Sociology at Memorial University – A Personal Odyssey

By Doug House

Feeling very grown up, but in reality a very innocent sixteen-year old, I first attended Memorial in 1960 at the old campus on Parade Street. At the time, MUN was a very small institution with approximately 1000 students, more like the college it had been up until 1950 than the large, comprehensive university it is today. In 1961, I was privileged to have been a member of the first cohort of students to go to the brand new campus on Elizabeth Avenue. At the time, the new campus seemed huge – four modern buildings: Arts and Administration, Science, the Library (now the Henrietta Harvey Building) and the Physical Education Building with a spanking new, full-sized gymnasium, squash courts and a swimming pool.

Like most students, I didn’t have much of an idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Being more of a “jock” than a scholar, I started out in phys ed, which was then only a diploma program at Memorial, with visions of going on to do a degree at Toronto or McGill. For various reasons, including falling flat on my face while demonstrating a simple vault while student-teaching at Prince of Wales Collegiate – to the great delight and glee of the students – I gave up phys ed after my second year. I then tried psychology, and enjoyed working for Dr. Art Sullivan for two summers at the Waterford Hospital; but became disillusioned when I found that most of the courses seemed to be more about the behaviour of rats than about people.

It was not until my third year that I enrolled in two courses in sociology, one in introductory soc and the other in comparative social anthropology. These were full-year courses covering what today would be two semesters each. At the time, sociology and anthropology were a combined department, and no clear distinction was made between sociology and social anthropology. For me, this was an advantage, and I am still a firm believer that the comparative perspective of social anthropology is essential to the sociological imagination.

In 1962, the sociology department at MUN comprised only three professors. An English anthropologist, Dr Ian Whitaker, was the Head. I took my first social anthropology course from him. He was entertainingly idiosyncratic. I remember one time hesitating about going outside when it was raining and windy, only to be swept up by Whitaker, academic gown flowing, and saying to me sternly, “Come along, House, mustn’t be deterred by the elements!”

The other two faculty members, Drs. Roger Krohn and Noel Iverson, were both young sociologists who had trained with Don Martindale at the University of Minnesota. Iverson was a conscientious prof whose lectures were exceptionally well-prepared, and he was to become my honours dissertation supervisor the following year. But my fondest memory of him was when he invited some of us students to his house-warming party on Queen’s Road. We sat on the floor, drank beer and wine, and listened to jazz. What more could a “good” middle-class boy from St. John’s desire?

But the big revelation for me, and the main reason I went on to a professional career in sociology, was the introductory course I took from Roger Krohn. Roger was an inspirational teacher and opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world. He taught me then, and I still believe, that the defining feature of our discipline is neither methodological nor theoretical, but rather what C. Wright Mills was to call the “sociological imagination” and Peter Berger the “sociological perspective.” It is an approach to understanding society that is comparative, relativistic and inherently democratic. It was this experience that inspired me to do six courses and a dissertation in sociology during my final year in order to graduate with a B. A. (Honours) degree in sociology.

I then left Newfoundland for further study in England, and graduated in 1967 with an M. A. degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I was fortunate to meet my wife, Jeannie, while there. (We’re still happily married in 2009.) I couldn’t decide whether to pursue an academic career or one in public service (I ended up combining the two), so I accepted a one-year offer in the unique position of Sessional Lecturer in Sociology and Psychology at Memorial in 1967-68. Things had changed greatly in sociology at MUN while I was away. Whitaker, Krohn and Iverson had left, and Robert Paine, a British social anthropologist, was the new Head of sociology. Paine also headed up Memorial’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) which, for several years, was essentially the research arm of sociology and, in particular, social anthropology. During my first semester, I was lucky to share an office with Jean Briggs, who was to become one of Canada’s most eminent anthropologists and who spent her entire career at Memorial.

It was the golden age of ISER. Its innovative fellowship program attracted top-notch young researchers from the United States, Britain and Norway. Robert Paine chaired a succession of stimulating seminars in which young researchers reported on their fieldwork in various parts of outport Newfoundland and Labrador, and heated debates ensued in comparing the different findings about “my” community compared to the others. I had enjoyed my summers as a boy trouting, cod jigging and playing with other boys in Trinity, Trinity Bay; but this was my first chance to witness the sociological imagination being applied to my own society and culture. There was also a political dimension to the work, as ISER researchers such as Ralph Matthews and Robert DeWitt became early critics of the Smallwood government’s resettlement program, and Norwegian scholars Cato Wadel, Ottar Brox and Georg Henriksen began advocating alternative, community-based approaches to development that contested the conventional wisdom of the time which favoured industrialization and urbanization. It was a heady time for ISER and sociology/social anthropology at Memorial, which helped me make up my mind to pursue an academic career in sociology.

Jeannie and I went on to spend an exciting three years in Montreal. I completed my Ph. D. and then found my first academic job at the University of Calgary where we spent four years. While at McGill, I attended a lecture by the well-known sociologist, Everett Hughes, who wrote the classic book French Canada in Transition. Hughes’ advice, in the Chicago School tradition, was to carry out research on issues that are important to the society in which you find yourself. As an economic sociologist, it seemed natural for me to focus my research on the oil and gas industry in Alberta. This proved to be a fortuitous choice when I returned to Newfoundland and Labrador later in the 1970s, just as oil and gas exploration was heating up off our shores.

I was sitting at home one evening in the fall of 1973 when the telephone rang. It was Dr. Art Sullivan, who had been something of a mentor for me during my days when I was studying psychology at MUN. He told me that he had just been appointed as the first principal for a new west-coast campus of Memorial that was being established in Corner Brook, and he was wondering if I’d be interested in being his right-hand man. My first thought was: free trip home! To make a long story short, I ended up taking a position on the main campus and never did make it to Corner Brook. Thank you, Dr Sullivan!

The 1970s and 1980s were exciting decades for sociology at Memorial. While there were advantages of having a combined department, anthropology had been the dominant partner. The separation into two departments created a great opportunity for sociology to develop its own direction and identity. Under the leadership of Volker Meja and a cohort of other dynamic young sociologists, Memorial soon established itself as an exciting place for sociology. From the outset, it exhibited a balance between the cosmopolitan and the local. On the one hand, young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were exposed to cutting-edge theoretical ideas and to comparative studies of other cultures around the world. On the other hand, several members of the department became committed to and engaged in research and writing about the local society and its economic and social development problems and prospects.

Having returned to Newfoundland and Labrador as a native son interested in the province’s development, my own career took a more practical turn starting in the mid-1980s. I have been fortunate to have had several opportunities to work in the public service of the province under three different premiers – Brian Peckford, Clyde Wells and Danny Williams – in positions which have allowed me to have some influence on public policies related to social and economic development. But I have always enjoyed coming back to the ivory tower and look forward to finishing my career as a sociologist at MUN. I have enjoyed working with many excellent undergraduate and graduate students, and have had the pleasure of seeing many of them move on into successful careers in academia, public service and the volunteer and community sector.

The department has seen many changes over the years. The move from a collegial to a more corporatist model at Memorial has brought about more bureaucratization, as has the formalization of collective bargaining. But the department continues to attract bright young scholars, and its core faculty are ably supported by a dedicated group of term and per-course appointments. The gender balance is better than in the past, and the department has strengthened its scholarship and teaching in such areas as women’s studies, criminology, communications and globalization. The core value of balancing the cosmopolitan and the local persists, with new contributions in such areas as policing and occupational health and safety.

Looking back, I feel that I have been privileged in my various encounters with sociology at Memorial – as an undergraduate student taking the most exciting courses I have ever taken, as a sessional lecturer during the golden age of ISER, as a young professional helping to build a dynamic new department, and as an established sociologist working with excellent students and being supported in my efforts to apply the sociological imagination to public affairs. As I move toward retirement, I’m happy to see the core values that were entrenched during the 1970s being ably maintained and enhanced by a new cohort of sociologists at Memorial.