Once a Teacher...

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Founding faculty member Robert Crawford discusses his meandering path to Tacoma and his varied passions.

“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.”

Robert Crawford

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.”

Founding Faculty

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.

Section: 
Written by: 
Margaret Lundberg / January 28, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu