There was a disturbance in the educational force this week when Joyce Denning passed away. She was Professor Joyce Denning of the Political Science Department at UMass Lowell. I am one of the lucky ones who can say she was my teacher. There are hundreds of us. Thousands. She is still my teacher because what she put in my head and soul is part of what guides me day to day.
I looked for a photo of Joyce on the Internet. I could not find one, so I went to my notebooks where I knew I had a picture of her cut out of a yearbook from 1975. It was on a page with other faces, so I had to block it off with paper to get just her (see below). It was just like her not to have a bunch of pictures on the web—it wasn’t about her, ever—it was about the students. She gave everything. She gave her knowledge, boundless time, genuine attention, and her money (she and her longtime co-conspirator, history professor Dean Bergeron, created the DennBerg Fund to help students with special projects and later for the International Relations Club activities). In lieu of other acts of sympathy and generosity, Joyce suggested that people, if they wish, should send a contribution in her honor to the F. Bradford Morse Fund at UMass Lowell (UMass Lowell Advancement Office, One Univ. Ave, Lowell, MA 01854). The fund provides support for International Relations Club activities like the Model United Nations and an annual lecture.
When I transferred from Merrimack College to Lowell State College in the fall of 1974, Joyce and Dean welcomed me into their classes and office clubhouse in Coburn Hall. I bonded with them immediately, and took every course they offered. Joyce’s political sociology sessions were full of insights about American political culture. She’d say, “Listen for the instructions because sometimes they mean the opposite: ‘The least you can do is vote’ meaning, perhaps, ‘the most you should do is vote because the establishment doesn’t really want a lot of activists out there mucking up the system they control.’ ” She used a political theory textbook titled Community & Purpose in America by Mason Drukman that dug deep into the tension between the concepts of community and liberty in our nation that define us even today—think, Moveon.org vs. Tea Party. When there was no course in political economy, she let me design one and work with her one-on-one, reading Marx, Schumpeter, and others.
For a time Joyce managed the Second Chance program at the University, which allowed older persons to register for classes and continue their education. One of my aunts signed up for that. Joyce was an institution in Coburn Hall for a long time. Her door was always open. Her mind was always open. She’d say, “Don’t do something just to get your ticket punched—follow your passion.” She encouraged us to be curious, to be wise, to be kind, to be engaged. Joyce lives in all of us who learned from her.