DISTINGUISHED FACULTY AWARD: A 43-Year Masterpiece
Honoring Professor Emeritus of Sociology James L. Spates P’00, P’09
BY NATALIA ST. LAWRENCE ’16
Nineteenth century social critic, artist and early sociologist John Ruskin once wrote, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”
Professor Emeritus of Sociology James L. Spates P’00, P’09, a leading Ruskin scholar, has invested decades of love and skill in the education of HWS students, and for his excellence in teaching and influential scholarship, the Hobart Alumni Association and William Smith Alumnae Association honored Spates with the Distinguished Faculty Award in June.
“Ruskin, to me, talked about the most important things in life and I wanted to share with my students these thoughts, so that those important things in life become part of their thought process as well,” Spates said at the virtual award ceremony during Reunion weekend. “One of the wonderful things about teaching at Hobart and William Smith is that you get to teach the things that you think are important — things that you think will help your students the most…My students, bless them, always were aching to learn.”
Spates joined the faculty in 1971, and for 43 years led students through the texts and ideas that shape sociology and urban studies, exploring what informs social values and peering into human nature. With Professor Emeritus and Former Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ’12, Spates redefined the boundaries of the classroom with “Two Cities,” the course that brought students to New York City and Toronto to analyze urban life at “street-level” through a bidisciplinary lens.
McGuire, who joined Spates in conversation in June, said the course was “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” When McGuire thought something was impossible, he said, Spates was always willing “to do things differently, to challenge students in different environments.”
During the DFA presentation, Michael Gantcher ’92 recalled how Spates “challenged my assumptions in the first minutes of the first class of this new school year! I had no idea at the time that I was meeting a man who would not only teach me what great teachers can do, and how they can change your whole life, but a man who would become one of my best friends, a man who would never stop teaching me and challenging me…a man who has been a consistent, supportive and loving presence in the life of my family for over 30 years.”
Alums who nominated Spates for the DFA all underscored his profound influence as a teacher and mentor who shaped their thinking, their love of learning and their responsibility as citizens.
Lindsey Kent ’14, a two-time teaching fellow for Spates, says he had a “monumental” impact on her life. After taking his introductory sociology course, she says, “I knew then I had a responsibility to do good in the world and help other people. Professor Spates helped me become a leader and forge my own path post-college.”
For Lynne Harris Bernstein ’86, Spates “was an inspiring mentor whose passion and energy opened new worlds and ways of thinking to his students. He was exemplary of the kind of teacher one imagines you will experience at a small liberal arts college — caring, creative and fully engaged in students’ learning.”
Dan Kresge ’90 remembers “arguing with [Spates] in class about a point he had made. He permitted and perhaps even goaded me into an argument, and I came away thinking I’d won. Being a professor myself, it’s now clear that moment laid the foundation for my intellectual ‘self-esteem.’”
As Spates himself said, “that’s what being a professor is all about: that you tried to teach them how to be independent thinkers, independent learners, and that you made a good and positive difference in their lives.”
AT A GLANCE
Spates earned an early promotion to full professor in 1984 and was the first faculty member named the Classes of 1964 Endowed Chair. He received more than a dozen Faculty Research Grants during his tenure, as well as awards for his contributions to the curriculum and to the HWS community.
In retirement, he continues his Ruskin scholarship, following his 2006 book, The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen’s Life of Ruskin, with a new manuscript, “Availing Toward Life: The Radical Social Thought of John Ruskin.” Spates is also turning his expertise on social and city life to downtown Geneva, N.Y. He led the revitalization of the Dove Block, the historic former home of renowned painter Arthur Dove, Hobart Class of 1903.