A Question of Participation

Ethel Klein is Everything the Gov Department is Not

When Ethel Klein entered City College of New York in 1969, college meant marching on Central Park, organizing the surrounding ghettoes, exploring the emerging feminist movement. "My first three years, spring semester lasted about a month and a half," she recalls.

A decade later, Klein is still on campus. Burrowed in the third floor of Littauer Hall, the assistant professor of Government is searching for explanations of political participation. "I've made the decision that I want an academic career for the first part of my life, and that I want to do a good job," she says firmly.

There is a problem in the metamorphosis, though; Klein's politics haven't changed as much as her lifestyle. "Clearly, I'm still a leftist," she says. "I'm not sure that my job does enough for other people; I really am not. I don't want to say that it absolutely doesn't, but I don't want to lie to you and say, 'Hey, I'm really doing a lot for humankind."

Klein did not grow up wealthy--after financial aid, she paid $58 a year tuition at CCNY. "When I decided to go into academia, I was 21 years old. I did not want to be poor. I had to find what I could do that would make a decent salary and also would be non-exploitative, that would also maybe allow me time to do community work.

"I really got sucked into this profession," she laughs. "I was under the impression that academics only worked nine hours a week. I really felt I was looking at something that allowed me to earn a comfortable and secure lifestyle--I didn't appreciate the notion of tenure in those days--and I also thought I'd have half my time free to work in the community," she says.


There were other illusions; "At the time, I thought that teaching was politicizing. Now, I'm very ambivalent. Some of the courses I teach show people how to think, and that's politicizing in and of itself," she says. But I just don't know how many people you reach."

For every disappointment, though there has been a discovery, enough new hopes to keep Klein committed to teaching and research. "There is one saving grace," she says. "I think any kind of a successful woman is leading a political lifestyle as a feminist--that's a rationale for me. At any point in my life, I try to do several things," she explains. "One is present a role model of a successful woman who is not a carbon copy of a male."

And there's another role she hopes to model--"I'm hoping some day I'll find out good guys do not finish last. I'd like to project that kind of image," she says. And, especially for a Government professor, she is notoriously nice. That reputation is deserved, according to her students, most of whom seem to have eaten dinner at her apartment or sampled the wine she occasionally brings to class.

The fear that she may be rationalizing away her discomfort, though, still weighs on Klein. "I guess I've decided that I have the right to be happy, that in my great desire to wish happiness to the rest of the world, I have to do it in a way that allows me some kind of self-fulfillment," she says. "But you always get into a trap, because self-fulfillment and social conscience don't necessarily work together. Sometimes things can be extremely comfortable for you, and it means you're not really doing anything for anybody else."

So Klein is left a feminist leftist in a university, and a field, peopled mainly with more conservative men. There are advantages to the role--her course, among the very few that focus on the political left in America, draw many of the students she wants to reach. "I really feel the pressure of communicating to a lot of people what humanist politics are all about, without the rhetoric that turns so many people off," she explains.

"You have a captive audience, and hence a responsibility not to impose yourself beyond a certain point. I try to challenge people's assumptions that make them very comfortable. All of that is very political," Klein says. "But not directly," she adds. "I will not say, 'I want you here at 2 p.m. for the following event, arms folded."

Dealing with students, though, provokes one of the thornier philosophical conflicts for Klein, who remembers with fondness her politics-centered years at college. Going to school in a politically turbulent era was "definitely a plus," she insists. "It disrupts classroom learning, but the education one gets from experience and the challenge of having to address an issue on the spot without the luxury of sitting down and thinking are worth it. In some ways, it is a very forced research projects."

But there is a strong streak of academic conservatism in her as well. "Grading is the conservatism in her as well. "Grading is the toughest question, and I've consistently resolved it over the years in the direction of being more and more hard-assed," she says. "I find students here are the most grade conscious people I have ever met in my life, so I can either make it a real evaluation or a popularity contest," she explains.

"I'm really amazed at how many kids, who I truly believe want to learn, are stifled by the fact that there's a grade that has to come up at the end," she adds. "I don't want to paint a rosy picture of myself, though," she laughs. "I'm an overachiever, and if I got a C in college I would have had a heart attack. B's were hard to swallow, and I didn't get many. But the teachers who didn't give me an A, and who talked with me, I learned from."

Many junior faculty at Harvard and elsewhere succumb to the same pressures as Klein's students, in search not of grades but of the elusive academic grail, tenure. Klein insists it's not a trap she will let herself fall into; ask her about her chances for tenure, and she will reply: "Zero. I don't think I could take any other kind of perspective on it. My way of coping with this place is to really work on developing the very best record that I possibly can so that when my tenure decision comes up I will be able to get tenure at a very good institution. Period. That frees you to some extent to feel as if you can be an autonomous person.