Paul Christensen died on June 18th, 2016.
Paul was a professor of sociology at the College of Marin for over 40 years, serving as the chairman of the sociology department and as chief negotiator for The United Professors of Marin. A controversial figure on the COM campus, Paul was a tenacious fighter for worker’s rights, brokering one of the strongest teacher contracts in place at any US college. His efforts in this regard earned him a hated reputation among many COM administrators, while also earning him the gratitude and admiration of many of his peers.
Students, likewise, had widely polarized opinions of Paul. Some loved him while others hated him. Comments posted on Rate My Professors range from the laudatory to the insulting, with his outspoken, sometimes “vulgar,” manner being appreciated by some as “awesome” and condemned by others as “repulsive.” Either way, student opinions of Paul were never luke-warm. He was a teacher who left a lasting impression on anyone who sat in his classes.
I am one of those students who loved Paul. In 1982 I had just graduated from high school and was more concerned with riding motorcycles and listening to punk rock music than I was with studying. I began attending the College of Marin mostly to appease my parents, and it was during my first semester there that I enrolled in Paul’s social deviance and problems course. The class, unsurprisingly, was filled with a large number of nonconformist youth, including a gorgeous girl with a purple crew cut who eventually became my wife.
Paul had what it took to grab my attention as a 17-year-old. He was big, – well over 200 pounds – bald and aggressive. He lectured in an informal style, hands in pockets, freely using profanities. During one discussion on the dynamics of state power, I vividly recall him warning the class how in the real world, challenging police authority gives cops the permission to “kill your ass!” Such gruff vulgarities turned some students off, but at that point in my life, Paul was exactly what I needed. He spoke frankly about violence, power, sex; all in a down-to-earth manner that was startling but also attention grabbing and entertaining. Here was a teacher who appealed to my teenage sensibilities, showing me that academic study did not require the adoption of inauthentic affectation or pretension.
I recall being overwhelmingly excited that a block of the social deviance and problems class was devoted to the study of punk rock. In connection with this, Paul introduced students to Dick Hebidge’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a book that remains a landmark in subcultural studies, and to the works of Erving Goffman and Edwin Pfuhl. At that pivotal point in my life, he showed me that it was possible to apply serious academic theory to things of intimate importance to me; things that were a part of my own experience. He taught me that I could bend my educational experience to fit my own passions and interests rather than passively allowing myself to be bent by the school establishment.
After leaving the College of Marin – and because of Paul’s inspiration – I went on to study sociology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I eventually decided to switch my focus to philosophy; a switch that Paul at one point told me amounted to “the same thing.” All through the years I pursued studies in philosophy, Paul’s influence remained present in my mind, and indeed, I count him as one of three professors throughout my life who have (knowingly or unknowingly) been my most important guides and role models. With his death, only one of these role models now remains.
My relationship with role models has always been fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, I need them. Their presence in my life offers concrete proof of what it is possible to achieve, giving me confidence that my own dreams and hopes are not completely implausible. On the other hand, I’ve found that if I get too close to my role models and start to see their flaws, they begin to fall in my eyes. For this reason I have found it necessary to keep them at a bit of a distance if I hope to retain my sense of idealistic admiration.
This certainly applies to my relationship with Paul Christensen.
After earning my Ph.D. in philosophy, I eventually returned to College of Marin as a professor, and thus became Paul’s colleague. It was impossible for me to shake off the feelings that I had developed toward him as a student, and though I periodically socialized with him and other COM professors, I retained the need to keep him at arm’s length so that he would not become too familiar or commonplace to me. This eventually became harder and harder for me to do.
As Paul’s physical condition began to decline, and as I became increasingly unnerved by what looked to me like a disregard for his own health, I one day made a comment about his overindulgence in alcohol; a comment that he did not receive very well. He became angry at my impertinence, telling me that his drinking habits were none of my business. He was right of course, and I apologized. Nonetheless, I told him, he really did not understand exactly how important he was to me. It was a confession I felt I needed to make, and it stopped Paul in his tracks. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the previously welled up anger dissipate in an instant. Although he didn’t say anything in response, I’m certain that he knew what I was getting at; or I at least hope he understood what I was getting at, since it was one of the last times that I talked with him before his death.
Without Paul Christensen my life would have been very different than it has turned out to be. I already miss him very much.