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
Research Association] meeting, as they do now.
JKA: What is the function of SPE? Why do people become
JDV: In terms of a foundations perspective, I belong
to it because I
have that perspective. One benefits from the camaraderie
fellowship at meetings. Also, as an AERA SIG, SPE provides
with opportunities to get on the AERA program. Round tables are
good way for newcomers to get a foothold in AERA. A number
colleagues get interested in joining SPE because it provides a
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
JDV: Yes. If you look at who has received the Raywid
Award in the last 10 years, for example, most are historians
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
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
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
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
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
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
- "http://www.uic.edu/educ/csfe/"]. 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
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
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
professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of