Professing Education


A Conversation with Joseph L. DeVitis

Jan Armstrong, University of New Mexico and Joseph L. DeVitis, Georgia College and State University

This is the second of a series of interviews with past presidents of the Society of Professors of Education. One of the goals of this effort is to capture the history of the Society, as recalled by individuals who have contributed to the work of the Society over the years. I talked with Professor DeVitis (JDV) by phone on January 13, 2006. The text of the interview was captured from notes taken during the course of our conversation. In order to ensure accuracy, JDV reviewed and made minor editorial changes to the transcript.

Joseph DeVitis is a professor of education at The Georgia College and State University, Georgia's public liberal arts university. His wife Linda is Dean of its School of Education. He was assistant, associate and professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Martin for 13 years (1972-1988), taught at The State University of New York, Binghamton for 13 years (where he is professor emeritus) and taught at the University of Louisville from 2001 to 2004. He is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a B.A. in history, with general honors in 1967, and M.Ed. in 1969. He was a teacher in the Baltimore Public Schools (1967-1969) and holds an M.A. in counseling psychology from the Adler-Dreikurs Institute of Human Relations, Bowie (Maryland) State University and a Ph.D. in Social Foundations/Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Throughout his career, Joe DeVitis has been active in leadership roles in professional associations and in community organizations. He is a past-president of the American Educational Studies Association, the Council of Learned Societies in Education, the Society of Professors of Education, and the Southeast Philosophy of Education Society. In 2001, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professors of Education. An abbreviated list of the varied roles he has played in community organizations follows. In Tennessee, he was president of the Jackson Writers Group and co-editor of its Old Hickory Review; Vice-President and Communications Director for the Jackson Area Habitat for Humanity; Superintendent of Schools Advisory Council member; Education Chair for the League of Women Voters; West Tennessee Peace and Justice Network and Bread for the World member; Jackson-Madison County Democratic party Executive Committee member, and candidate for the Madison County Commission. He received the Madison County Woodmen of the World Outstanding Citizen Award in 1987. In upstate New York, he was a member of the Oneonta Peace Network; Northern Susquehanna Habitat for Humanity Communications Chair and Board member; Crime Victims Assistance Center Board of Directors member; Citizen Action of New York (Binghamton) Board of Directors member; Southern Tier Service-Learning Network Steering Committee member, Binghamton City School District; Centenary-Chenango Street United Methodist Church lector and Social Justice Committee member, and Oneonta Little League coach.

Professor DeVitis' academic interests focus on history and philosophy of education, moral development, and adolescence. He is the author of numerous articles and book reviews, and is author or co-author of To Serve and Learn: The Spirit of Community in Liberal Education (1998); The Success Ethic, Education, and the American Dream (1995); Theories of Moral Development (1994, 1985); Competition in Education (1992); Helping and Intervention: Comparative Perspectives on the Impossible Professions (1991); School Reform in the Deep South: A Critical Appraisal (1991); Building Bridges for Educational Reform: New Approaches to Teacher Education (1989), and Women, Culture and Morality: Selected Essays (1987). He is co-editor with Linda Irwin-DeVitis of a Peter Lang book series on "Adolescent Cultures, School and Society," has served on the editorial boards of Educational Theory and Educational Studies, and currently serves on the editorial boards of Teacher Education Quarterly and Vitae Scholasticae.

JKA: How did you first become involved with the Society of Professors of Education?

JDV: I joined SPE in the mid or late 1980's. Art Brown originally got me interested in it. He kept asking me to join. Joe Burnett was involved, and John Martin Rich was active, but it was Art Brown who kept asking me to join. I used to kid him: "Art, I thought you had to be at least 65 years old to join SPE!" He persisted. At the time, SPE members met at the AERA [American Educational
Research Association] meeting, as they do now.

JKA: What is the function of SPE? Why do people become and remain members? Joseph DeVitis

JDV: In terms of a foundations perspective, I belong to it because I have that perspective. One benefits from the camaraderie and fellowship at meetings. Also, as an AERA SIG, SPE provides people with opportunities to get on the AERA program. Round tables are a good way for newcomers to get a foothold in AERA. A number of colleagues get interested in joining SPE because it provides a less formal way of getting on the program. This can be especially important for doctoral students and new professors.

JKA: How do you think non-members view SPE?

JDV: SPE is a small organization, but if people know of it, it is probably because of the events we sponsor, particularly the DeGarmo lecture at AERA. AERA continues to give the DeGarmo lecture a good time slot each year. Although we have Professing Education and The Sophist's Bane for members, both useful vehicles, we don't have a widely distributed journal. This might have held SPE back. Yet I doubt we could afford that kind of journal. I would say SPE members are a combination of Foundations of Education and Curriculum and Instruction professors, with a few other people as well. One thing SPE could do is to try to get more membership from other areas of education. In the last 20 years, we have had few members from Educational Leadership, Special Education and Educational Psychology.

JKA: Are most SPE members historians and philosophers of education?

JDV: Yes. If you look at who has received the Raywid Award in the last 10 years, for example, most are historians and philosophers.

JKA: What do you remember about your work with the Society?

JDV: I would say that most of my involvement took place in the late 80's to late 90's, when I was president-elect and president. I also served on the Executive Board before that. During the years that I served as president, I concentrated on several things. I started the Wisniewski award for teacher education. I did this largely because university departments of education are constantly under fire. I thought it would be good to highlight the accomplishments of teacher education programs, showing them in a positive light. They too often play the role of whipping boys. The award has been given out to programs that are not necessarily well known, but that are doing good work.

My other big contribution has been chairing the DeGarmo Award and Lecture committee for ten years. Tony Johnson (SPE President) asked me to take this on after Mary Ann Raywid retired. I changed the thrust of the DeGarmo Award, which had in the past tended to be awarded to in-house members. I wanted to make the award even broader than that. We sought speakers who ran the full gamut of educational fields. Linda Darling-Hammond was the speaker at the 2006 AERA meeting.

I think the DeGarmo lecture each year is something that SPE could use to make itself more visible. The lecture manuscripts are sporadically published. Authors do not always choose to provide manuscripts. Bob Morris (SPE Secretary-Treasurer) has been in charge of requesting and publishing the lectures. He has proposed that the lectures could be published in a single or multiple volumes. I think it is an idea that SPE should pursue.

JKA: Tell me about the Wisniewski Award and how it is funded.

JDV: The award is given at the SPE business meeting at AERA each year. Representatives from the institution receiving the award make a presentation. Aside from AACTE and SPE, there are few other organizations that I know of that give awards to teacher education programs.

I constituted the committee and have remained on it for the past 6 years. Alan Jones has chaired it, and the other members include Doug Simpson, Gary Claybaugh, Joan Smith and me. We make decisions about the award based on merit, and I haven't seen a hint of favoritism on the part of committee members. I do a lot of research about teacher education programs throughout the year. Alan Jones puts the call for nominations in the SPE program once a year. My research on these programs has created a bank of information about promising programs.

The award goes to a teacher education program that has made a distinctive and singular contribution to the theory and practice of teacher education. The emphasis on "distinctive" is important. The program must be really unique. It is surprising, when you look at teacher education programs around the country, how similar they seem to be. Ernie Boyer suggested in the 1980's, when he was working on a book on the undergraduate experience, that colleges were becoming like shopping malls. Today, colleges and universities are becoming more and more that way. You can't tell one from another most of the time.

For the Wisniewski, we are looking for programs that are distinctive and that have evidence to support the idea that they are making a difference. When we call programs to let them know they have been selected, they are sometimes flabbergasted. They tell us that they didn't apply. We tell them that they didn't have to apply to be nominated for the award. As to funding, it's not costly. It involves a plaque that costs $75 to $100 and, in recent years, has afforded institutions an opportunity to write about their programs in Professing Education.

JKA: Tell me about your work with the Executive Board and with other SPE committees.

JDV: The Executive Board members got along pretty well, as they usually do. Larger organizations (AERA and AESA) can be more contentious, but the SPE board remains informal and without much controversy. Some other groups are much larger and include members whose viewpoints differ.

JKA: What should others know about the context in which you were working during your term as President of SPE?

JDV: Actually, the time during which I was the president of SPE was not a good time in terms of my health. I was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer, which meant my survival chances were less than 10%. My regular physician suggested I have a routine screening, and the resulting diagnosis came as a complete surprise: the cancer was metastatic and had spread to two spots on the liver. All this was going on during the two years that I was SPE president. I got help from Doug Simpson, who was the past president. While I underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy - a process that took a whole year, Doug filled in as program chair.

I did initiate the Wisniewski Award that year, but I owe Doug a debt of gratitude. I took a semester off from teaching. Then, about a year later, they decided they had missed one spot on the liver. They re-operated, and I had chemotherapy (this time, in pill form) for another 7 months.

JKA: So the context for you was survival.

JDV: I was president at my own worst time. My world was falling apart. Most of my interactions with board and committee members were by phone or email. I wasn't much of a computer person until my illness, but I learned because I was home a lot that year. The officers of SPE sent me a plaque. It has been seven years. I get cat scans once a year now. They tell me I have licked the cancer. I'm quite fortunate and appreciate the small things in life much more now.

JKA: If you could talk with any past SPE president, with whom would you most like to talk, and about what?

JDV: Dewey. He is, of course, the major figure in my field throughout the 20th century. I would be interested in the whole notion of how he became such an influential public intellectual. Early in my career, when I was in Tennessee, I was very active in public affairs and active in politics. I ran for office as county commissioner. I was very engaged. Dewey was involved with labor unions, interested in the Soviet Union, Trotsky. I would be interested to talk with him about how he connected his philosophical work with public affairs. He was able to talk with scholars, but was also able to communicate very well with general audiences. I think one reason the public tends to look down on academe in general is that we don't talk to them. We don't get into the wider community, even the teacher education community.

That is one reason for the breadth of the Wisniewski Award. In looking at the six institutions that have received the award, the largest are the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the University of Washington, Seattle. All the others (Bank Street College, Trinity University in Texas, Evergreen State College, University of Maryland - Baltimore County, and the University of Southern Maine) are mid-size or smaller institutions.

JKA: How do you account for that?

JDV: It reminds me of Georgia College and State University which is a public liberal arts college. There are not many in the country. (SUNY Geneseo and St. Mary's College are some other examples.) It has an enrollment of 5-6 thousand students and emphasizes undergraduate education. The people I work with here are among the most committed teacher educators I have ever worked with. It seems to me that larger institutions tend to lose sight of the day-to-day work of teacher education. The Georgia College faculty are committed to working with teacher education on a day-to-day basis.

At larger institutions there is more emphasis in the reward structure on research and publications. Sometimes interest in teacher education gets lost or becomes an afterthought. At Georgia College, we have just three departments and all three are committed to teacher education. It is a highly selective school. There is a cohort program here and faculty put a lot of work into it. I have gotten to know faculty here very well. They talk with each other about teacher education. At larger institutions, that is often not the case. Faculty in Research I institutions tend not to talk with each other. They are individual entrepreneurs.

JKA: I have been thinking lately about the relative merits of brief academic writing projects - for example, research reports, book reviews, columns and articles in professional newsletters and essays. What are your thoughts about "writing small" in academe?

JDV: I have found that some of the short pieces in Professing Education have been useful for me to read. I am interested in tips on college teaching, for example. I would add that I write about six short review articles each year for Choice. The audience in this case is the people who pick books for college and university libraries. So, Choice reviews have an impact on the Education books we find in our campus libraries. Unfortunately, the reward structure doesn't always support this kind of work. Someone at SUNY suggested that I not bother to list Choice book reviews in my Vita, because I would get no credit for them! That illustrates the problem. I did so anyway, with pride.

I used to write book reviews for Educational Studies. I was on its editorial advisory board for several terms. But what I have found is that after you write a number of books, you tend to think in that mode. I wrote three or four books with John Martin Rich. We would see each other at AESA meetings and throw ideas out for books. On some occasions, ideas for books developed out of articles we had written. Once you start writing and editing books, you don't feel like writing articles anymore.

JKA: What advice would you offer to professors of education, particularly those new to the professoriate?

JDV: For junior faculty, it is important to join some of these organizations in order to network and get to know people in the field. I'd say to get involved in several groups in your field. Volunteer for committees, and get involved with journals as a reviewer. And join regional and state societies as well as national organizations.

What started me in a big way was getting a call from Don Warren in the mid 70's. I was only a year or two out of graduate school, and Don was on the faculty at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He was the president of the American Educational Studies Association (AESA) and had established the Committee on Accreditation and Standards (CASA). I didn't know him at all. I was about 29 years old. I guess they wanted to pick a young, eager beaver who wrote well. My advisor at Illinois, Joe Burnett, probably told him about me. In any event, he called me up and asked me to chair this committee. The CASA committee did some significant work and its Standards remained in place until, when I became president of AESA, I appointed another committee in the late 1980's to revise the Standards for CLSE [Council of Learned Societies in Education, now the Council for Social Foundations of Education - ""]. Gary Claybaugh did an excellent job as chair of the second committee, as did the committee members. Chairing the first CASA committee is what got me interested in professional organizations initially. I have no idea how I was picked. I was amazed when I got that call!

JKA: How did it go?

JDV: The work began in 1975 and the Standards were published in 1978. The committee met at least twice per year over three years. We met at AESA and AERA, and I never saw the outside of the convention hotel at some of those meetings. I didn't see Detroit at all. The CASA group broke into subgroups. We had a nucleus of people who were willing to work very hard. One thing I learned is that it is not always the big names that get such things done. We worked together and when the work was completed, we saw to it that those who did the work were acknowledged.

JKA: It was that group that came up with the idea of "Interpretive, Normative and Critical" foundations in the AESA Standards?

JDV: Yes - "INC!" I actually came up with the three conceptual categories. It was Glorianne Leck who liked to shout out the INC acronym during our meetings. It was an open committee. Anyone could come and join the discussions if they wanted to. Alan Jones, Don Reeves, Marie Wirsing, Barbara Finkelstein, and C. J. Schott were other core group members. How we came up with it? At the time, the Educational Psychology people wanted to say that they represented Educational Foundations. On the other hand, Social Foundations people wanted to get beyond strict empiricism and behaviorism. We tried to figure out what could unite all the other fields — Political Science, History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Education.

JKA: So chairing the CASA committee had an impact on your career.

JDV: It got me involved in AESA. I had only attended one meeting before being asked to chair CASA. Some organizations are more welcoming than others. AESA is pretty welcoming. Some others seem stuffier and more acerbic. I was a member of the John Dewey Society briefly. My advisor, Joe Burnett, was an officer in the Society and tried to get me to join. But at that time, in the early 70's, Dewey was not as popular as he is today. Those were heady times. I was working on my doctorate. The Vietnam War was underway, as were demonstrations against the war. We felt the world was changing and we also felt we were going to change the world. We read Clarence Karier, Paul Violas and Walter Feinberg, who all expressed very strong points of view. They all were writing critiques of Dewey and the corporate liberal state at that time.

Throughout my career, I've had great interest in the idea of the public intellectual. If I had a model for this, it was probably Ken Benne. His interests were very broad. He was interested in education, aesthetics, and also worked actively with T-groups. I remember the first time I went to an academic conference as a graduate student. It was the 1970 meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society in Dallas, Texas. Ken Benne sat with me in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel for an hour and a half. We had a collegial conversation about the field. I have never forgotten it.

JKA: And your advice for more experienced professors?

JDV: There is an ebb and flow in your career. The Boyer categories1 — Scholarship of Teaching and so on — make sense to me. Georgia College uses the Boyer framework, but there are few other places that do. The Research I universities where I have worked acknowledged teaching and service, but what really counted was writing. There are times when you want to write, and other times when you just want to concentrate on teaching. I have done most of my book writing over about a 15-year period. I have written 9 books in that time. It is just part of the ebb and flow of one's career. I always did like teaching, but it became especially important to me when I was diagnosed with cancer. At times, research may be the center of attention, at other times, teaching or service. There is an ebb and flow. But I've enjoyed it all. Being a Social Foundations of Education professor has enabled me to reflect on, and be active in, a wider arena of professional and civic work than most academicians experience during their lifetimes.



1 Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.