Farewell, Joyce Denning, One of the Great Teachers at UMass Lowell

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.

Joyce Denning

8 Responses to Farewell, Joyce Denning, One of the Great Teachers at UMass Lowell

  1. Peter Richards says:

    Paul, Thanks for a great tribute to a terrific teacher and wonderful human being. The really special thing about her is that her spirit lives on in all those of us who were lucky enough to encounter her in whatever capacity-one of the benefits of being a teacher to my mind.

  2. Bernie Lynch says:

    Truly a great teacher. She didn’t just feed you with facts, she forced you to think and see the great questions from different perspectives…often outside one’s comfort zone. But beyond that she was a kind and generous person always willing to help others, particularly the students. Finally, she supported people following their dreams….there were no obstacles too large….her response to those: piffle! Thank you Joyce…..

  3. John Wooding says:

    I am going to miss Joyce Denning. Not that I had seen her in a while and, after she retired, y’know, you get busy on other things and end up not keeping in touch, blah, blah. No, missing her is wrong…I will miss the space she filled. And it is a pretty important space.

    I wasn’t one of her students but one of her colleagues – she was one of the first of my new colleagues that came to say hi to me when I started in the political science department at UML. From that point on I would end up, at some point in the week, sitting in her office on the second floor of Coburn and hanging out with her and Dean Bergeron. I remember, at first, being quite stunned at the easy banter she had with the endless stream of students in and out of her office. Even amazed at the number of them. Pretty clear right then that she was a popular teacher. It was pretty soon clear why.

    Joyce was the best. For her, students and ideas were the core; pretty much everything else was a distraction. No she didn’t publish, write articles in peer-reviewed journals or bring in big grants. There are no major books by Joyce Denning. But there’s a much bigger legacy: thousands of students who found out that learning was fun, that a classroom could be filled with laughter and ideas and questions and challenges. Joyce gave students the tools to cut through some of the crap in the world. She gave me inspiration. We have lost a dedicated teacher and a wonderful human being. We gained an entire generation of students much better prepared to be true citizens of the world. Thank you, Joyce.

  4. Len Richards says:

    I too was welcomed into the Denning-Bergeron office/club house. Joyce was the one who kept some sense of order amidst the folks who frequented the Coburn Hall office. She was always upbeat, encouraging and subtly brilliant. We would joke that her car’s headlights had never been turned on as she chose to drive only in daylight. Joyce was not fond of the name, Second Chance, she was fond of the people around her. She is a great soul, and will be missed.

  5. Marty Meehan says:

    Paul, Great tribute! Joyce really taught us how to think outside the box. All the comments are great. Joyce is a great example of why Umass Lowell is so special. Just a fabulous teacher who really made a difference. We were lucky to have her as a teacher and mentor.

  6. Sue White St.Pierre says:

    I too was a member of the Coburn Hall group along withPeter, Len and Bernie and so many others. Joyce was a truly amazing woman that touched so many people. She will be missed yet she will live on in her many students. As a teacher I hope I can touch just one of my students the way she has touched so many of us. I feel so blessed to have been able to call Joyce my teacher and my friend.

  7. John Traphagan says:

    Many thanks for this wonderful tribute to Joyce. I, too, spent a huge amount of time in the JoyceDean office. Joyce taught me to think deeply and critically. And her approach to education has shaped everything I do to this day as a professor. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but have thought about her and all that she gave to me over the years. The world is a much better place for her having been part of it.

  8. Cheryl (Burke) Boissy says:

    Well put. I just today saw this, and learned of Professor Denning’s passing. I had her Political Science course (? which, doesn’t matter) but what does is the number of times I have recalled her patience and devotion to her teaching and students since having taken her course so many years ago. I agree, her influence spread far beyond her classroom. One of the best teachers, ever! (ULowell 1977).