Memories of Chuck at Michigan

Often when Chuck would quickly and brilliantly read a paper, make a professional contact, or perform any other numerous acts of generosity, if you asked him what you could do in return, he would always say, go and do likewise. He would want this event to be a gathering that collectively committed ourselves to his example. It’s unlikely any of us will match his prodigious output or the originality, depth, and impact of his scholarship. But we can be inspired to build on the foundation he laid. Ron Aminzade once remarked that Chuck’s example made it impossible for Ron to ever say no to a student, whether reading a paper, serving on a committee, writing a letter, or spending hours in conversation. I don’t know if there has ever been a study of acknowledgments in papers and books, like the ones done on citations, but if there were, I would bet no one has ever surpassed Chuck Tilly. And I’ll bet 90% of us in this room have learned much more from Chuck or had him shape our papers and books more than any ritual acknowledgment can ever capture.

It was at the University of Michigan that Chuck really became the Chuck Tilly most of us know. Though The Vendee was already well known, it was there he wrote From Mobilization to Revolution, edited The Transformation of National States in Western Europe, co-wrote The Rebellious Century with his wife Louise and brother Richard, collected most of the data on collective action in France, and launched the Great Britain Project. Academia often witnesses spurts of great creativity around particular times and places and Michigan in the 70s was one of them. This creative burst was kindled by the energy of three main sources. First was the Center for Research on Social Organization, which resided in an old red brick school house, the Perry School. What had been classrooms were reconfigured as suites of offices, ideally sized to balance interaction and solitude. There were constant discussions about everything from the minutiae of our research projects to the grand questions of social theory. The only place to buy lunch within close walking distance was a greasy spoon called Krazy Jim’s whose uncannily accurate match book covers read “Cheaper than food.” So most of us ate in the center’s bare-bones lunch room where a big old urn supplied the muddy coffee that fueled the place. Chuck would often share with us the mundane details of what he was working on, his negotiation with journal editors over reviewers’ comments, or the subtleties of the job markets. It was in lunch room conversations that we got our professional socialization for the daunting jungle of academic life.

About the closest thing to an academic sanctuary I know is Chuck and Louise’s living room in their big house near fraternity row in Ann Arbor. For those of us who spent our Sunday evenings there, it ranks up there with the National Archives, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Every Sunday evening, one of Chuck’s many acquaintances, either a graduate student, Michigan faculty member or the likes of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Joan Scott would discuss their on-going research. We would dig deep to uproot the underlying assumptions, creatively stretch the ideas to consider specifying conditions and comparisons, and most of all critically interrogate the methods. If there was any theme, it was measurement. When we think about mobilizing resources, how do we know a resource when we see it? Are ideas resources? How do we compare the potency of different resources? On and on and on. I think almost all the Michigan graduate students and perhaps some of the faculty, will tell you that’s where they learned to do scholarship. And when it came time to get married, my wife and I picked the place that most seemed like a sanctuary, the Tilly living room.

And there was even learning in classrooms. Chuck used classrooms to learn and to teach. In all the eulogies that have recalled how much Chuck taught us and gave to us, we need to remember that Chuck learned from us. Of course, it was not that we knew more, but that he had the intelligence and self-confidence to learn from his students. Poring over draft chapters of the books mentioned above, we learned how arguments are constructed, how they build on existing literature, how they are refined to be testable, and how they are crafted to be literate. We saw the process of creative scholarship in the making. But it was more than a pedagogical exercise. Chuck listened to us and took our suggestions to heart. Not that he always agreed with us. But by going toe to toe with one of the smartest people we had ever met, we grew to feel that we too could be real scholars.

Sometimes when people are close to historic events, they later say they didn’t realize at the time how special it was. For me that was never true about Michigan. I knew it was a special time and place and that I was very lucky to be there. But it’s only been since I’ve been teaching that I realize what made Chuck so great. I’ve met other people who are brilliant, erudite, committed to their students, inspirational, generous with their time, original in their thinking, positive in their relationships, and influential in the field, but never have I found these qualities in one individual. He was generous when he didn’t have to be, supportive without any expectation of reciprocity, striving when all the accolades had been won, curious when his knowledge was encyclopedic. That’s not to say he was perfect, as he would freely admit. For instance, in noontime volleyball he was an unconscionable poacher.

One of the themes in Chuck’s prodigious writing over the last decade or so is relational thinking. One of the greatest testimonials to Chuck’s impact is how deep the bonds are among the people in his large research community, not just his students or colleagues, but everyone he touched. When Chuck inspired us to go and do likewise, the responsibility is enduring.

Bill Roy

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