The Ideal Job

Saskia interviews Professor Bob Washington.

After spending 49 years on the faculty at Bryn Mawr College, Professor Robert (“Bob”) Washington has retired. A sociologist known for his wide range of research interests and deeply engaged lecture style, he profoundly impacted generations of young scholars, including me. His pathway to academia was hardly linear or conventional. Raised in East St. Louis, Ill., in a working-class family, he was an unmotivated high school student with little intellectual curiosity. A serious football injury early in his college career at Michigan State University derailed his athletic aspirations, and he subsequently moved to New York City, where he secured work in a bookstore in Grand Central Station.

“It was an ideal job,” he says. “I would work from four o’clock until midnight; after about 6:30 in the evening, there weren’t any more commuters, and so I would read. I spent several years working in a bookstore, reading.”

In 1962, he decided to enter Columbia University through a program designed for older students. He originally intended to be a writer. A sociology course he chanced upon set the rest of his career in motion.

“I took this sociology course, on a Saturday, and after I took the course, it struck me that I think I want to get a Ph.D. in sociology,” Washington explains. “And this was, like, the first course I had taken, and I told [the professor] that. And he didn’t act surprised. He said, ‘I think that’s wonderful.’ That course really launched me into sociology.”

He's quite a remarkable man," she says, "and so beloved by so many."

Deeply interested in social and economic development in the post-colonial Third World by the time he finished his studies at Columbia, he applied to the Peace Corps and requested placement in an extremely underdeveloped country. Assigned to Afghanistan, he spent two years in that country, teaching English in Jalalabad. He lived without running water and with unreliable electricity in an exceptionally traditional and conservative society

“That was such an incredible experience,” he says. “I never, never regretted it. In fact, it changed my life. I wanted to test my plan to go to graduate school, and I figured if I could take two years away and felt that I still wanted to do graduate work after Afghanistan … and that’s what happened.”

On his return to the U.S., Washington enrolled in the Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of Chicago. The program allowed him enormous latitude in exploring his many interests, eventually culminating in his thesis on the sociology of African American literature. He subsequently landed at Bryn Mawr, his first job, for what proved to be nearly half a century. Initially recruited by thenchair Gene Schneider, who himself enjoyed an esteemed 40-year career at the College, Washington was particularly attracted to Bryn Mawr as the president at that time, Harris Wofford, had been a co-founder of the Peace Corps.

“He had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia before he got into being an administrator,” Washington says. “Harris had also graduated from the University of Chicago, so we had these convergent interests. Harris was very interested in development, and he wanted to see Bryn Mawr expanding itself into the developing world. I didn’t start off with the idea that I would end up at a small liberal arts college—my thoughts were to get back to New York and get a job at NYU or the New School or someplace like that. But I met Gene, and I met Harris, and I met Pat [McPherson], who was the dean of the college at that point, and I figured this is very interesting, nothing that I ever anticipated.”

When he joined the faculty in 1971, Washington was the first African American hire in Arts and Sciences. “When I first came,” he explains. “I was very comfortable because I was accustomed to living in all kinds of environments, and it didn’t matter to me whether I was the only African American. I was the first African American to live outside of Kabul, and so I was comfortable being conspicuous and different. And that made it easier for me to fit into Bryn Mawr.”

"Teaching at Bryn Mawr has been the most enriching experience. ... Nothing, nothing at Bryn Mawr is more captivating than the students.”

He reflected that the Bryn Mawr community he joined was one in which Greek, Latin, art history, and archaeology were the flagship departments, not sociology. Washington credits his “wonderful” relationships with his department colleagues Schneider and Judy Porter with keeping him tethered to the College in those early years, and their shared worldview and sense of mission mitigated the insular and Euro-centric culture of the College for him. Eventually, with the support of Harris and McPherson, he started the Africana Studies Program together with late Bryn Mawr anthropologist Phil Kilbride.

Washington’s research interests have been wide and varied. He spent many summers engaged in ethnographic work in East Africa, where he explored deviant survival strategies of unemployed young people in Nairobi and Mombasa.

In more recent years, Washington and his colleague David Karen co-taught a heavily enrolled course and conducted research in the sociology of sports, an area of deep emotional connection for Washington that he describes as highly undertheorized and encompassing many domains, including gender, race relations, deviance, politics, and economics.

But of all the areas of inquiry he has pursued in his career, he identified social deviance as an abiding source of intellectual curiosity and stimulation, particularly with regard to development and human rights.

After a close re-reading of Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans over 20 years ago led him to interrogate Quakerism more fully, Washington found the “profoundly humanitarian” philosophies espoused by the denomination appealing, and while he does not consider himself conventionally religious, Quakerism deeply resonates with and complements his interests as a sociologist. He has been active in the Quaker community and has served on the Haverford College Corporation, a body committed to the strengthening of Friends education.

Retirement plans include developing a deviance and human rights reader that would explore shifting normative boundaries in non-Western societies. He also intends to teach a few days a week at a prison, helping young men to earn associate’s degrees.

Writing is still front and center for him, and he hopes to author a journalistic piece elucidating the myth of race as biologically based; race as a category, he explains, is deeply embedded in our culture but doesn’t have any scientific validity—a fact well-known by geneticists and physical anthropologists but poorly understood by the public. He additionally plans to author a personal account of his experiences as the first African American hired at the College.

“I think I should leave those reflections in the library archives for future generations to gain perspective on the changing dynamics of race relations at Bryn Mawr,” he says. “There are many anecdotes about racial bias and insensitivity that were normalized aspects of Bryn Mawr's culture that I should communicate as the College and the country evolve toward greater honesty about systemic racism. Things at Bryn Mawr have changed a lot. They haven’t totally changed, but the culture of race relations is in transition.”

As Washington embarks upon new adventures beyond the College, he reflected on the most rewarding aspect of his career: “Teaching at Bryn Mawr has been the most enriching experience. I remember a lot of students very fondly. Nothing, nothing at Bryn Mawr is more captivating than the students. And engaging really interesting and talented students—and teaching something that you really like to teach like sociology—well, that’s just a lucky development.”