Shaping the World through STPEC
Sara Lennox, director of the Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) Program and professor of German Studies, didn’t intend to become an interdisciplinary scholar. Like all smart school children in the era after the launch of Sputnik, she was supposed to become a scientist to help beat the Russians. Enrolling at DePauw University as a chemistry major, Lennox took German too because scientists were expected to learn it. But when she discovered that she wasn’t suited for chemistry and that foreign language majors could study abroad during junior year, Lennox became a German major.
“After getting my master’s in German at the University of Wisconsin,” Lennox recalls, “I switched into comparative literature for my doctoral study because it was the most interdisciplinary field I could find.” After finishing her course work, Lennox went to Frankfurt on a Fulbright fellowship to research her dissertation. It was the late sixties, the height of the student movement, and a time when the ‘Frankfurt School’ (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin) was making a strong international impact on how political theorists and activists understood society and culture.
As it turned out, it was Lennox’s enthusiasm for the Frankfurt School that sparked the STPEC Program’s interest in her. STPEC had been launched in 1972 as an experiment in critical liberal arts education. When founder Robert Paul Wolff announced that he was leaving to pursue other academic options, Lennox, newly tenured in German, was approached to take over STPEC’s directorship. The opportunity to promote innovative interdisciplinary education for undergraduates appealed immensely, since she had been concerned that her main influence on students would be only through German classes. Lennox accepted enthusiastically.
That was more than twenty-five years ago, and STPEC is now a hallmark of the UMass Amherst experience. The only program of its kind in the nation, it has been heralded by the Fiske Guide to Colleges as one for “students seeking to stand out from the masses.” The program, according to Lennox, is rigorous and challenging, an exciting intellectual experience. “When I gathered statistics for STPEC’s last external review, I discovered that over half of our majors graduated cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude. About 40% of our students are in Commonwealth College, UMass Amherst’s prestigious honors program. STPEC’s emphasis has always been on preparation for action in the world and students really value an approach that sees knowledge, no matter how abstract, as something that has relevance for how one lives and what one does. Consistently, our students address the ideas that shaped and are shaping the world.”
“I think STPEC has strongly influenced the way I’ve approached my own field,” Lennox reflects. “The dominant approach in many humanities fields these days is ‘cultural studies,’ examining all forms of culture in their historical and social contexts and making use of approaches like racial and ethnic studies, postcolonial and transnational studies and gender and queer studies.” Lennox says that cultural studies can be sloppy about attending to the standards of evidence of other fields, even though it purports to be interdisciplinary. That is not the case in Lennox’s graduate seminar, German Studies/Cultural Studies. She says, “Through STPEC I have learned a lot about social science and history methodologies, making my own scholarship and that of my graduate students much more grounded.”
Lennox says her STPEC involvement has helped her land two major grants, one on black Germans, funded by the Humboldt Foundation, and another on black Europeans, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Her recent scholarship has focused on German-language women’s writing, including the book Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters: Feminism, History and Ingeborg Bachmann, just published by UMass Press. Another book on Black German Studies is forthcoming. “I think STPEC also contributed to my interest in the German Studies Association,” which Lennox serves as president. “Its 1600 members are primarily engaged in German literary and cultural studies, history and political science, but they also represent other fields, like anthropology, art and architectural history, music history and philosophy—truly interdisciplinary. My interdisciplinary background helps me help them figure out how to talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries.”
STPEC’s rigorous curriculum emphasizes a commitment to critical thinking, multiculturalism and diversity, interdisciplinarity, and making connections between theory and practice. Students must complete a mandatory internship that helps them think about the connection between the academy and the world and are also strongly encouraged to study abroad. Many are double majors in other University departments and complete multiple minors and certificates. STPEC’s alumni are making a difference as attorneys, social workers, teachers, planners, legislators, leaders of social and political advisory groups, union organizers and so much more. “Since a STPEC education focuses on everything,” Lennox observes, “a STPEC degree can give our students the background to pursue any career they want!”
May 30, 2007