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  • McDermott as a Colleague
  • Paul B. Thompson

Although I took one class with John McDermott at SUNY Stony Brook, I write as a colleague who came through the ranks under his mentorship at Texas A&M from 1980 to 1997, when I left College Station to assume the Joyce and Edward E. Brewer Chair in Applied Ethics at Purdue University. I came to Texas A&M during the transition from McDermott's term as the Head of the Department of Philosophy and Humanities to the leadership of Professor Hugh McCann. It was a heady time in Central Texas, and especially in philosophy. Texas A&M was itself undergoing rapid growth in both the size of its student population and in the research output of its faculty. The 1980s, in particular, were a time when a faculty member in any randomly chosen department (aside from A&M's agricultural programs, which had long attained excellence) might have presumed that his or her colleagues were performing at a level far above that of the general reputation of the university as a whole. It was not until the 1990s that we looked around and began to recognize that everyone (well, almost everyone) was doing scholarship that would not have been imagined or expected from Texas A&M faculty in the 1970s.

McDermott was very much a part of this transition, and it would be difficult to overstate his influence on the general academic climate at Texas A&M. He had come in response to a national search for a new Head for the [End Page 95] Department of Philosophy and had emerged, I was told, as a candidate with far more robust scholarly credentials than was typical for the mid-seventies. By the time I arrived in 1980, he had achieved something of an aura throughout A&M's College of Liberal Arts for the enthusiasm, drama, and verve that he brought to all aspects of his professional life. McDermott presented himself first and foremost as a teacher of undergraduates, a man whose pedagogy was summed up by the E. M Forster aphorism "only connect." At an institution that had always been shaped by the nearly rabid enthusiasm of its former students (we were not allowed to call them alumni, let alone "former" Aggies), McDermott had, in four short years, established a reputation of one who would insist upon reaching even the most recalcitrant, laconic, and disinterested undergraduates, shaking their foundations and bringing them to consciousness of a larger world. The Aggies loved him for that, and faculty throughout the university loved him for communicating that this was what a university professor was supposed to do.

Through means to which I am not privy, McDermott facilitated the creation of a Faculty Senate at Texas A&M and served as its first Speaker. He represented the ideals of democracy within the university to an administration (seemingly, the entire State of Texas) where big men (the gendered term is used advisedly) were used to having their way. It was also a time during which McDermott was at the peak of productivity in his own scholarship, and with reputation-making and field-defining anthologies of James, Dewey, and Royce already behind him. At a university where one might have expected STEM faculty to take a jaundiced view of the humanities, McDermott soared. All the disciplines carried him on their shoulders as the very model of what they personally, and the university in general, were aspiring to accomplish.

At the departmental level, McDermott worked from the pose of a coconspirator. Faculty meetings and departmental events took on the aura of a clandestine rendezvous where thieves and scoundrels plotted with revolutionaries and soldiers of fortune to advance their respective causes within a hostile environment. McDermott would speak in hushed tones as he would say sooths projecting our successes and bolstering us for the trials ahead. He was, to put it more prosaically, for you and for promoting whatever you thought philosophy might be. He was against every machine, from the university administration to the American Philosophical Association that might stand in the way of this pursuit. He did this (somewhat amazingly) without compromising the sense that what you...


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pp. 95-97
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