Steve Whitfield honored as scholar, mentor, friend
Two-day conference honors 'Thinker, Teacher, Scholar, Friend'
It’s not every day that more than a hundred people are all there because of one. But it happened for two days at Brandeis recently.
Stephen Whitfield, PhD, the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, was honored at events including a dinner at the home of President Fred and Dr. Kathy Lawrence and an academic conference celebrating Whitfield’s contributions to the study of America, Jewish life and intellectual history.
Whitfield is one of the faculty most consistently mentioned by students and alumni as having profoundly and positively influenced them during their time at Brandeis. He is the author of eight books and has edited two others. The conference was timed to coincide with his 70th birthday.
At the inaugural event of the conference in the Mandel Humanities Center auditorium, entitled “Thinker, Teacher, Scholar, Friend,” former students, colleagues and other friends testified to Whitfield’s scholarly writings and recounted how he had touched their lives.
Lauren Schloss ’11, who is now a second-year law student at Harvard, completed her honors thesis under Whitfield. “Steve was constantly engaged in my work, bringing something new, exciting and thought-provoking to each of our weekly meetings on a regular basis,” Schloss said. “I found new books, newspaper clippings and magazines waiting for me in my mailbox; I knew he was busy with his own research as well as teaching a number of courses, but I genuinely felt like I was his only student.”
Schloss said that “Steve transformed what is often considered the most stressful and painstaking undergraduate endeavor into the most rewarding and enjoyable course I have ever taken. He pushed me to exceed my own exceptionally high standards, helping me to produce the piece of work I am most proud of to this day.”
Destiny Desiree Aquino ’12, who is now a Teach for America Corps member and entrepreneur in South Florida, wrote in that “Professor Whitfield goes far beyond teaching his students solely about American Studies. He is an exceptional mentor and adviser, pushing his students to go outside their comfort zones daily by exploring new areas of interest and research as well as parts of the world. He invests himself in their lives outside of the classroom and their four years as a student. He leaves a footprint on our lives that not only forever changes our minds, but also our characters, helping to create the amazing Brandeisians we all go on to become.”
These experiences of recent students were not anomalies. Stan Brooks ‘79 said that far from students keeping professors current or up to date, “Steve kept us young, he made us relevant,” with his undying love of helping students advance, helped by his extensive Rolodex of connections.
“This talk shouldn’t just say 'thinker, teacher and scholar,' but true mentor,” Brooks added.
Whitfield received his master’s degree from Yale after undergraduate study at Tulane University in New Orleans. He earned his PhD at Brandeis in 1972, and immediately joined the Department of American Studies. He also has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, the Sorbonne and the University of Munich.
Colleagues and old friends at the conference, support for which was provided by the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice, painted a portrait of Whitfield as not just a mentor, but a coworker who actively helped other teachers improve alongside him.
Professor Thomas Doherty, the American Studies program’s chairman, told of his initial job interview at Brandeis, for which Whitfield picked him up at Logan airport. The airline lost Doherty’s bag, complete with his interview clothes and prepared talk.
“Steve was more concerned and frazzled than I was,” Doherty recalled, “mostly because he was and is a decent guy who always hopes for the best for people. It was my introduction to Brandeis, to American Studies and to Steve, and I never forgot his kindness and authentic goodwill."
Professor Joyce Antler, another colleague and past chair of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, praised the conference and the man of the hour.
“The conference was festive but also intellectually stimulating and represents the best that the Brandeis experience provides,” Antler said, adding that it was “wonderful to hear American Studies students from four decades pay tribute to a favorite teacher.”