Saturday, January 14, 2006

Alan Sable

I was thinking earlier tonight about my brief career as a student at UC Santa Cruz - 1977-79, studying psychology and women's studies. One of the courses I took was an introduction to sociology (or maybe it was a course in American sociology) by Professor Alan Sable. He was a radical professor, a Marxist, and an out gay man, and made his political opinions obvious in the classroom. He was not granted tenure by UC and during my first year at Santa Cruz there were a series of student demonstrations protesting this, in which I participated. The culmination of the demonstrations was a sit-in in the administration building over one weekend. The demonstrators left early Monday morning, before the building opened for business - the administration had announced that those sitting-in would be arrested if they stayed any longer. Despite our protests, Professor Sable was not reinstated, and ended up becoming a psychotherapist - he now works at the Gay Therapy Center of San Francisco as a marriage and family therapist with a primarily gay and lesbian clientele.

I found a long interview with him on the Santa Cruz web site, where he talks about the whole struggle for tenure and why he thinks he did not gain tenure - primarily because he was the first out gay professor on the UC campus, and also probably because of his political radicalism and internal faculty struggles over whether teaching or research was more important for gaining tenure. He was a very popular professor (hence the student support) - I remember students flocking to his courses, which were often conducted in a very personal manner. Santa Cruz at that time was a hotbed of political radicalism and activism (for all I know, it still is - there was an article in today's New York Times about protests against military recruiters there on April 5 of last year, and allegations that the student group that organized the protests was spied upon by the Pentagon), and demonstrating against Sable's dismissal was part of that.

In his class I recall writing a paper on the racial tensions during my high school years, and trying to explain them in terms learned from him about the American racial situation. I believe it was in his class that I first learned about the concept of "institutionalized racism" - that racism is not just a matter of personal bigotry, but is part of an entire institutional system of white supremacy.

I guess I would say that I learned a lot from him, but in retrospect I think that he went overboard in pushing his own political agenda on the students (despite the fact that what he said was often congruent with the opinions of the majority of students in his classes). It was hard to stand up and question the political positions he supported. As a teacher now, I think it's important for students to feel that they can speak up in class in disagreement with the teacher.

But on the other hand, it's apparent from the interview that many students did feel able to stand and speak in his class and say things that they had not been able to express in other places. He was part of the first wave of gay and lesbian professors on campuses, bringing awareness of gay and lesbian life into the classroom, supporting gay studies classes, supporting gay and lesbian students in organizing a gay student group - long before such a thing as "queer studies" gained the relative academic respectability it has now.

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