Friday, May 02, 2008

Charles Tilly, May 20, 1929 – April 29, 2008

I just learned today that historian and sociologist Charles Tilly died on April 29, 2008, of lymphoma. He was 78 years old and will be greatly missed.

Chuck was one of the great intellects of our time: as importantly, he was endlessly excited about ideas, a scholar who was an indefatigable teacher, a man who not only taught you how to do history, but encouraged you to find your own new ways to do it. While I wouldn't call him a radical (because it is too reductive -- he was so much more than that), he was the exact opposite of a conservative, an interdisciplinary thinker who believed that knowledge production could evolve as fast as the human mind could accomodate new paradigms and new ideas. He encouraged his students to find new things to think about, but more importantly, to find new ways to think. As a teacher he was generous to a fault, and he had a quiet but firm disdain for academic pettiness and cruelty, that rarely manifested itself in open conflict with a scholar behaving badly, but rather in redressing the wrong done by showering kindness, and whatever resources he had available, on those who had been subjected to the most common forms of departmental and institutional abuse.

I first heard of Chuck when I was a Yale undergraduate: I was an English major who took history courses for fun. Taking history classes was simultaneously a great leisure activity and an intellectual activity, since at that moment Yale probably had a fistful of some of the best lecturers ever gathered in one place at the same time. One of the hippest of them was John Merriman, whose class on the French revolution people used to revisit year after year just to hear the lecture on Robespierre. John was also famous for throwing keg parties for his students at the end of the semester, and at one of them we had a long talk about his great teacher at Michigan, Charles Tilly. John said if I ever had the chance, I should study with him.

Some years later I was in graduate school at NYU and one of those things happened that can more or less derail your Ph.D.: my advisor and mentor, Albert U. Romasco, died suddenly, about a week before my general exams, and there was no one who was either intellectually appropriate or interested enough in me to take over my dissertation. They had to hire someone else, and it was going to take time. But then -- as if there really is some pattern to life if you can only discern it -- Chuck and Louise Tilly came to the New School, right up the street, and one of their former colleagues from Michigan who was on my committee suggested I go up and talk to Chuck about my research because we had some interests in common.

So I did. And the only thing that was misleading about that advice, in retrospect, was that since Chuck was interested in everything, with whom would he not have interests in common? Furthermore, I didn't know that at that moment in time you got Chuck and Louise as a package, and that once you fell into their orbit you never really left. You became part of this network of astonishing people with capacious intellects who came in and out of town, moving through offices that were a hive of activity, research and ideas. Looking at something I had written one day, Chuck said, "Theda Skocpol is coming through next week -- let's have her take a look at it and pick her brain." Chuck ran a proseminar on the state which was my principle intellectual context during my final years in graduate school: one fall, in the first meeting, I walked in and sitting around the table were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Bridget Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm. The Hills and Thompson remained for a month; Hobsbawm, who was particularly helpful in talking to me about my research on social bandits in the Great Depression, stayed for the semester, and then came and went for the next several years.

I mean really -- imagine being a graduate student writing about social bandits in the twentieth century United States, and someone drops Eric Hobswbawm in your lap. It's like Christmas for historians.

This post is only a snapshot of what Chuck did with his life: there is a universe of scholars out there who would tell you similar and different stories. If I could characterize his pedagogy, I would say that he believed in bringing smart people together and creating an atmosphere where ideas could flourish. He taught me to think big, and he taught me to take risks. He taught me the difference between scholars who were capable of rigorous, useful criticism and people who criticized others just to make themselves look smarter or more important. And he taught me to believe in my own intellect, that ideas that didn't make sense to others would, in time, when the ideas had developed sufficiently that my readers could finally grasp them. Once we were sorting out a problem in a dissertation chapter, and he persuaded me that something I wanted to write about was just a diversion from the argument the chapter needed to make. Reluctantly, I agreed: I pulled those pages out, crumpled them up and flipped them into the trash can. Chuck got up and walked across the room, pulled them out of the trash and handed them back to me. "Never throw an idea away," he said "Whatever took you there once, will take you there again." And he was right, of course: the pages I had discarded became an article on the labor gun molls performed in criminal gangs in the 1930's.

So I now tell my students the same thing.

When you ask Chuck's students -- and there are so many of us -- you will hear stories about teaching, about research (he once dumped a bunch of documents on my desk and said, "Would you take a look at this? I can't figure out what to do with them, but I think you can"), about teaching people to have faith in their own instincts, about generosity. You will hear stories about his capacity to listen, and about his boundless respect for others. Most of all he encouraged his students to think big: to make comparisons, to examine patterns that extend over centuries, to imagine grand theories and write about them, to challenge orthodoxies, and to make history matter. He brought people together, was generous with his friendship, his time and his ideas. And I have a strong feeling that, were he peering over my shoulder now, he would say, "Alright, that's enough about me. It's your work that is important today. Isn't there a drawerful of research you need to get to now? So wind up this blog post and get back to your book."

For Lee Bollinger on Charles Tilly, click here; for the New York Times obituary click here; and for Chuck's predictions about how history would unfold, written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, click here. This essay is crossposted at Cliopatra.


Susan said...

TR, Thanks for this post. It's so important for us to tell the stories of how teachers have shaped us. The best teachers gave us room to become ourselves, not their clones. You've shown so beautifully how Tilly helped you as a scholar.

Robert Zimmerman said...

Not only a wonderful tribute but fine recollections of your formative years. And it's a pleasure to read about scholarly generosity.

I was surprised and amused to find the line about "[choosing] your own version of twelve-tone composition" in his method. I would love to have had the chance to talk to him about why he chose that metaphor--what it meant to him.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes...John Merriman; I served with him on a European history committee for three years. I often enjoyed hearing his reaction to anything conservative. The man can tell you about the history of Michigan football but cannot tellyou how to find Yale's football stadium (joking).

Belle said...

OMG, what a moment that would have been, to find those brains in a single room and be a part of it!

Great post TR. Thanks.

John Krinsky said...

Thanks for this post. I was Chuck's student at Columbia from 1996-2002 and have many of the same sorts of experiences. Had I seen this before, I would have tried to be sure you knew about (and since I don't know you, perhaps you did!) the memorial conference run this past weekend by the SSRC at Columbia.

At any rate, here's to a great teacher, stunning intellect, and very decent person!

John Krinsky

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