Adamantia Pollis, a former professor of political science at The New School for Social Research, New York, is no more. She passed away on August 5, 2015, at the age of 92.
I owe my Ph.D. in Political Science to Dr. Pollis. I also know a few people who attribute their academic accomplishments to the unstinting help they received from her as their teacher and mentor. She had been on the faculty of The New School for nearly four decades. To me, she had become a friend philosopher and guide, by the time she retired as professor emerita, a few years ago.
It may strike as odd that a tribute from me to my beloved professor is coming three months after her death. I bow my head in shame when I explain why it took this long. My unconscionable explanation is that I failed to stay in touch with her in the last few years of her life. I am going to regret my failure the rest of my life.
I came to know about her death through an email I received the other day from Nancy Shealy, the secretary of the Political Science Department of The New School. Nancy said that she happened to spot me at a New School function and immediately decided to send me an email about Dr. Pollis’s passing. (She was not able to work her way through the crowd to where I was.) Nancy knew what Dr. Pollis meant to me.
When I arrived in New York nearly four decades ago, going back to school was not my immediate priority. I arrived with one obsession: to make it in journalism. I had already been a journalist in Bombay (now Mumbai) since the early 1970s. Those were the days when budding journalists around the world looked up to the U.S., especially New York City, as the Mecca to which they must make their pilgrimage at least once before they died.
But once I arrived in New York, the city turned out to be anything but the Mecca I had been dreaming about. It didn’t take long for me to realize that making it in journalism, even getting a break in journalism, in New York was very hard. At every newspaper or magazine office I approached, the first question that was put to me was: “Do you have any American experience?” My answer, obviously, was no. Pat would come the next question: “Do you have any American academic qualifications?” I had a few degrees and diplomas, but none of them was American.
While managing to survive doing some freelance journalistic work, and supplementing the income doing odd jobs, I decided to go back to school. That’s how I ended up at The New School for Social Research. I opted for political science as my major.
The original plan was to get a master’s degree as fast as possible and get out. It was toward the final phase of the master’s program that I started taking courses with Dr. Pollis. I was an average student, which meant that she had no reason to take note of me for my academic performance. But my habit of treating serious subjects flippantly, a habit that had gotten me into troubles since my very childhood, made Prof. Pollis take note of me. Though I suspected on several occasions that she was furious with me, I didn’t make any effort to change the habit. I vividly remember two such occasions.
My Solution for Overpopulation
The first course I took with Dr. Pollis was Third World Politics. (In the early 1980s, ‘Third World’ was not an unpalatable term.) One day, Addie opened the discussion with a suggestion that each student identify a problem peculiar to a Third World country and offer a solution. When it came to my turn, I said: “The problem is overpopulation and my solution is rural electrification.”
The whole class shouted at me. “How can electrification reduce overpopulation?” one student said. “You can say free condom distribution,” another one said. “How about forcible vasectomy?” a third one shouted. Throughout the hubbub, Pollis looked at me seriously; I even feared furiously.
“Let me explain,” I told the class calmly. “In every Third World country, the rural areas, even parts of urban areas, are un-electrified. People do things at night under hurricane lamps or kerosene lamps. As a result, night activities are few in villages, and people go to bed early. When the night is long and they have nothing else to do, they produce children. Electrify their homes. They will have more things to do at night than just producing children.” The class burst into a big laugh, but Pollis continued to give me that stern look.
On another occasion, the discussion was on then-President Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union. He used to constantly repeat his vow to destroy Communism and “the evil empire” that perpetrated it. At the same time, he had no problem yielding to the demand from American farmers to sell their wheat to the Soviet Union, which happened to be the highest bidder in the world market for American wheat.
“Reagan is being hypocritical,” I told the class. “How can he fight Communism on one hand and sell wheat to the Soviet Union on the other? The best way to fight Communism is to stop selling wheat to the Soviets. Starve them to death, and there will be fewer Communists in the world.” Once again, the whole class laughed. But Prof. Pollis gave me that furious look.
Toward the end of that semester, at a departmental get-together, she came to me and said, “I knew you were being flippant on those occasions. My refusal to laugh with the rest of the class didn’t mean that I don’t have a sense of humor. I can give you credit for one thing: You brought the whole class to life on those occasions.”
Those words reassured me that she had no problem with my behavior. That was reason enough for me to take many more courses with her. By the time I completed the master’s program, a rapport had developed between us.
After acquiring my master’s degree, I went to Dr. Pollis to thank her for her deep knowledge, which I immensely benefited from, and say goodbye. She was not willing to see me go that fast. She sat me down and said, “I want you to continue. I want you to enroll in the Ph.D. program.”
“Addie,” I said, with a combination of surprise and elation. By then, I had become comfortable enough to address her by the nickname Addie, which all her close friends used. “I don’t think I am Ph.D. material.”
“I know what material you are made of,” she replied. “I noticed the steady progress you made. I am sure you can do it.”
I was really flattered. That meeting with Prof. Pollis proved to be a turning point in my life, especially in my academic pursuits. Thanks to the confidence she reposed in me, I decided to enroll in the doctoral program.
Pursuing a doctorate was not easy, especially for a person who was working full-time to feed himself and pay for his studies. There were times when I was on the brink of giving it up. But Prof. Pollis’s encouragement and support brought me back from the brink and inspired me to continue.
At the dissertation stage, every time I completed a chapter, she was ready to evaluate it. She was ready even on weekends. She knew that, for a full-time worker, weekends were the only times when he would be in a frame of mind to have a serious discussion on topics he was researching on. Many a time, apart from guiding me on the subject, Addie also opened my eyes to the inelegance of many expressions I had blithely used for years. Even my superiors in journalism had not spotted that inelegance. I am in her debt for everything she did for me.
When I say I owe my Ph.D. to Adamantia Pollis, I am not doing it in a perfunctory manner. I am not doing it because it is customary to say good things about a deceased person. Every syllable of my compliment for Dr. Pollis comes from the bottom of my heart.
(Published on November 16, 2015)
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