Dear Joan, Call Me "Chuck"

Joan Scott

In 1966, I was awarded a research training fellowship by the Social Science Research Council. The point of the fellowship was to encourage interdisciplinary training; the recipient was assigned to a mentor who would help accomplish that over the course of several years. I was incredibly fortunate to have Chuck Tilly as my mentor. My own dissertation adviser was less than helpful, so absorbed was he by his own narcissism. He did suggest the town that became the focus of my research, but that was about all he contributed to my academic development. Chuck was the opposite: a caring, patient teacher who gave consistent feedback, who tolerated what now seem (as I reread the letters we exchanged between 1966 and 1970) brash arguments from a feisty history graduate student, and who shepherded me along as I found my voice as a social historian and my place among people who would become colleagues and friends.

Early in September 1966, Chuck invited me to visit him at Harvard. I was still nursing my son, Tony, who had been born two months before, but went anyway. I was extremely anxious about how I could juggle motherhood and a professional career (feminism hadn’t yet taught me that mine was not an individual problem), but much of that anxiety vanished the moment I met Chuck. He introduced me to his group of students (women and men treated equally) and to Louise; and we planned out the relationship that subsequently would be conducted mostly through letters, with occasional visits to Toronto (where he was then headed) and later to Ann Arbor.

I had a long reading list, mostly of sociologists. Chuck had me write papers about groups of readings I’d done. In response to one of these, which I called "Little Boxes," citing the Malvina Reynolds song from the 1960s ("little boxes made of ticky-tacky"), he taught me a good lesson about analytic perspective:

Now I’m NOT urging you to set up your work as a hokum test of an antiseptically-formulated general proposition; you’ve already told me how much you distrust boxy-blocky formulations of the process of industrialization, and how concrete you want to be. I’m saying that in doing your relatively concrete historical job you still have to adopt some version of one or more of these analytic devices, and you might as well do it deliberately.

As I formulated my dissertation topic (on the glassworkers of Carmaux), Chuck not only provided direction and more reading (in my file, there are many hastily handwritten notes on small bits of paper from him with yet another suggestion of a book or article to read), but also contacts he thought would help me build a network of the kind he was so good at creating. In January of 1976, he alerted me to the existence of Bill Sewell this way:

William Sewell, Jr., a graduate student of Neil Smelser’s at Berkeley, is undertaking a dissertation on "the response of various occupational groups in the city to the problems of urban and industrial life from 1850–1875"… His long letter makes him seem an intelligent man, worth keeping in touch with. I’m going to tell him you exist. Maybe you’d like to drop him a line [the address followed]. That’s up to you.

Needless to say, I followed his suggestion and Bill and I have been friends ever since.

A few years later, when I was back from France and writing my thesis in Chicago, he wrote to advise me about how to present the first academic paper I would do for a serious conference—Steve Thernstrom’s meeting at Yale on cities in the nineteenth century—which would become my first published article. And, of course, it was through Chuck that I met Louise, who would become my collaborator and co-author. Chuck encouraged our work, read drafts critically, and was the one who told us, when we’d written three articles on women’s work and the family, that we now had to write a book.

That kind of advising and networking came naturally to Chuck. The famous Sunday evening seminar at the Tilly’s in Ann Arbor provided an extraordinary set of connections for the growing world of social history/historical sociology all through the 1970s and 80s. In fact, wherever Chuck went, he created places in which intellectual exchange happened—comfortably, critically, profoundly. His role in the famous Round Tables at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris during the 1970s helped form an international network of social historians who, long after the conferences themselves, corresponded, cited one another, and formulated their work in terms of theoretical debates he had helped launch. In the New York Times obituary, Adam Ashforth called Chuck a sociologist for the 21st century. That may be true, but I think he will hold a more prominent place as one of the founders of social history in the 20th century and as one of the architects of that field—through his own publications, the students he trained, the seminars he held, and the networks he nurtured.

One of the most impressive aspects of Chuck was the friendly egalitarianism that characterized his interactions with colleagues and students: in fact, we were all treated pretty much the same if he thought our ideas were worth engaging. I’ll never forget the letter I got from him in June 1967, as I was about to take off for dissertation research in France. In it he praised my prospectus, warned me that I’d never do everything I said I wanted to do (and that that was okay), suggested how to go about doing a first reconnaissance in the libraries and archives, and even recommended a place for me and my family to stay in Paris. But what I cherish most about that letter was how it began. For months, he had addressed me as "Joan"; I replied to "Mr. Tilly." This letter signaled the end of the formality: "Dear Joan," he wrote, "call me Chuck; it’s more like equality."

I did call him Chuck after that, and I’m terribly sad that I won’t be able to do it ever again.


Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: info@ssrc.org