeed existed, what was his native tongue? "That's easy, Sociologese," said my husband. "You'd probably love being a Distinguished Professor; you'd better go after it." So I did.
The pursuit gave rise to many an anxious moment. A professor of my acquaintance, privy to the subtleties of university parlance, was quick to point out that Mr. Putney had not actually offered me the job but merely asked if I would be interested in being considered, the clear implication being that the same letter had been dispatched far and wide to other possible candidates. Furthermore, he cautioned, there would be political hurdles. Any appointment would have to be confirmed by Dr. John Bunzel, president of San Jose State, former head of the political science department at San Francisco State.
Then came the day when Snell Putney, Ph.D., with whom I was soon in constant communication, asked the dread but inevitable question, "What is your academic background?" I sadly told him it could best be summed up in one word: nil. My mother, who did not approve of girls going to school, had brought us up at home; to my deep regret, I had never attended a university, a high school, or even an elementary school. "Oh-ho, that's delightful," said Mr. Putney with his scholarly chuckle, and assured me that this odd upbringing would make no difference to my chances.
Much later, I learned that I was indeed one of some twenty-five to whom identical letters had been sent. Of these, three came down to the wire as possible choices for the job: Paul Jacobs, who had been involved with a student strike at San Francisco State when Mr. Bunzel was there, David Horowitz, an editor of Ramparts, and myself. When the short list was presented to President Bunzel with the department's recommendation that I be appointed, he said, my informant reported, "Well, I'm glad it's not Jacobs or Horowitz; they could be troublemakers."
The contract safely inked, I was interviewed at some length by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, who made great sport of my singular lack of academic preparation for the appointment, and of the fact that only three years before, I had been listed along with some sixty others by the House Internal Security Committee as an "undesirable radical campus speaker." The following day a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared on my otherwise serene horizon; the Chronicle reported that Frank P. Adams, former president of the ultraconservative California Republican Assembly and currently a trustee of the state university system, had "hotly contested" my status as Distinguished Professor in the sociology department, remarking indignantly that "to me, if she's an authority on death she should be in the morticians' department." That, I thought, was rather a good point.
One of my newfound colleagues in the sociology department told me that the news stories had triggered a flurry of student applications for my classes and a few crank telephone calls. "What kind of crank calls?" I asked. "Oh, just irate citizens demanding to know what an uneducated radical like you is doing on our campus." I observed I did not consider that crank, as the same question had occurred to me.
I was to have two classes, I was told: a large lecture course of some two hundred students, and an honors seminar limited to twenty. But what, exactly, was I to teach? What is sociology, anyway? I put these questions to a professor in the department, but it seemed he hadn't a clue either. "Sociology is a very broad term," he said. "You can structure your classes any way you choose, hopefully based on your own social action research." Ahem, thought I, and it is to be hoped that I may be able to squeeze in a few pointers on talking plain English.
Actually, I found that I was both excited and apprehensive at the thought of assuming my new duties. I had given many a onetime lecture to college audiences, on a hit-and-run basis in which one disappears forever immediately after the event—but a sustained course to students whose future careers might depend on the quality of their college preparation? This was an alarming, yet challenging, prospect.
I spent the summer "structuring" away in collaboration with my student assistant, Novelle Johnson, a reformed airline stewardess from South Carolina, who proved to be an accomplished and experienced guide to the academic scene. She patiently led me through the ABC's of classroom procedure; it would be desirable, she explained, to prepare class outlines, reading lists, examination questions, so together we got these ready. The lecture course would be called "The American Way," a title vague and flexible—enough to enable us to explore the American way of all sorts of things, based on my "own social action research," which I hoped meant I would not have to read any sociology texts but would merely draw on subjects I already knew about: caskets, courts, convicts, con men, the rise and fall of the Famous Writers School...The final section would be "Waterbuggers of Yesteryear," the point here being that the Watergate gang and their counterparts of twenty to thirty years ago cut their teeth in the witch-hunt against the left following World War II. Under this heading we would present the reminiscences of some Old Left victims of the McCarthy era, New Left comments on same, and try. generally to link the radical politics of the two eras. To top it off, we would invite the head of the San Francisco FBI to tell all about electronic surveillance of suspected subversives. In the section on criminal justice we would bring in as guest lecturers lawyers, judges, and ex-convicts. In short, we hoped the lecture course would turn into something resembling a variety show.
The exams, I decided, should be designed to bring out the multiplicity of talents I expected to find among my students. Those more at home in some medium other than prose could turn in a poem, song, one-act play, cartoon strip. All would be invited to translate into English a paragraph taken from a sociology textbook—with the caveat, however, that if they were hoping for a graduate degree in that discipline, they might find themselves at a disadvantage if they learned this lesson too well.
The small seminar (honor students, no less—horrors!) would be a workshop in Techniques of Muckraking, in which students, working alone or in teams according to preference, would investigate some local institution of their choice such as a nursing home, jail, police department, radio station, and so forth.
San Jose is a big sprawling industrial area about an hour's drive from San Francisco. The university, a unit of the state system presided over from far-off Southern California by Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke and a board of trustees, is vast: enrollment is close to 27,000, comparable in size to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where entrance requirements are stiffer and where the student body, with its long history as bellwether of radical youth movements, is more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan, and perhaps more world-weary.
Looking back over my journal, I see that events of my first week in San Jose pretty much foreshadowed the shape of things to come.