Renaissance Man

Dr. David Whitmore has lectured and researched at the U of C for over 20 years. Besides being one of our university’s most respected thinkers, Dr. Whitmore was a pioneer in the field of feminist economics. Last week, he graciously agreed to spend some time with features editor RG Scherf and speak about everything from politics to Pakistan.

Dr. Whitmore’s office, on the third floor of the Earth Sciences Building, is filled to the ceiling with folders, student essays and economics journal back-issues. He can see that I’m stunned when I first walk in–the place is certainly a unique sight. Whitmore, a quiet man, quickly clears off a chair for me and smiles: the displaced papers are now covering his desk, the only other workable space in the office. He leans back in his own chair, feet on another stack of papers which have been moulded into a footstool.

RG: How did you get started at the U of C?

DW: I’ve been here just over 20 years. I grew up in a really small town in Maine, where the lobster boats would come in every week or so and for one night all of these fishermen would flood the bars and the main drag and they would just be everywhere. So once a week, this little hamlet where I lived would become, maybe just in my imagination, a big metropolis. Except it was a metropolis where nobody was educated, everyone was just running around drinking and getting into trouble with the sheriff. And as the bookish kid observing all this from the sidelines, I decided that I needed to get out of there and go to university. I did that in Kansas, which was also full of uneducated people. It was exciting, though, being from a place where you could go, “Wow, they have sports teams here?”

RG: So you’ve been here since 1986. That’s a long time for most academics.

DW: I like to keep my head down. I’ve been a good publisher. I like publishing, so it doesn’t really matter where I am. I’ve taught a lot, too, ever since I moved to the U of C. Never won a teaching award, but it’s hard to make feminist economics interesting to people.

RG: So you would say that teaching awards come down to student interest in the material?

DW: Why wouldn’t they?

RG: I’ve been thinking about the teaching awards a lot lately. Almost every professor I’ve had this year has been nominated for one. All the nominees are great teachers, but there’s this one professor who teaches a really boring course. It’s not her fault, but the material is just not interesting. But she does her best, and she has a real connection with her students. It just seems to me that maybe those professors are the ones who might deserve some recognition too. There are a lot of professors who can make normal material interesting or wacky and students can enjoy that, but to take terrible material and bring it up to a satisfying level of interest and relevancy for the students, that’s really commendable.

DW: There should be a hundred more teaching awards given out every year, but they would become meaningless then. The sad fact is that teachers are there to teach. Making boring material interesting is just their job. Some professors don’t care to do that much, but we don’t have to reward everyone who does. Some professors surpass that baseline, and that’s when they’re rewarded. We whine a lot about the quality of education at this university, and the distinction between research institutions and learning institutions. But really we’ve got some great professors, a lot of good professors, and some bad professors. Just like at any other school.

RG: That’s a really casual attitude. Some people are going to read this interview and say that you’re trampling all over a privileged line between the “us” students and the “them” professors.

DW: A lot of students seem to have that really antagonistic attitude between the two groups. I’m not sure why. Something closer to the truth is “us” students and professors, and “them” administrators. The administrators control where the university’s money goes, after all. But even that’s not at all a fair representation of the reality of a university’s economics. At a university, we’re all on the same side. Administrators want happy and successful students to attract more students and more recognition. Professors want happy students so that they can get back to their research. We all want everyone else to be happy, but resources are limited, especially now. As an administrator you’ve got to decide how your extremely tight budget is going to be allocated, and some programs cost more to run than others. So really, I don’t think there is an “us” and “them” at all.

RG: Back to the idea of a teaching institution, couldn’t some resources be re-allocated to provide a better student experience?

DW: The university system, which is dependant in large part on grants from outside organizations, doesn’t recognize teaching as a money-making venture. So to give a university legs to stand on, you’ve got to have a good base of research money flowing in. Otherwise you just can’t support the institution. Feminist economics is a perfect example: I’m allowed to teach courses in that area because I bring in enough research money to support those courses. Some people may not like that system, but there’s no way to get out from under it.

RG: When did you first become interested in feminist economics?

DW: In 1977 I was sitting in my office at University of Kansas, where I’d been stuck teaching summer courses as a sessional so that my wife and I could afford our first house. I was reviewing some class notes when this other professor, also an economist, who actually went on to become very famous, stuck his head in and asked me if I knew someone named Adrienne Rich. I go, ‘no,’ and he tells me about this woman who had recently given a speech at a women’s college about women taking a role in their educations, and he’s chuckling about it, and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘how can I get a copy of this speech?’ So I eventually found the speech, which is now taught in every first-year Women’s Studies course everywhere, and started thinking about the implications of women asserting some control over not just their own educations, but the places they work, the people they work for, gendered divisions of labour, everything from an economics point of view. It was fascinating, all of a sudden having a whole new way of looking at my discipline. It was like putting on tinted sunglasses: immediately everything just looks a bit different. I brought the paper back home to my wife and started telling her all about it, and she just looked at me like, “yeah.” [Laughs]

RG: How did the two of you meet?

DW: [Laughs] That’s a story I don’t like to tell. I’d been backpacking in India for quite some time–when I was young, I took a backpacking trip across Pakistan, India and Nepal–and on one particularly hot day I took a break to rest my feet by a pond. On the other side of the pond there was this Indian kid trying to sell fruit to a woman who looked just as filthy and dishevelled as I was. But of course, she made it look beautiful. When she began to walk away, I decided to follow her. What I didn’t realize was that this pond was actually a river, and so I spent a whole day following that woman from the other side of the river. Eventually she crossed a bridge to my side and we got to talking. We finished the trip together and now we’ve been married for 31 years.

RG: That’s a beautiful story.

DW: I don’t like telling it because it always seems too contrived. I met Nadia before I found feminism, which I think might have changed the story somewhat. I probably would have seen her as just another traveller and let her go on her way. It’s funny, looking back on a time when your fundamental method of thinking changed, and imagining what would have happened if you’d always thought that way. Would you give up your history in exchange for always having thought in the way that you now believe to be correct? I do this exercise in my classes, actually. Last year a young man wrote an essay about throwing away his entire baseball card collection–thousands of cards–on his first day of high school because he decided that he was too old to collect them anymore. That’s some pretty heavy stuff.

RG: Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

DW: For every baseball card story, there are five stories about seeing a grandparent die of lung cancer and deciding never to smoke again. I think that on the whole, it’s really harmful not to embrace change. When I was a kid back in Maine, when I wasn’t reading books I was watching TV. Eventually my parents got fed up with it, and decided I couldn’t watch more than an hour a week. I read more books, which is good, but I really feel like my television literacy suffered. My 10-year-old daughter watches TV all the time, and I just can’t keep up with her shows. Even kids’ shows. I really lost a tool to connect with my daughter by having it cut out of my life as a kid. My parents didn’t embrace the changing media landscape, and I ended up paying for it. At the same time I want my daughter to get some of the encouragement to read that I did. So we’re back to the idea of balance.

RG: It’s pretty progressive to let your child have a free run at media, though.

DW: Well, media is never as dangerous as some people make it out to be. I think just about everyone can accept that. In my case, not having access to my favourite media hurt me down the road, in a really impactful way. I mean, the earlier you’re exposed to everything that’s out there, the fewer problems you’ll have coping with those things later. And I’m not just talking about pornography, or any of the bad things you could find. When I show films in my classes, I have students ask me before they start, ‘does this one have nudity in it?’ In what kind of culture do you have to say before showing a film, ‘class, if you’re ashamed to see a breast, cover your eyes now.’

RG: So you would agree with the idea that our culture is in decline?

DW: It’s a really fashionable thing to say. If you look at the 20th and early 21st centuries, for example, the dominant culture has always been in decline. Mainstream culture just can’t compete with the romance of rising sub-cultures. In the ’60s would you rather be a square, or be going to Woodstock? It’s a dumb question, right? I don’t see the cycle of decline and rebirth changing any time soon. The way internet culture, blogging, all the self-empowered mini-cultures are going, we’re in for another cultural shift in the mainstream within the next 10 years or so. The mainstream is made up of people who are ashamed of breasts. There’s an “us” and “them” proposition for you.

RG: Will we still need feminist economists in this brave new world?

DW: [Laughs] Hopefully not.

Unfortunately, Dr. Whitmore doesn’t exist. If you feel that the U of C needs more professors like him, please contact the university’s executive suite at 220-5460 and let your voice be heard.

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