Remembering Jan Lewis

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[These remarks were delivered at at event commemorating the life and work of Jan Lewis, mentor and historian and all around amazing human, at Rutgers University – Newark on Saturday, October 13, 2018]

I am here because of Jan’s lifelong personal and political commitments to public higher education.

Some of you may know that, after a dull and uninspiring high school career in central Jersey, I left the state for a large university – a university renowned for its parties and its football team – and flamed out in spectacular fashion. Returning home after one terrible semester, I enrolled part time in a local community college, then moved to the Jersey shore, finishing up my degree at Stockton State College, where a few wonderful faculty members pointed me in a direction that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier: that is, to graduate school.

That is how I met Jan: 23 years old, in the middle of a substantial personal renovation, the sand from the beach still upon me. Then the DGS in History, she recruited me into the MA program as a budding early Americanist with a decidedly juvenile interest in the ideological origins of the American Revolution. Though my concerns very quickly shifted in other directions, Jan’s contribution to my re-making continued and was unparalleled. I don’t refer here just to the usual things we often cite – her repeated reading of terrible essays, her endless and patient conversations about books she knew backwards and forwards, conversations pockmarked with my “discovery” of things she’d known for a long time, her willingness to read cover letters and write letters of recommendation with far too-little notice. I refer instead to her affect, to her extraordinary capacity to take me seriously – especially when I surely didn’t deserve it – and to imbue our conversations with all the gravitas of a high wizard’s council. Traumatic memories stick, we know. But so do transformative ones. I recall the smell and sound of Jan’s office in Conklin, where we discussed an infamously bad essay on Rhys Issac’s The Transformation of Virginia. I remember the way she rolled her eyes in disgust as we debriefed after a rejection by another PhD program. “That won’t happen again,” she said. I remember the enthusiastic melody in her voice on that late afternoon where I defended my MA thesis. “You’re like a sponge,” she interpreted, “absorbing everything.” I remember drinking coffee while sitting on the floor waiting for her to arrive for office hours. If I, who came to Rutgers-Newark with a patchwork academic record haphazardly stitched across three institutions, emerged from graduate school with some belief that I could actually do the work, it was because of Jan.

Courtesy and truth dictate that we always profess that teaching is a gift and that students are treasures, but we so rarely say that the very best of our faculty are gifts as well. Jan was that for me. And for others. And not merely, once more, because of the considerable mechanical impact she had on prose or thought, but because of her infectious insistence that no one’s limits were fixed, a determined commitment to radical possibility that offered a deeper and more durable repair to each of us.

To me, this fervent faith that potential is limitless, a faith that is meant to be demonstrably shared with students at a moment when their lives are mostly raw and chaotic, is the very best of public higher education in this country.

In Jan’s case, this faith was often revealed in the form of wonder. In the MA program, this meant that she marveled at each tiny success – each technically adept transition to the next paragraph, or each half-original thought – as if I’d made a huge leap forward. Later in life, I’d get emails or messages from her that read, even now, like fist-pumping celebrations: “I just read your interview with Wonkblog out loud to Barry,” she wrote, after I’d offered a few choice words to the Washington Post following the murder of black churchgoers in Charleston South Carolina. “We cheered!,” she continued, “Damned traitors. They lost the war. They’re lucky they weren’t all hanged. Don’t they understand that the Confederate flag is pretty much like the swastika?” How did I find the time, she added, to write about the Confederate Flag and to write all this other stuff? Expressions of wonderment were, as I see it, a part of Jan’s humanist pedagogy; her belief in a student’s capacity for surprising change and growth was always something she meant to convey, not to keep private.

The last time I saw Jan was in mid-November of 2016, just after the election. I had taken the train down from Providence for an alumni event, and we met here, in the Robeson Center. We took a meandering route around campus, so she could point out all sorts of ongoing additions and refurbishments. She took me to McGovern’s, the very same Irish pub I’d frequented in the evenings as a grad student, often walking over after class with a clique of hustling MA students. She’d arranged for Brian Murphy to join us, thinking we should meet, and the three of us spent a good hour over pork roll, fries, and beer trying to assess how much ground had been lost on Election Day and what it meant for those near and dear to us. Slowly walking over to her car, Jan and I spoke intensely – and in the hushed tones that the election’s immediate aftermath dictated – about the Newark campus’s most marginalized students, about the very real fear that then (as now) swirled about immigration agencies and deportation regimes.

After dinner, Jan gave me a lift to the main event, a robust celebration of alumni success at odds with the still-shocked national mood. Chancellor Cantor offered rousing and extraordinary words, equating a call to service with a call to arms. Students delivered jubilant exhortations to push forward without pause on their agendas, embodying the best of a scrappy, brilliant, diverse, determined little state bookended by two massive cities. And Jan was in constant movement, as she circled the hall and brought together everyone she knew. In her spare moments, standing at the periphery, I watched as she annotated every little thing, her eyes gleaming with considerable pride in this place – its faculty, its staff, its students, and its alums – and in its role, as she envisioned it, as an avatar of the inevitable future, a future the election’s result would – and still does – contest.

I owe much to the woman who taught me in the classroom, who met with me in her office all those years ago, but I choose to close by commemorating and celebrating what I saw here in November of 2016: there was Jan, a fixture at Rutgers Newark for decades, whirling around the room in the early evening, orchestrating a passionate celebration of her former and current students, willfully materializing a community so full of love and support and solidarity that its very existence could be read, all at once, as both a generous promise from the future and a white-knuckled threat to the fading present.

She was a leader, an ideal, and a friend.