“I hitchhiked to Timbuktu over Christmas vacation…”
That’s the sort of life Professor Rob Crawford has led—so interviewing him is definitely a thought-provoking, rapid-fire experience. Crawford, a PPE professor in UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, is one of 13 “founding faculty” of the campus and has had a thirty-seven year teaching career.
A Runner’s Mentality
While attending Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, CA, Crawford was a member of a four-man/four-mile relay team. “We held the best time in the nation for three months,” he noted, laughing. “I was the slowest guy on the team, but it defined who I was.” He also ran in college and after until he was sidelined by an injury. Although he no longer runs, Crawford still hikes, and walks three or four miles several times a week. He claims a “runner’s mentality,” noting “it’s one of the ways I balance myself.”
After high school, Crawford went to Whittier College, a small liberal arts college in southern California—and then something unusual happened. “I went to a conference at UCLA and saw African students full of fervor for their new nations.” He was intrigued. Ghana had declared its independence from Britain in 1957, so it was a new nation. “Ghana also happened to have a world-class university,” said Crawford, who transferred to the University of Ghana for his junior year. “I had an amazing educational experience—and it got me to grad school.” Crawford calls his three-week Christmas-time trek to Timbuktu “one of the great adventures of my life.”
Asking Critical Questions
Coming of age during the civil rights/Vietnam War era, Crawford was also involved in protests against the war. “I had an early instinct that war was wrong. I’ve always asked critical questions about our war commitments, but my father was very conservative, very pro-war”—which brought about “a generational split in spades” between them. Regardless, Crawford added, “it was a very exciting time.”
Trained as a political scientist at the University of Chicago, Crawford wrote his dissertation on the “Politics of Access to Medical Care.” From there he began to look at questions of health, ideology and culture, turning to anthropology and sociology for new analytical tools. “I looked at how Americans thought about health. My reputation—to the extent I have one—is related to how the concepts and meanings of health, as understood by ‘ordinary’ people, provide a crucial way for understanding modern and contemporary American culture.”
Crawford was one of the original founding faculty at UW Tacoma, meeting during the summer of 1990 to make plans, and teaching the first classes that fall. “We started with basic structure, and with only thirteen faculty, we knew it must be interdisciplinary—and we took that very seriously. It was a very creative time,” Crawford noted.
Among the many things he enjoys about teaching at UW Tacoma is that students here “come from the real world. There is no class privilege, and they have a very pragmatic attitude toward their education. Many are taking three classes and working thirty hours a week, plus caring for families.” Crawford understands the push, but wishes students could slow down. “If only students could appreciate that this may be the only time in their life they can do this…taking the time to read and study.” But he holds out the hope that after graduation, UW Tacoma students will become “life-long learners.”
Music in the Classroom
A music-lover, Crawford studied classical piano as a young man—but he loved improvisation, so he decided that studying jazz was a perfect way to better his improvisational skills. In 2007, he started working with Dave Peck, an outstanding jazz piano player, and has been working with him ever since. Although he claims he’s not ready to perform anywhere, “I continue to pluck away at it. Everyone should have music in their life—or some kind of art!” He also spoke about how studying music pays off in the classroom as well: “I’m always thinking of things I learn in my lessons, realizing that many of them work in the classroom as well. Music is a wonderful combination of focused discipline, plus the fun of doing it. The classroom is like that, too--hard work, along with the enormous fun of teaching and learning!”
“I’ve always used my teaching as a way to open my mind to new things,” Crawford said. Speaking of one of his courses, Post-9/11, he said, “my instinct was to teach about it first, but intellectually I became more interested in the topic—what readings would work in the classroom, and also the kinds of questions I wanted to address in my research. “ My courses “were built on my engagement with the world. My mind is always alive in the classroom.” With a huge smile, he added, “It is a privilege to teach!”
“My teaching has increasingly turned toward the problem of war and the culture that supports war,” he stated. “The topic needs a lot of attention in order to help students break through the prevailing myths and denials about war. It is always exciting to open up worlds to people—and that’s what teaching is all about! I’ve been teaching 37 years, but I don’t feel stale. I still love it; therefore I’m always excited about the subjects I teach.
But,” he added, “I may retire after next year.”
Once a Teacher…
“To tell you the truth,” Crawford said, the thought of retiring “worries me a little. I’m always thinking, ‘Will this work in class?’ …what happens when the teaching is no longer there?” Thoughtful for a moment, he added with a laugh, “Maybe I’ll be cornering people on the street asking, ‘Hey, did you know about this?’”
“Once a teacher, always a teacher.”
A strong believer in living a balanced life, Crawford credits gardening with helping him to keep that balance. That and the small blueberry farm on Vashon Island that he works with his wife, Merna. “I’m very busy with it all, spending a lot of time doing farming-related work.” Although it wouldn’t be enough to support him, he enjoys farming and feels that it helps to keep his life balanced.
Asked if he had any plans for his retirement, Crawford answered, “To continue to read and to write, and to do what I’ve been doing—trying to live a somewhat balanced life, and to travel more, as well.” He also noted, however, that, having been active in the anti-torture movement since 2007, he sees some form of political activism in his future, as well.
When asked if he had one piece of advice to students, Crawford was thoughtful for a moment. “I would remind them,” he said, “there’s always a bigger world out there than what is in your immediate purview. Always look a little bit over the horizon knowing there is something more. Keep an adventurous spirit towards knowing. Stay adventurous. Remember, there is always something beyond you!”
Writings of Rob Crawford
“Guest Commentary: Governmental Transparency – Crisis Point: Democracy Versus the CIA,” by Rob Crawford, Everett Herald, March 19, 2014.
“The CIA, the President, and the Senate’s Torture Report,” by Rob Crawford, CounterPunch, Sept. 26, 2014.
“Guest Commentary: U.S. Response to Syria – Waging War is the Worst Possible Option,” by Rob Crawford, Everett Herald, Sept. 10, 2013.
This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Politics Philosophy & Public Affairs News, published by the PP&PA division of UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.
John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com