James Rothenberg

Retired Associate Professor, Sociology
Speciality: youth, social psychology, research methods, theory

I stumbled into sociology when I was an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. I began
my undergraduate career as a math major and pre-med. Very early in my junior year I found myself
sitting in a comparative anatomy lab incomprehensively staring at chick embryos. I thought to myself,
“I have no interest in this stuff. I have no desire to become a doctor and I can’t stand
linear algebra either.” I left in the middle of the lab, marched into my advisor’s office
and told him that I no longer wanted to be premed or a math major. My advisor was a bit taken aback but
said, “Okay.” We began to talk about what I was doing and what other courses I had taken
that I had liked. I was running a tutoring project for elementary school kids from an impoverished
suburb of St. Louis. I had been active in various civil rights endeavors, including a trip to Alabama
in the spring of 1965 to join the last several miles of the Selma to Montgomery march. I was involved
in anti-war efforts. And, I had taken and enjoyed a number of sociology classes. So, I became a
sociology major – I could complete the major by taking only a few more courses. I had no plans to
continue in sociology after graduation. It was only years later that I discovered that Washington
University had a premier sociology department at that time. Faculty members included Alvin Gouldner,
Irving Louis Horowitz, and Lee Rainwater. I didn’t take a course with any of them!

I graduated in the spring of 1968 and found a job teaching elementary school in the New York City
schools (6th grade at PS 95 in the Bronx). This kept me out of the army since teachers in
city schools were scarce and I received an occupational deferment. As difficult as it was, and it was
very hard, I found that I greatly enjoyed teaching. In the fall of 1971 I became a teacher and then
head teacher at an alternative elementary school in West Lafayette, Indiana. It was a wonderful
experience. I learned far more than my kids did. I learned and developed teaching techniques that I
have continued to use during 25-years teaching at the college level. Teaching is teaching.

After four years in Indiana, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for personal reasons. I found a job
teaching half time in an elementary level Montessori school, and, just for the hell of it, took a few
graduate level courses in sociology at Michigan. I had taken an undergraduate course in social
psychology and loved it. I remembered that Michigan faculty members wrote many of the articles I read
for that course. Thinking that Michigan still had a joint sociology and psychology program in social
psychology (they didn’t – it had been disbanded several years earlier), I applied to and
was admitted as a full time graduate student in sociology.

I began my professional career in sociology with a focus on the sociology of education and social
psychology. Over the years my interests have broadened to include youth and theory. I have long been
interested in the use of simulation and gaming as teaching techniques and teach a course that focuses
on such devices.

I never set out to be a sociologist, but have never regretted the way the twists and turns of my life
brought me to this place.