The Pedagogic Performances of Charles Tilly

As many have attested, Chuck Tilly was an extraordinary scholar and an exemplary human being. Let me briefly discuss his working style and pedagogy. Chuck was an extremely prolific writer; as colleagues often mentioned, he wrote faster than we could read (and as I will explain, he also read many times faster than we do). It has been hard to keep up with his writings and easy to misrepresent his work given the size of his oeuvre, which I would claim one needs to consider as a whole and not as single, independent pieces. I remember Chuck being disappointed when people equated him to any one of his books.

Instead of waiting until a text reached “perfection”, that unattainable goal, or thinking that he had the ultimate word on a subject, Chuck was willing to publish fast in order to be proven wrong (or only partially right), and thus rendered perfectible. Indeed, why wait for someone else to fix his models? He often came back and improved his previous ideas. This is exemplified by the story he loved to tell about how his first book was a refutation of his dissertation.

How can we explain his fecundity? Besides the long hours, his efficiency, his lucid mind, his love of writing, and the shadow of death, the reason for his productivity was the way he saw scientific endeavor. By the way and pace in which he published, it seems to me that Chuck intuited that by its very nature all scientific knowledge is temporary, and by this I do not mean that he was a postmodern writer or that the quality of his work is mediocre. To the contrary, he took his academic profession so seriously that he was never content with publishing and moving onto another issue. He saw the building of knowledge as a cumulative and collective process. Thus he constantly revisited, corrected, expanded and clarified his own work and that of his colleagues and students.

One reason he read so much, produced such great bibliographical compendiums, and gave comments back to students normally within 24 to 48 hours, was because he was a real “speed reader.” There are speed reading courses and methods, but academics tend to dismiss them in order to savor every word. Besides reading many words per minute, he also was in favor of skimming. As part of a required course on social science methodology that many of us took at Columbia University, Chuck started with a statement on how to read a book: Start by scanning it. Look at the table of contents. Read the introduction and the conclusion. Read the passages of interest. That should suffice, move onto the next book, and come back to it when work or students make the content pertinent.

How did he have the time to read and write so much while giving ample time to students and colleagues? A small seminar was organized by the History Department at Columbia in 2007 precisely to ask him about how he worked. Chuck said that the only way he could be so productive was by putting in the hours, working literally from dawn until dusk, including the weekends. Chuck mentioned how the legacy of his work meant that he went the last number of years without seeing a play, going to the movies, or spending daily time with his family. Because of the immediacy of cancer, his great knowledge and his ambition, in the last years Chuck became a master of delayed gratification; he forwent things such as going to the movies or to a classical music concert in order to do what he loved the most: read, write, mentor and be a professional academic participating in panels. Yet his frequent smile showed how he enjoyed his academic life and the small pleasures of life. He was known for working with classical music or jazz blasting from his office stereo. His social group was constituted by his academic extended family with which he would socialize in departmental functions, maybe his main socializing event in the last years became the dinners he would have with students and colleagues on Monday evenings after his Columbia Contentious Politics workshop. In these weekly dinners he would display his mastery in story telling and where he would reveal details about his private life and biography.


Sometimes some students would complain that his graduate seminars were not very “rigorous”, “hard”, or “useful.” This misunderstanding came about because, to our chagrin, Chuck was very reluctant to lecture graduate students, post-docs, or visiting scholars for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. In a required seminar on Research Methods at Columbia, he would talk for 20 minutes with expertise and authority while using simple language, telling stories to explain long debates and important issues, rather than citing every other scholar having worked on the subject or using obscure references. Then the course would turn to the students, who, given each one’s ability, would then deliver the bulk of the lecture and book discussion, learning by doing to become scholars.

His optional graduate courses at Columbia (of which I took two) were always in the form of writing workshops. Students would present their work, and others would criticize it, following the model of his contentious politics seminar, thus functioning as a professional workshop for work in progress with short presentations throughout the semester by the budding scholars. As expected, the papers would start off at a level that needed improvement but Chuck would never judge someone’s potential by the contents of a first draft. And after some years, many of these papers turned out to be important pieces for the students who incorporated the comments from Chuck and the seminar participants in subsequent versions.

Even while there would be distinguished, retired lawyers, doctors, publishers, fans, translators, and visiting scholars from across the world who would audit and attend his seminars and classes, he was too democratic and self-critical to jump into the bully pulpit and deliver “the sacred word” in the French academic style of the likes of Foucault, whose lectures at the College de France would be recorded and later turned into books. Chuck Tilly preferred to interact with students and help them with their projects, and to then write the books himself, as books proper, and not as lecture notes.

Still there was anguish and disappointment for those looking for a guru or a more authoritarian patron saint, or even a colleague to hate. In many ways his large and revolutionary oeuvre did not match his simple and humble ways, which consciously betrayed his working class upbringing and his democratic and cosmopolitan convictions. While he set many research agendas and collaborative networks, he would never start a graduate seminar by discussing his work directly, and he would avoid it with possible. So while he mentored and convinced many of us of the importance of contentious politics, and the relational approach, he did not give us strict instructions on what or how to write. Chuck refused to be studied as a seminal author in life. Some colleagues and I would often implore Chuck to give a course on Tilly, the author. He would categorically refuse by saying “I will never teach a course on Tilly” referring to such a graduate course, although he later knew that Mauricio Font was offering such a course at CUNY’s Graduate Center in 2007.

Fortunately, I had the great chance to co-teach an undergraduate course on Tilly with Tilly. This was the last undergraduate class he ever taught. It was the undergraduate course on “Revolutions, Social Movements, and Contentious Politics” following the publication of his “Contentious Politics” textbook co-authored with Sidney Tarrow. This textbook culminated a long search of many years to produce a method and a research agenda that could be taught, understood, and applied for the good use and enjoyment of students of any age. A group of very brilliant Columbia undergraduates were able to reproduce and apply the CP method to very interesting projects in one semester’s time. Students looked at contentious issues in cases going across space and time from Oaxaca to Sri Lanka, from England to Israel and covering vast periods such as Imperial Japan or current protest events amongst peasants in China.

As I witnessed his work while being his research and later teaching assistant, I noted how he was always open to learn not only about new topics and countries but also about new techniques. Before we started this course, he asked me what I thought of incorporating Power Point into the course. I said I liked the idea and Chuck was fast in learning how to incorporate this technology into our lectures. But why did such a famous Professor have to bother to pick up a new technology in what would become his last undergraduate course? The reason was that he was always eager to learn more and humble enough to let others teach him while doing. He would review the slides I wrote about his work and provide helpful comments, replying to my e-mails almost immediately. Illness made him miss a number of lectures but he would often call me from the hospital to check on the class, and update me on his medical condition. A number of times, even when he was present in the class, he would let me lecture on his work, clarifying or expanding when necessary. This was not a sign of lack of energy or lucidity but another example of his democratic and egalitarian demeanor.

Chuck Tilly aimed to publish books and articles that changed the way we see history and do social science. He opposed methodological individualism and studies that locate responsibility in individual isolated consciousness; along with Harrison White and Pierre Bourdieu, he pushed for a relational understanding. In particular, Chuck was interested in social interactions, including contentious ones, and the social networks they formed. When providing new concepts and mechanisms, he always kept the historical context in mind, going beyond parochialisms or universal laws. He connected his love for history with that of social movements, which under the banner of Contentious Politics compares the common mechanisms in civil wars, riots, revolutions, international wars, terrorism, protests, and many other events. Since the theoretical changes he proposed are so ambitious and revolutionizing, publishing his new research manifesto in the form of a textbook will probably end up to be effective, but this is yet to be seen since, as he taught us, adoption and diffusion are contingent and always take time.

Ernesto Castañeda-Tinoco
Columbia University

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