“I hitchhiked to Timbuktu over Christmas vacation…”
That’s the sort of life Professor Rob Crawford has led—so interviewing him for this newsletter was definitely a thought-provoking, rapid-fire experience. We discussed issues ranging from his personal history and academic background, to his position as one of the founding members of UW Tacoma’s faculty, and his thoughts on a thirty-seven year teaching career. There isn’t room here to cover every topic that came up in our hour-long conversation, but the highlights are fascinating.
While attending Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, CA, Crawford was a member of a four-man/four-mile relay team. “We held the national record for three months,” he noted, before adding with a laugh, “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 a day, 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 nationalistic fervor,” and he was intrigued. Ghana, he noted, had declared their independence from Britain in 1957, so it was a new nation. “But they also had a world-class university.” Crawford transferred to the University of Ghana during his junior year. When asked how that happened during a time when this would have been a highly unusual thing, he said, “Circumstances. Someone I knew had done it. I had an amazing education—and it got me to grad school. He also called his three-week Christmas-time trek to Timbuktu “one of the great adventures of my life.”
Coming of age during the civil rights/Vietnam War era, Crawford was also an early protestor 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, 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, growing out of an increasing interest in anthropology and sociology. “I looked at how Americans thought about health. My reputation” he said, laughing—“if I had one—related to this: AIDS and cultural connections of health.”
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 it very seriously. It was a very creative time,” Crawford noted. Among the many things he enjoys about teaching at UWT 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 they could slow down. “It’s a compromise, but this is the only time in your life you can do this…spending the time to read and study.” But he holds out hopes that once they graduate, UWT students will become “life-long learners.”
A life-long music-lover, Crawford studied classical piano in his youth—but he had always loved improvisation, so he decided that studying jazz was a perfect way to better his skills. In 2007 he started working with northwest native Dave Peck—an outstanding piano player in the local jazz community—and has been working with him ever since. “He’s “one of the greats,” Crawford said. 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 talked about the importance of early lessons he learned from his piano teacher, noting “I’m always thinking of those things I learned, realizing that principle works in the classroom as well.” Music is, he said, “a wonderful combination of focused discipline, plus the fun of doing it. The classroom is like that, too! Hard work, plus the enormous fun of teaching.”
“I’ve always used my teaching as a way to find out more,” Crawford states. “Teaching always seems to trigger more interest on my part.” Speaking of a course taught “Post 9/11” he says “my instinct was to teach about it first, but intellectually I became more interested in the topic—for my students in the classroom, what would work in the classroom, and in the larger academic community. Most of his courses, he claims “were built on my engagement with the world. My mind is always alive in the classroom. It is a privilege to teach!”
Next year, Crawford will be team-teaching a course examining the Vietnam War with Mike Honey–just in time for the 50 year commemoration. “My teaching has increasingly turned toward war.” The topic, he says, “needs a lot of attention, to help students break through their blinders. 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 I may retire after next year.”
“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?” Laughing, he added, “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 has one thing that he credits with keeping him in balance—gardening, and a 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 the work and feels that it helps to keep his life balanced.
Asked if he had any plans for retirement, Crawford answered, “To continue to read, and to write, and to do what I’ve been doing—try to live a somewhat balanced life. To travel more, as well.” He also noted however, that having been active in the anti-torture movement since 2007, he also sees some form of political activism in his future.
If he could offer one piece of advice to students, Crawford would remind them, “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!”