November 30, 2018

A Tribute to Peter Kaufman

Todd Schoepflin Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

After a battle with lung cancer, sociologist Peter Kaufman died on November 19. This post pays tribute to the special person he was and the exceptional writing he produced.

Less than a month before he died, Peter participated in a conversation about death and dying that took place at SUNY New Paltz, the place where he devoted his career as a sociology professor. It was a conversation with Rachel Somerstein, available to watch here. When I watch it, I see the Peter I knew and will miss dearly--contemplative, wise, honest, and funny. When asked why he chose to do this event (around the 12-minute mark), Peter said it was his idea, adding: “I’m not an expert on any of this stuff. I didn’t study death and dying as a sociologist. And I just have this unfortunate situation that I landed in this position and I’m gaining a lot of experiential wisdom. And I’ll have more wisdom after tonight, and more wisdom after next week, and I’ll have the most wisdom until my last breath.”

Peter explained that he viewed the event as a teachable moment, with the possibility of fostering empathy and compassion. He acknowledged the audience, described them as being part of a special community, a community he loved. He viewed it as a privilege and honor to be part of the event: “My wife and I say to each other all the time: How lucky am I? How lucky are we?” Haiku lovers like Peter will appreciate there are five syllables in those questions. I think Peter is the only person I’ve known in my life who wrote haiku. Peter Kaufman, the haiku writing sociologist.

A super-talented person, he also loved being part of a band named Questionable Authorities--check him out playing drums at a show in 2015 in this fun cover of Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” Near the 44-minute point of the conversation with Rachel, Peter choked up in talking about what the band meant to him, knowing the time would come that he could no longer be in the group. And soon after he teared up saying how much he’d miss his brothers, how he loved having conversations with them, laughing with them as they reminisced about their lives together.

A dog lover, Peter talked with good humor about experiences walking his dog. Near the 49-minute mark, he offered sociological insight about the way dogs respond to other living beings, whether a squirrel, another dog, or a person. Yet human beings so often walk past each other without acknowledging each other’s presence. And even less frequently do we acknowledge each other’s pain and suffering. “Let’s just at least acknowledge each other’s humanity. Acknowledge each other as human beings. And then if you feel so inclined, acknowledge the suffering that you know they’re going through. Don’t pretend that the suffering’s not there.” In 2013, Peter wrote a great post about this subject here on Everyday Sociology Blog entitled “Learning to be Human (From My Dog)”.

One of the reasons Peter wanted to do the event is that he wanted people to have an opportunity to talk about death. It frustrated Peter that we don’t talk to each other about death, pain, and suffering. Peter explored this subject in a Twitter thread he titled “The Language of Grief Revisited.” He wrote several of what he liked to call microburst essays, one of them a must-read about “beautiful” being his new favorite word. His final Twitter essay was written with his wife Leigh, the love of his life, in mind.

Soon after the event occurred, Peter participated in another valuable conversation. He appeared on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast hosted by Bonni Stachowiak. During the podcast, Peter talked about his recently published book Teaching with Compassion: An Educator’s Oath to Teach from the Heart, co-authored with Janine Schipper. In the podcase, you can hear Peter talk about his teaching philosophy and how important it was for him to treat the classroom as a learning community. He valued students and all that they brought to the classroom. Around the 11-minute mark, he mentioned a book influential to his approach, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and described his pedagogy:

I love engaging in the process of exploring ideas, thinking critically, challenging ourselves, and I just see that as a cooperative endeavor. I don’t go into the classroom to be mean or to be a jerk and I tell that to students. I say, ‘look I’m here because I want to learn with you.’

Students are not our adversaries, Peter strongly believed, and he refused to insult students, as he discussed at length in an article “The Zero Sum Game of Denigrating Students.”

One of my favorite parts of the podcast is around the 25-minute point, when he talked about a poem he had students read in his Introduction to Sociology courses. Listen to the passion and joy in his voice when he mentions a poem about a leaf falling by E.E. Cummings. Peter made it abundantly clear how much he loved being in the classroom, sharing his love for learning with students. Toward the end of the interview, at the 36-minute mark, Peter quoted Margaret Mead on never doubting that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. The quote reminds me of Peter’s excellent Everyday Sociology blog post about making change, entitled “Everyday Activists.”

Noting the omnipresence of change, Peter wrote: “So basically, we can either be passive and allow change to affect us or we can be active and be the ones who effect change.” Peter encouraged us to identify as activists and to be part of groups that shape change. He took a similar tack in a post with the title of historian Howard Zinn’s memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on Moving Train,” in which he encouraged citizens to exert our agency and be the creators of change.

I will always admire the body of work that Peter created on the Everyday Sociology blog. He could talk contemporary sociological theory, as he did in writing about George Ritzer’s McDonaldization concept, and he could go classical, like when he wrote about W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness concept. The last post he wrote was perhaps his most brilliant, the widely circulated “A Sociology of My Death.”

Back in 2011 he wrote a post called “The Beginner’s Mind,” inspired by Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The post opens with a quote from Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The quote captures Peter’s mentality and his approach to teaching. He always wanted to stay curious and be a lifetime learner. This is how he explained the beginner’s mind: “What this means is that we should never feel as if we have something all figured out. We should always be hungry for more information and view ourselves as works in progress.”

Here’s a story that demonstrates Peter’s belief in the beginner’s mind. One of our recent collaborations came about after I was invited to write a chapter on social stratification for an intro-level sociology resource. I reached out to Peter to ask him to write it with me, saying it was right up his alley and in line with his expertise. “I think we could write a kick ass chapter on Stratification together,” I wrote. I still have the email I sent, along with his reply: “I'll be honest, I've never been comfortable saying anything is up my alley or I'm an expert on this or that topic. But yes, I think if we worked together on a chapter like this we could make it interesting, informative, and engaging.”

This was Peter, humble to his core. Peter wrote a dissertation about the reproduction of middle-class identities and taught a Social Stratification course for years, yet he insisted he wasn’t an expert. When our chapter comes out, readers will find a clear and accessible explanation about social class inequality, thanks in large part to Peter’s knowledge base and writing skills. Peter was in the zone when we worked on the chapter. I marveled at his ability to write long sections in a short period, often after we brainstormed by email or phone. But Peter didn’t see himself as possessing special expertise. He began each day ready to learn something new. It’s fitting that the first chapter of Teaching with Compassion is entitled “Practice Beginner’s Mind.”

Peter liked to write about the intersection of sports with activism, politics, and policy. We shared an admiration for prominent sports figures who were willing to address injustices in society, like LeBron James and Gregg Popovich. He supported Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem. He thought it a shame that “we would rather our sports heroes just shut-up and play instead of stand-up and protest,” and observed that black athletes are especially subject to harsh backlash when they protest. He rejected the notion that politics should be left out of sports:

Sports, like most things in our world, are inherently political and the Olympics are in no way immune from this reality. In fact, some of the most significant political statements—often made by the political leaders of countries—have come at the Olympic Games.

He celebrated the impact of Title IX for increasing the participation of girls and women in sport. And he was impressed by the effort of NCAA athletes to unionize in pursuit of reforms relating to their education and health, even likening college athletes to the proletariat.

Peter was so creative. For example, I love the way he introduces students to the relevance of Karl Marx’s ideas. This was Peter: take a complicated concept such as commodity fetishism and explain it in a creative and relatable manner. Another example of his creativity is the post he wrote about using poetry to help make sociological ideas fun and stimulating. His creativity was again on display when he wrote about sociological superheroes. One of the heroes he invented was The Reflector, who “appears when people need to be made aware of the biases, stereotypes, and prejudices that cloud their worldview. The Reflector will hold up her powerful introspective mirror so that you can experience true reflexivity.”

I smile when I read about The Reflector because it was such a clever method for Peter to speak forcefully against systems of oppression. As Peter wrote: “Part of the reason why things like racism and sexism still exist is because few of us are willing to acknowledge the myriad ways that we are racist and sexist. Unless we can own up to our own social prejudices and biases these –isms of intolerance will continue to flourish.”

Peter was refreshingly direct. For example, whereas media outlets often use sanitized language like “racially charged” and “racially insensitive,” going out of their way to avoid using the word racism, Peter refused to hold back in his analysis, calling out racism on college campuses. In another instance, Peter challenged teachers to speak truthfully about Donald Trump, writing: “Why can’t teachers speak honestly about the President? If there is consensus among educators that his actions are offensive and unacceptable, and if we can use Trump’s own words to establish how he is a racist, sexist, xenophobic bigot who lies, then why can’t we talk about him in a direct and straightforward manner? Why must we fear reprisals or even risk losing our jobs for telling the truth?”

A student of history, Peter spoke out against some of the myths surrounding Thanksgiving, describing it as a day that actually celebrates ethnocentrism. He called BS on the term “self-made billionaires,” making a strong case there is no such thing as a self-made person. Here’s Peter brilliantly pointing out that no person is an island:

The notion of the self-made person is arguably the most anti-sociological sentiment that we hear about in a society that often fails to grasp the sociological imagination. By invoking such a claim we are ignoring and discounting the whole array of social influences that make us who we are. The self-made myth disregards the indisputable fact that our lives are shaped by a myriad of social forces such as the people with whom we interact, the resources (or lack thereof) at our disposal, and the formal and informal rules that govern behavior.

He was disgusted by the extreme inequality manifested in the disparity between worker pay and CEO pay. How wrong, and how fundamentally absurd, that CEOs make more than 300 times what the average worker makes. Peter was on the side of the people, not on the side of people with power.

Peter was a compassionate and positive person. He was a bridge-builder who thought it important that we identify all the ways we are similar. He employed an exercise to help students see all the things we have in common. “If you think about it,” Peter wrote, “it is not an exaggeration to say that all of the harm we (humans) have done to each other and even to our planet comes from emphasizing our differences instead of our similarities.” The examples he gave were: wars, environmental degradation, and all systems of discrimination and oppression.

Peter optimistically believed that a focus on our commonalities could help make the world a better place. In a post entitled “The Compassionate Sociologist,” Peter tells the story of being in graduate school and being told by a professor that sociology was the wrong discipline if one wanted to help people and improve the world. He strongly disagreed with this negative view and kept it in mind as a point to rally against. Peter wrote: “Are we just interested in social processes and social problems for the sake of accumulating knowledge? Or, are we studying inequality, stratification, and other societal ills so that we can understand them, work toward their eradication, and help relieve the suffering that they cause? If you feel more aligned with the latter approach, then you are probably a compassionate sociologist.” It was obvious to Peter that sociology and compassion went hand in hand.

Honestly, I’m having trouble coming to grips with the fact that Peter and I can’t communicate the way we did for so many years. We were in regular contact, sharing articles we were reading. We wanted to let each other know what inspired us. Knowing I keep files for my teaching and writing interests, he would frequently send me articles. I’d get an email from him with a link and brief notes like “For your stratification file” and “Another gem for your files.” It pains me that I will no longer receive his emails. As I like to say about Peter, we were on the same wavelength. I’m discovering how deeply it hurts to lose a friend who shares your worldview.

Peter and I loved working together and were figuring out our next collaboration. One of my suggestions was to explore his interest in a sociology of happiness that he expressed in a blog post “Clap along Sociologists, Get Happy!” But who knows what we would have worked on next. We took a “no pressure” approach to our projects and would often run through a list of possibilities before landing on something we both found desirable.

One of the last things we wrote together was “It’s About Power, Not Privilege,” a piece we worked on for a long time. Peter was a perfectionist. Every word mattered to him. He was a conscientious writer and teacher. This reminds me of a conversation with him in which we talked about the possibility of him teaching online classes as a a way to work around his health concerns. He was reluctant to do this because he didn’t have experience teaching online. I encouraged him to consider it, because it might be easier on him physically, and, after all, he should cut himself a break. Peter said: “But it wouldn’t be fair to students.” Peter wanted to offer the best possible class to his students, nothing less would do.

How lucky I am to have been friends with him for more than twenty years, dating back to our graduate school years at Stony Brook University. In the introduction to his co-authored book Teaching with Compassion, there is a tale based on Loren Eiseley’s “The Star Thrower.” When a girl on a beach is asked by a man what she’s doing, she says she’s throwing starfish back in the ocean before they die. He replies by saying there are hundreds of starfish on the beach, and so she won’t be able to make a difference for them. Throwing one starfish back into the ocean, she says: “I made a difference for that one.”

This story reflects Peter’s life. He was a compassionate person who sought to make a difference. He certainly made a huge difference in my life. I take comfort thinking about the impact he made in the lives of countless students, friends, and family members. And I’m grateful he left behind a body of work filled with knowledge, wisdom, and humanity. Always with a beginner’s mind, Peter was truly one of a kind.


Peter Kaufmann really made a deep impact on whoever reads his essays and books. I myself was touched on his last article.

Thank you Todd for this beautiful tribute to Peter. I miss him dearly. Your words articulate so many of the ways he also impacted me. You also express his love of teaching and the way he brought humility, compassion, and present moment awareness to all those with whom he came in contact as well as to the world of sociology.
~Janine Schipper, co-author with Peter Kaufman, Teaching with Compassion.

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