Everett C. Hughes, Great Teacher

Howard S. Becker

(Foreword to Rick Helms-Hayes and Marco Santoro, editors, The Anthem Companion to Everett C. Hughes (London: Anthem 2017))

Everett Hughes, a great sociologist and a great teacher, may not be as unappreciated as the editors of this book suspect. His own work continues to reverberate, as new generations discover it for themselves. Equally important, more and more people discover, one way or another, that he didn’t just inspire generations of later-to-become-prominent sociologists. He did better than that. He taught us How To Do It, just as his teacher, Robert E. Park, had taught an earlier generation (Hughes was one of them) how to do it. I always imagined, when I sat in Hughes’ seminar, that he was reproducing, in his own style, the rambling, reflective, worldly, elegant style of thought, and of imparting ideas that had characterized Park’s teaching.

As fine a sociologist as Hughes was (and there has never been a better practitioner of our trade), he was even better as a teacher. I think that many people who sat through his classes would disagree with me. Many colleagues of mine in graduate school found his classes disagreeable: rambling, without a clear point, even tedious. The first class I took when I entered the University of Chicago sociology department in the fall of 1946 was his class in how to do field work, taken by all the incoming students in sociology, anthropology and human development. He assigned us, in pairs, to Chicago census tracts (a small area of one or two Chicago blocks) and gave us assignments to do: collect genealogies from two or three people (a bow to the anthropologists, I suppose), observe for an hour or two in a public place, attend a group meeting of some kind, and interview a number of people who lived in the area about whatever he happened to be interested in that quarter. And write all this “information” we collected down and turn it in to him each class period. Which we all dutifully did.

He didn’t talk about that work in class. Instead he talked about any damn thing that came into his head, rambling in a contented way over things whose relevance to field work wasn’t clear. At least, it seemed that way to us. We were bewildered. I noticed that a number of much older students—typically guys who had been in the army and were now in graduate school as s result of the G.I. Bill of Rights—would sometimes show up to listen to these monologues with great interest. I finally got my nerve up one day and asked David Solomon, one of the several Canadians who had come to Chicago to study with Hughes and a veteran of the war, what he was doing there. He wanted to know what I meant and I said that he must know far more than what would be taught in an introductory class. He looked at me with real pity, and said, as best I can remember, “I can’t explain it to you now, but one of these days you’ll understand that these lectures are pure sociological gold.”

And they were. You had to be a little more sophisticated than we were to appreciate his way of taking a walk around a topic, noting some features you would otherwise have ignored, comparing it to other things taking place in places that didn’t seem to have much in common with our census tracts, and then concluding with a general remark that tied it all together. Was that sociology?

These explorations were a far cry from the polished, logical analyses so elegantly enunciated by his fellow faculty member Herbert Blumer, who explicated the complex, subtle and hard for us to grasp social psychology of one of his teachers, the philosopher George Herbert Mead. Many students thought that was the Real Thing. Nor did they have the ostentatious erudition of Louis Wirth, who occasionally entertained himself by translating obscure passages from Georg Simmel in place of lecturing.

But when it came time to write a master’s thesis, some of us chose to study situations of work and were directed to see Mr. Hughes on the fifth floor of the Social Science Building (it had been Robert E. Park’s office but none of us knew that then). And whatever kind of work you had chosen to study—and especially if, like me, you had chosen something less “noble” than medicine or law—he would encourage you to get started doing some preliminary scouting around, to talk to some people in that line of work, to start your thesis right then and there without waiting for the formalities of making a written proposal.

And then you would take—sometimes for several quarters in a row—his eventually legendary seminar in what started as “The Sociology of Occupations and Professions” and eventually was known (not an innocent change, this) “The Sociology of Work.” So I started doing fieldwork with the musicians (of whom I was one) who played in bars and for parties and bars, and with that ticket of admission to the class, joined a hard working and productive rotating group, which included, among many others, Bob Habenstein (studying funeral directors), Dan Lortie (anesthesiologists), Harold MacDowell (osteopaths), Bill Westley (police), Lou Kriesberg (retail furriers), Ray Gold (apartment house janitors) and eventually Erving Goffman (who proposed, but never did, a study of butlers).

The discussions were lively. Always centered on what we had been finding out in our continuing field research and never allowed to stray into sterile discussions of “theory” (which in those days would have meant trying to define the essence of a ”profession” as opposed to more mundane kinds of work, or the equally tedious questions which we liked to pester each other with about whether our samples were “adequate” or not. The heated discussions always, under Hughes’ skillful guidance, led somewhere, to a new idea or direction for our inquiries, not necessarily to a solution to whatever problem we had brought up but surely to a direction to follow that would finally move our work along. And finally to broad hints that it was time to get on with the tedious work of actually writing a report of our research which could become a thesis or dissertation. In other words, he taught you how to do it, from the first vague ideas to a finished, written product.

And beyond that. I started working for him, interviewing school teachers for his research on schools, work I meant to use as the raw material for my dissertation (the M.A. thesis done and accepted already). One day he looked at up me in a quizzical way he had, which I knew likely meant that there was something he’d thought up for me to do. And said, “Time you wrote an article.” And when I asked what I should write about, he said “About  what you wrote your master’s thesis about.” Meaning, clearly, musicians. I said, “Which part of it should I write up?” He gave me one of those practical gems David Solomon had alerted me to: “Take one idea and put in anything you can make stick to it and leave the rest of it out.” I did and that was my first article, published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Many other people have stories like that to tell. He didn't teach his students his “theory,” partly because he didn’t have one. He had something better: ideas you could use to shape an investigation and the later report of its results. And ways of working that were better than “methods” out of a cookbook: how to think about what you were learning in your research and use that to shape the next steps you took.

He taught you how to be a sociologist.