Linda Dittmar, Faculty

We were a ragle-tagle group at UMB during those early days at Park Square, where we occupied an assortment of empty spaces and called ourselves a University. When I first came there my English Department was at the top floor of the building on the corner of Columbus Ave and Clarendon Street, across from the headquarters of the Salvation Army. It was one cavernous, noisy space divided into cubbies by flimsy partitions. 100 Arlington Street, across from old Armory that served as our Library, was our main building, where the lurching elevator that ferried us up and down still had a live operator announcing each floor  and where CPCS—our most “urban” college—remained long after the rest of us migrated to Columbia Point. Some departments were housed in what was then the Statler hotel, where faculty suites came complete each with its own bathroom.

We, faculty, were gleaned from a range of other universities, many of us idealistic about establishing an urban university, some just happy to have a job. Our students, too, seemed to be scraped off from the surface of the earth. After all, we had no campus, no history, no hearsay reputation, no pennants or letter sweatshirts or teams, not even a hymn. We were not yet a university in the picture book sense, and loved what we were. The move to the Columbia Point campus occurred under vigorous protest at all levels. Even our Chancellor objected to the move, but we had no chance of winning against Boston’s real estate and tax interests, combined.

The students who somehow found their way to us were amazing. Many were Vietnam veterans piecing together a civilian life. Many others were activists in the spirit of the times. Just about all of them were self-supporting working class or modest middle class people whose lives were in transition—the nurse’s aid, the taxi driver, the kid who left home in a huff, one or two sex workers, the high school drop out, a prisoner on probation, a fast food server, and assorted others who could not afford what convention and hype claim is a “real” college education. Many students were first in their family to go to college; many still are. We were a restless bunch, seemingly flotsam and jetsam, reaching for new vistas yet often unsure how to get there or, for that matter, what that “there” might be.

There was something electric about the challenge and discovery that were going on in the classroom. Hesitation gave way to discovery, anxiety morphed into triumph as we forged a way forward, exploring what we want to teach and learn and shaping a curriculum. One of the recurrent questions concerned “relevance”: Is what we are studying relevant to our lives today? The Bible, King Lear, Antigone…Freshman English meant reading the cannon of an elitist Western education which the more restive students saw as tangential to their hard scrabble life. The US was deep in its Vietnam War and yet George Orwell’s anti-colonial writing seemed distant. We were yet to learn to connect the abstract with the material, the metaphor and the concrete, the analogy with what it analogizes.


In all this we benefited beyond words from being in Park Square, surrounded by the “real life” that swirled around us—the homeless man that meandered into a class, the sound of sirens outside our windows, the greyhound station and Patzio’s greasy spoon just a block away, the Kitty Cat club near by, and the frequent anti war rallies and demonstration into which we poured out in large numbers. It was scruffy, but also bucolic. In fine weather we held classes under the trees of the Boston Garden, within earshot of the bells of the venerable Arlington Street Church (Unitarian) that rang its bells for all our marches and demonstrations.

One memorable event among many was Tillie Olsen’s reading. She was invited by Mary Anne Ferguson, who pioneered Women’s Studies at UMass and Nationally. Olsen stood in front of a crowded room, pale and fail looking, with a pack of 3×5 cards in her hands. The  room was crowded, mostly by women, as Olsen began to speak, using her cards as reminders. A few minutes into her talk she paused, looked at us, and said: “You may have noticed that I have a speech defect. It’s hard for me to speak, but I won’t let that stop me from saying what I want to say.” Her topic was “The Silences of Women Writers.” It concerned the anxiety of getting oneself heard and the necessity of breaking through barriers. It came from a very personal place for her, but she couldn’t have found a better topic for our students, female and male alike.

In fact, we said a lot. We were among the first to show the documentaries about North Vietnam distributed by the Newsreel Collective. We pioneered women’s studies and GLBT courses, were among the first nationally to offer a course on women film directors, developed courses in labor history and community work, built towards a program in Black Studies, and much more. None of it was simple. Conservatives, liberals and radicals often disagreed; faculty Senate meetings could become heated. But we also knew that our disagreement came out of a shared passion about the university we were creating and the students it was to serve.

I especially remember our eloquent and incredibly well informed student speakers in anti-war teach-ins and during our protest against the move out of Park Square. While the war was a national issue, the move was local. Some of us predicted that it will bring about the gentrification of that peninsula that was until then a garbage and human dump, and so it came to be. We anticipated that the residents will be removed from the near by project rather than be rehabilitated and that is, of course, what happened. Tree-lined walkways and quaint dormer roofs now disguise the ugly project. The graffiti and weeds are now gone.

In many ways UMass seems to have become a “real” university, much like others. New buildings crop up; some landscaping has occurred; there is artwork, a library, a cafeteria, an athletic center, and even some dorms. But in some ways the heritage of those scruffy early years continues. A passion for teaching still drives our faculty, and a mix of hesitation and inspired insight still lights a fire under our students. None of us takes our achievements—small or large—for granted. We sense each other’s effort and know that we are in it together. And will be.

Linda Dittmar (6.20.2013)

One Comment

on “Linda Dittmar, Faculty
One Comment on “Linda Dittmar, Faculty
  1. Those days for those of us who grew up at the Park Square campus were indeed exciting! Strikes were frequent and supported by a faculty who taught us to take control of our future. The English Department was a fun place to be: Dr. Gertrude White, Dean Hoopes, Black Studies, all shaped the person I became and the profession I chose. I remember Prof. Dittmar. All great memories in a decade of turbulence.

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