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Theorist carries impact

Rachel McDevitt, The Temple News, February 19, 2013

Three weeks ago, some students might have been surprised to find out that their professor was canceling class so she could attend a meeting in Senegal. If they really knew political theorist Jane Gordon, they shouldn’t have been surprised.

Gordon has been a part of a small group of theorists in the political science department at Temple since 2005. Now an assistant professor, she teaches classes that vary from introductory lectures to seminars on women’s roles in politics.

Her eyes truly engage from behind her blue-rimmed glasses and her voice runs out of breath describing her classes; she doesn’t want to take a breath in her rush to tell you what is so interesting about her field.

“In a way that’s, I don’t know, maybe naïve. I come in with a sense that people want to learn something, that they want to think that it’s exciting to learn,” Gordon said. “The classroom is a moment, it’s a community, it’s an experience.”

Gordon grew up the daughter of two successful anthropologists who worked closely on everything. The separation between work and home was non-existent, she said.

“I swore when I was a kid – and really swore when I was in high school—that the last thing I would ever do was become a professor,” Gordon said.

Gordon became a high school social studies teacher, but she soon found herself trying to teach college-level material. It was her husband, Lewis Gordon, a current philosophy professor at Temple, who suggested she go to graduate school to see what would come of it.

During her studies at the University of Pennsylvania she was able to expand on topics that interested her during her undergraduate at Brown. Topics like whether some things are true across historical contexts, or whether nothing was, and how you identified them sparked her interest. She was particularly drawn to writers and thinkers who lived on the margins of society, saying that they are almost more free to produce unique and thought-provoking work, since they do not have to conform to insider norms, she said.

“A lot of the political theorists whose work I like most, they don’t just write formal treatises,” Gordon said. “They write about a whole variety of things because they really have a sense that the reality they are trying to grasp is always going to exceed them.”

To share her interests at Temple, Gordon started a political theory workshop using her own startup money. The workshop partnered political theory with philosophy to offer three lectures a semester: one from a graduate student, one from a faculty member and one from someone outside of Temple. It later found funding under The Center for the Humanities at Temple.

“She started it on her own and was just finding a way to piece together the funding, which is a level of commitment to study that is fairly rare in my experience,” said Peter Logan, the director of CHAT.

“Startup funds are supposed to help you get settled,” Gordon said. “But part of getting settled is creating the kind of community you want to be in.”

It was a community Gordon wanted and built from the ground up, and others recognize her for this effort.

“She knows the students so well: what their aspirations are, who they are, what they’ve cared about, what they’ve studied,” Temple Honors Director Ruth Ost said. “She really engages in a deep way.”

This engagement is a natural impulse for Gordon.

“If there’s any opportunity to assure that someone is getting an excellent education, I really feel an obligation to do that, because that’s what people deserve,” Gordon said.

It’s a commitment Gordon has made time and time again. Former students said they still remember the guidance she provided, including regular meetings to review their work, which were no small feat. While many professors face morning commutes from outside the city, Gordon travels 272 miles from Providence, RI, to get to class.

Outside of the time commitment, Gordon is making her own contributions to excellent education through her work on creolization, which occurs when two things not normally put together are suddenly joined.

“You have people who have no history of being together, who don’t particularly want to be together, and they are really unequal,” Gordon said. “Yet they are forging a world that’s shared.”

Gordon’s latest book brings together two thinkers whom the discipline of political theory would never pair: Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who criticized, but couldn’t see around, the European way of colonization; and Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who understood that you had to imagine alternative futures to move forward. Her work suggests that ideas can develop more generally, in ways that have not previously been studied.

Her expertise in these philosophies garnered an invitation to a conference in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of January. The meeting was organized by research center Point Sud in Mali and CODESRIA, the council for the development of social-scientific research in Africa. It centered on the question of the colonial library. These old texts dictated what was necessary to be an educated person in the French colonies, but with the push for an independent, as well as intellectually independent, Africa, the question of what to do with the library has become weighted.

Gordon was one of only a few American representatives in the meeting, led primarily in French, and was awed to be in the presence of some amazing African thinkers.

Gordon’s time at Temple has reached its end however, Gordon and her husband will be leaving at the end of this semester to teach much closer to home at the University of Connecticut. Still, she emanates pride at the thought of her time with students here.

“There are wonderful students at Temple,” Gordon said. “To be able to help someone do what they want to do in the world, to figure it out, why would you not want to do that?”

In her eight years at Temple, Gordon has made a solid impact on students and faculty alike, and it is apparent in speaking to them that they wish she could stay.

Senior political science major Melissa Bright has only known Gordon since last fall. Still, she said, “I really hate to see her go, because we need a lot more professors like her at Temple.”

Logan said he believes as accomplished as she is already, Gordon can still go so much further.

“She’s just starting out. I can’t imagine what she’s going to be like later when she’s actually a mature scholar,” he said. “She’s off to a stunning start.”

Originally published here: