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Derber acts as mentor

Professor and students relate both in the classroom and out

Published: Thursday, September 17, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of profiles that will examine the mentoring relationships formed between professors and students on campus.

One needs to look no farther than the door of Charles Derber, a professor in the sociology department, to be assured that the man who works within is a dedicated political and social activist. Faded clippings of the Non-Sequitur and Dilbert are taped over one another, speaking not only to Derber's sense of humor, but a characteristic that many students spend the entirety of their undergraduate careers seeking out - his approachable intellectualism.

Derber is a vetted faculty member of Boston College who has spent the past 28 years instilling students with a passion for matters of contemporary and historical social justice. Though Derber is well-known for his desire to make any and all classroom settings forums of open conversation and sharing of intellectual thought, it is not surprising that he believes strongly in making this sense of approachability inherent in all professor-student relations.

"I've talked to students who have told me that they have never had a personal conversation with a professor in their four years at BC," Derber said. "A lot of students don't get the chance to speak with their professors and [thus], their creativity is not fully tapped."

An undergraduate himself during the politically turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s, Derber naturally became partial to issues pertaining to social justice. Furthermore, he felt that his context begged him to reevaluate the purpose of education in shaping a person's world view. "I was imprinted with the idea that education should be relevant and should help shape the world," Derber said. "I do not believe that universities should be separate from society … as students today are open to new ideas and truly can make a difference, even though many feel powerless."

Engrained with this philosophy, Derber has translated this belief into practice in his classes. Known on campus as the professor of the popular sociology courses Peace or War and Globalization, he strives to keep his classes, whether they contain eight or 80 students, as places of interaction and intellectual openness.

"Contrary to belief in the solitary genius, good ideas come from interaction," Derber said. "I would be bored to tears if I just taught. For me it's not just a ritual to teach, it's raising questions and trying to get students to engage in the topic."

Derber inspired this exact sort of intellectual curiosity in one of his former students, Katherine Adam, BC '07, who approached him after taking his Peace or War class, to mentor her throughout her thesis writing process. "She said that she found my class interesting and was intrigued by my approach to writing books … she [thought] that I was presenting a form of intellectual argument that has a point," Derber said. "She also felt there was a resonance in our writing styles and that her own thesis writing would be in a similar manner."

Derber proceeded to guide Adam through her thesis writing process, building a relationship based upon a series of long conversations. Throughout these "intensely intellectual" talks - which Derber said could last for hours on end - the pair would flesh out a variety of issues pertaining to Adam's thesis topic, the place of feminized values in contemporary politics.

"It was almost like being with a friend or a colleague," he said. "She would twirl her hair around her finger - I could tell that things were brewing in her mind."

After Adam presented her thesis in the spring, Derber approached her stating that he felt it had the potential to become a small book. "We spent the summer working on the book together, reframing various pieces of the writing," he said. "After that I shopped it to a few publishers and received offers."

In the 146 years of BC's existence, the publication of what had started as Adam's senior thesis was an unprecedented act and thus, had the effect of highlighting potential amongst undergraduate students that had hitherto not been delved into. "Katherine was an unusual case, but it showed that closer interaction between students and professors can lead to productive work," Derber said. "It brought the idea to BC that students are capable of powerful work as undergraduates."

It is mentoring relationships such as this that Derber feels should be commonplace on all college campuses. "In many places, senior faculty members are not interested in teaching anymore," he said. "I lead a cosmopolitan intellectual lifestyle and I still like teaching. I view my students as potential colleagues and collaborators, not just as students."

Derber is currently working extensively with the issue of climate change, with the publication of his newest work, Greed to Green, set to publish soon. His dedication to making a climate change an issue at the forefront of legislation and people's personal consideration is evident. "I am always attuned to what is going on in the world and the urgency of change is so great," Derber said. "To get people to notice what's happening immediately, you have to change their perspective of what's going on."

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