The History of Sociology at Vassar College

by Robert McAulay, with the assistance of Terri Cronk
January 2011
Department Website

In 1892, Professor of Economics Herbert E. Mills introduced a course called Social Science, intended as “a study of some of the prominent social problems” from divorce to immigration. For the following year, the Economics Department along with this single sociology course became the Department of Economics and Sociology. Several courses on current economic and sociological issues were added in the early 1900s, and a course on Programs of Social Reconstruction was introduced in 1920. Economics and Sociology became a major field in 1927, offering only a combined concentration. At that time, an Economics and Sociology Seminar was first offered, as were opportunities for independent study. During the 1930s, the course offerings in sociology were significantly expanded, adding such classes as Social Institutions, Principles of Sociology, Social Measurement (a research methods course), and a Seminar in Social Problems. Beginning in 1943, the Economics and Sociology Department also encompassed anthropology, becoming the Economics, Sociology, and Anthropology Department. Students in the department were allowed to major in any of the three fields. Also, at that time, a course in Social Theory was introduced. The department’s first field work opportunities were offered in 1945. Anthropology and Sociology split off as a separate department from economics in 1968, at which time a number of courses in more specific sociological subjects were added. Classes dealing with gender and racial issues in sociology were created in the late 1960s and the 1970s.*

The academic year 1983/84 marked, for the first time, the existence of a separate and autonomous Department of Sociology. As early as 1978/79 the two wings of a joint Anthropology-Sociology Department had operated as separately administered units with distinct curricula and officially designated co-chairs. During this period members of the Sociology faculty began to craft signature changes in Introductory Sociology, but also established a required senior thesis and “fine tuned” overall requirements for the major.

Starting in the Fall semester of 1982/83 Sociology not only offered smaller sections of its introductory course but, in a novel departure from the “standard text” focused classes taught elsewhere, Sociology 151 at Vassar now centered around the “classical tradition” in social theory – most notably the seminal ideas of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel and Mead. The originating vision here was to provide a conceptual and historical foundation for subsequent courses taken under the broad umbrella of Sociology’s curriculum. The Department was aided in this endeavor by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded to Professor James Farganis on behalf of Sociology at Vassar. The NEH-funded grant provided release time for faculty to participate in a year long colloquium to arrive at agreement on readings and supplemental materials to be used in the various sections of Sociology 151 taught by members of the Department. The core participating members in the 1983/84 seminar were, Jim Farganis, Eileen Leonard, Bob McAulay, Marque Miringoff, E. Jean Pin and Sondra Silverman. An article entitled “Theory is the Key in Introductory Sociology at Vassar” appeared in the October 1986 Footnotes (Vol. 14, No. 7), an official publication of the American Sociological Association.

In addition to the transformation of Introductory Sociology, the Department reorganized its capping experience to include a required senior thesis in conjunction with a senior seminar. This restructuring was announced for the first time in the 1980/81 Vassar catalogue. Sociology also took steps to modify its curriculum in other ways, reducing the requirements for the major from 121/2 units to 101/2. This reduction was accomplished by lowering the required number of theory units from two to one, with a parallel reduction in methods courses. Requirements for the major listed in the 1985/86 Vassar Catalogue included Introductory Sociology 151, Sociology 247 (theory), 254 (methods), Sociology 300/301 (senior thesis/colloquium for a total of one unit) and two additional seminars at the 300-level. The remaining 41/2 units were to consist of Sociology courses elected by Sociology majors, with the extra 1/2 unit in place to encourage students to pursue Field Work (Sociology 290) under the auspices of the Department.

1986/87 marked the first academic year in which the required senior thesis and seminar received letter grades. In the Senior Seminar each major was expected to defend the first draft of her or his thesis in a presentation to all senior majors and Sociology faculty. Majors and faculty read each thesis draft, attended all seminar meetings and participated in the ensuing discussion. However, as the number of majors writing senior theses began to grow, the idea of a senior colloquium became increasingly impractical. At one point a decision was made to keep the senior thesis as a two semester process, but beginning in 1989/90 work on the thesis was worth 0.5 credit each semester with the grade for “a” term suspended until a final grade (for a total of one full unit) was determined at end of the “b” semester. The thesis was to be supervised primarily by a first reader with the assistance of a second reader assigned by the Department.

The success of the Sociology Department over this period of time can tracked, in part, by the growing numbers of thesis students and majors. In 1984/85 the Department had 4 seniors, by 1989/90 there were 21 senior majors writing senior theses; by 1999/2000 there were 33. The academic year 2002-2003 saw 43 senior Sociology majors graduate, an all time record for the Department. The number of students majoring in sociology climbed from 59 majors in the Spring of 1990, to 105 in 1995 to 145 majors in 2000. There were parallel increments in the numbers of Vassar students taking Sociology courses – 435 in 1984/85, 677 in 1989/90, 697 in 1994/95 and 798 in 1999/2000.

The burgeoning number of majors, and the overall increase in students taking Sociology courses, was accompanied by overall growth and changes in the number of faculty. Diane Harriford joined the Department in 1987/88. The 1990s saw the retirement of Professors E. Jean Pin and James Farganis. With the hiring of Pinar Batur, William Hoynes, Seungsook Moon and Leonard Nevarez, a total 8 permanent Sociology faculty on tenure track lines were “on board” by the end of the decade.

An infectious enthusiasm for a revitalized Sociology Department was manifest during this period of time. The combination of an intellectual vision of the “sociological imagination” and a commitment to social justice, together with the excitement generated by a new generation of teacher/scholars, propelled the Department. Concomitant with enrollment increases and the hiring of new faculty, the interdisciplinary character of the Department became unmistakeable.

In fact, participation by Sociology faculty in the multidisciplinary programs extends back well into the 1970s. Involvement with the Science, Technology and Society (STS) Program by several members of the Department was especially significant early on. James Farganis was a co-founder of the STS program and served as director of the program into the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s separate courses taught by Farganis, Sondra Silverman, Bob McAulay and Marque Miringoff were cross-listed with STS. The latter two members of the Department have continued to serve on the STS steering committee since the 1980s. Ms. Miringoff also participated in American Culture and Women’s Studies programs from an early date and later served a remarkable stint as head of the Urban Studies program from 1987/88 through 1992/93. Eileen Leonard’s longstanding involvement in both Women’s Studies and American Culture, either as participating faculty or on the steering committee, dates from the mid 1980s and, from 1990/01 to 1992/93, she was director of the program in Women’s Studies. Sociology had also frequently cross-listed courses with the Africana Studies and Diane Harriford’s course on Race and Ethnicity continued this tradition. Her Sex, Gender and Society class was also listed as an approved course by Women’s Studies. Not surprisingly, Sociology’s own curriculum increasingly incorporated interdisciplinary interests. Along these lines a 1993/94 Ford Curriculum Development Grant, in which Pinar Batur and William Hoynes played an integral role, was received by the Department to explore ways in which additional multicultural material and perspectives reflecting contemporary issues of race, ethnicity, and class might be integrated with the Department’s Introductory courses. The project started in the Fall of 1994 and took effect in classes during the Spring of 1995.

Sociology’s initial significant engagement with the programs, however, barely presages the level of commitment found during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Pinar Batur served two terms as head of Urban Studies from 2000/01 until 2005/06 and as head International Studies from 2007/08 through 2009/10. Diane Harriford, who was director of Women’s Studies from 1997/98 to 1999/2000, served two additional terms from 2003/04 to 2008/09. During roughly this same period of time, Eileen Leonard headed American Culture from 2004/05 to 2006/07 and Seungsook Moon was director of the Asian Studies Program from 2006/7 until 2008/09. William Hoynes, an integral participant in the Media Studies Development Project, was director of the program in 2005/06. He also served as head of American Culture from 2007/08 through 2009/10. Leonard Nevarez directed Urban Studies for a four year term extending from 2006/07 through 2009/10. During one noteworthy two year period, no less than five different Sociology faculty were simultaneously serving as directors of programs in American Culture, Asian Studies, International Studies, Urban Studies and Women’s Studies.

This incredible first decade of the twenty-first century found Sociology’s participation in the multidisciplinary programs at an all-time high. The overall number of Sociology seniors, majors, and students had declined somewhat from 79 majors, 30 seniors writing theses, and a total of 718 students taking Sociology courses in 2004-05 to 67 majors, 25 seniors, and 652 overall students by the end of 2009-10. Still, the demands on Department faculty were considerable and this decade also saw the addition of three new tenure track faculty – Light Carruyo, Eréndira Rueda and Carlos Alamo – all of whom demonstrated remarkable capabilities as both teachers and scholars. Each, in her or his own distinctive ways, continued the Department’s commitment to research, pedagogy and further enhanced Sociology’s interdisciplinary connection to the Latin America and Latino/a Studies Program (LALS).

A whole host of visiting faculty throughout the years includes Jodi Brodsky (who played an integral role teaching the new Sociology 151 in the 1980s), Rudolph Blier, Beth Weitzman, N’ Dri Assie-Lumumba, Robert Weil, Ellen Berg, Marshall Blonsky, Dwight Fee, Mary-Ellen Boyle, Marshall Battani, Laura Miller, John Cross, Kathy Kaufman, Miranda Martinez, Amy Schindler, Gayle Green, and Gayle Sulik. Dee DePorto’s course “Domestic Violence” (Sociology 210) has been an invaluable contribution to the Department during the past decade. Together these individuals have helped to sustain the Department during a time of burgeoning enrollment, participation in multidiscipline programs, and as substitutes for Sociology faculty on leave. The Department was able to thrive as a home for students over the years in no small measure due to our longtime Administrative Assistant Judy Cadwallader and, more recently, Terri Cronk.

During this time the Department has also contributed to countless lectures, symposiums, and student events: Symposium on Homelessness, Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Justice Reform, Multiculturalism, and Equal Rights Awareness to name a few. The list of speakers, including prominent Sociologists – Howard Becker, Aaron Cicourel, Joe Feagin, Joshua Gamson, Todd Gitlin, Erich Goode, Ruth Sidel, William Julius Wilson, and Irving Kenneth Zola – is truly impressive. Sociology also helped bring notable speakers including National Co-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington; Director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, Dr. Sidney Wolfe; U.S. Assistant Secretary for Education, Department of Health, Education & Welfare, Dr. Mary Francis Berry; Ruth Westheimer (“Dr. Ruth”); Former Head of Black Panther Party, Elaine Brown; Former Governor and Presidential Candidate Jerry Brown; Host of nationally broadcast radio talk show “Love Phones” Dr. Judy Kuriansky; and Ralph Nader who made a presentation during Earth Week of 1998.

By any number of measures the past three decades have been an extraordinary “run” for Sociology at Vassar. Given the substantial foundation now in place, one can only imagine the outlines of a future history of the next fifty years of the Department to be written on the occasion of the College’s bicentennial celebration.

*A Note on Sources: The opening paragraph is adapted from An Administrative History of Vassar College 1861-2003, which draws on selected Vassar College catalogues and bulletins form 1892-93 through 1981-82. The remainder of this account relies heavily on the Annual Reports of the Sociology Department (1979 through 2010) archived in the Department Office and is further supplemented by Vassar College Catalogues (1978-79 to 2009-10) in addition to our personal memories of the past 3 decades.

The photographs of Herbert E. Mills, Leslie A. Koempel and James Farganis are from the Vassar College Library Archives and Special Collections. Thanks to Dean Rogers for his assistance in locating these images.

The photograph by Ben Rayfield of Eileen Leonard following her Spring 1990 convocation address is from the Vassar College Catalogue (1991-92), page 287. Thanks to Sharyn Cadogan for her assistance in producing this image.

The photograph of the end of year Sociology Department “picnic” was taken in May 2009 by Bob McAulay, the Department Chair at the time.