Q: You're teaching young men and women who in the worst of scenarios may some day be responsible for destroying the Soviet Union. From what I know about propaganda, if you are going to have an effective fighting force, you have to get them on some level angry with whomever the enemy is. How do you handle that contradiction?
A: I teach a two-semester sequential course that goes from the beginnings of Russian history in the year 800 up to the present. I've had many students tell me that their views of the enemy are not as simple as they were. Some have said they would pause and think more before they fired a shot.
Q: Do you feel you have accomplished something if you get them to feel that way?
A: I want to make their job harder.
Q: How did you justify coming from teaching in a ghetto high school to being at the Naval Academy?
A: I thought of it very simply in terms of somebody needs to be teaching Russian and Soviet history at the United States Naval Academy and I'm glad it's me and not someone else because I have somewhat of a balanced view of the Soviet Union.
I do think that most of the students at the Naval Academy -- the midshipmen -- are just automatically anti-communist. The Soviet Union they see as our enemy -- rightly so. And they sign up for my courses with the automatic expectation that they will take this course and find out how bad it is there.
Q: Is that what they're carrying mentally when they walk in?
A: Definitely. On the first day of class I always pass out a questionnaire to get information on their background and the final question is always, "Why are you taking this course?" Over the five years I've been teaching there I would say two-thirds of them respond, "to know the enemy."
To know the enemy is not just to criticize the enemy, but it is to understand the enemy. How is it that the Soviet Union functions? What are the important values in that society? Why are they different than we are? Not just to be critical of them and say how bad they are.
Q: How do they respond to that?
A: In a variety of ways. Some react with a great deal of anger. One midshipman began bringing a small American flag to class. Whenever I said something he thought was out of line, he'd wave the flag. I got along with this midshipman very well. In part, he was not doing it to irritate me or really to challenge me, but to remind me that we are in America. Many students truly believe the old bumper sticker, "America, Love It or Leave It." That somehow if one either implicitly in some way criticizes the United States or says something favorable about the Soviet Union that makes you unpatriotic and then you don't belong here.
Q: Do they accuse you of that?
A: I've had many students ask me if I were a communist. Midshipmen are an interesting group of students. They are taught to be very polite and respectful. They would say something like, "That's interesting, but I don't agree with you, ma'am." It's a kind of a curiosity, but they are a bit concerned. Am I a communist? Am I a socialist?
Q: You told me a story once about the young man who came up to you?
A: My first year, after class one day, about four or five weeks into the semester, one of the midshipmen stopped after class and said, "Excuse me, ma'am. I would like to ask you a question." Women had just arrived at the Naval Academy. It was not until 1976 that they started hiring women onto the faculty. I was one of the first. He was just curious how I found it possible to stand in front of a bunch of men in uniform without getting turned on. He wasn't coming on to me. He was genuine.
Q: How did you keep a straight face?
A: I didn't. I laughed. I had to laugh. I wanted to couch what I said, I suppose, in kind of humor, rather than be too direct with him. I said, "I find that sweaty boys with pimply faces don't do a lot for me at my age." To me, he's an 18-year-old boy. He's not a man in a uniform. But they see themselves that way.
Q: This notion of a man in uniform having a special appeal still figures in their minds?
A: Definitely. On a couple of occasions I have accompanied midshipmen to conferences at other colleges and universities and they always go through the debate about whether or not once they've left the Naval Academy whether they should keep on their uniforms, or put on civilian clothes. Which way are they going to have a better chance of meeting the girls at this campus? Usually, they end up deciding to keep on their uniforms.
Q: (There is) a debate currently at large within the military establishment about teaching the professional leaders to be engineers and managers as opposed to being strategists and thinkers.
A: It's a very hot item at the Naval Academy right now. There are those who are convinced that the best officers are those who learn how to follow orders. But there are those who say the officer is going to progress to where he is giving orders. How do you make the transition? They have to learn how to think and not just learn how to give the correct answer. There's a world of difference in that.
The mids have a term. They tell you in your class that they want to know the "gouge." The gouge is the information that they are going to have to get to give back to you in order to pass your course. They are very frustrated in many of the more open-ended courses -- the humanities and social science courses -- because there is no gouge. What I want to see on an exam is their thought process.
Q: You're tenured. You have obviously made a commitment, so the rewards must be worth it for you.
A: People teaching there have a sense that they are working with men and women who one day might be making important decisions about this nation. I have to feel that is of some benefit to my nation. And, of course, the opportunity to teach Russian and Soviet history at the Naval Academy is one you don't turn down.
Q: Do you express yourself in this way to your colleagues there, the one who are officers?
A: I'm sure many of them when they come into my office at the Naval Academy at first are really taken aback. Most prominent on the wall is a large poster of Lenin. They tease me. They call me the closet- communist or the history-department radical.
The Naval Academy has changed a lot in 20 years. Twenty years ago the mids marched into the classroom (that) had blackboard surrounding on all four sides. Each midshipman was given a question. They were told to "man the boards." This was not just math courses. This was history, political science, economics. They had their question, they were to write the answer to the question on the board, and go back to their seats. The class period was, in essence, the recitation period where they went through mechanically the different questions.
We still observe in the classroom certain military decorum, which is culture shock when you first go there. Even though I'd been briefed about this, I was not quite prepared. When you enter the classroom the class comes to attention.
Q: Even for you as a civilian?
A: For me. They are required to come to attention. After the first day of class you as an instructor appoint someone called the section leader who does call the class to attention and lets you know who's there and who's absent.
Q: In a military tone?
A: In a military tone. I have an arrangement with my section leader. I put some things on the board, I don't want him to call the class to attention until I'm ready to begin. I turn around and nod to him and he says "Section, attention!" and everyone comes to attention. Then the section leader reports "Section 4301 formed, missing midshipman X, Y and Z." I say, "Be seated," and begin the class. At the end of class, the same procedure is followed.
Q: You give him the signal that the class is over?
A: Yes. When these digital watches first came in with these alarm clocks on them, it was a standing joke among professors that (the middies) would set their alarms to go off about three minutes before class was supposed to be over. Every 10 or 15 seconds there would be this little beeping to remind us to wrap things up.
Q: That's a little rude, don't you think?
A: I wasn't too incensed. They are operating on a very rigid timetable. If the professor does lose track of time, that puts them in jeopardy of being late to their next class, and if they didn't have an explanation, they would have demerits.
Maybe I'm not very much different than the plebes going to the Naval Academy not knowing what they are getting into. Before I went to the Naval Academy I knew very little about the military.
Q: Where did you serve in the Peace Corps?
A: Morocco. I was in Germany in the fall of 1968 (in a junior year abroad program) during the presidential election and I had been very involved in civil rights activities and in the Vietnam protests. The combination of Bobby Kennedy's and Martin Luther King's assassinations in 1968 shocked and disillusioned me. Going abroad allowed me to be more contemplative instead of an activist. Joining the Peace Corps is a commitment, and in that sense it's activist. But it's also a retreat to another country.
Q: What were you doing?
A: As it was explained to me before I went in-country, a friend of mine and myself were going to work helping to develop sports opportunities for women in Morocco which I saw as somehow socially redeeming in a society (where) women largely were still veiled and kept at home.
Once we arrived in Morocco we found out that they really weren't very interested in having sports programs for women and I confronted the absurdity of having leisure time activities for these women who were in some ways just barely above subsistence living. Much of the Peace Corps is misplaced idealism.
When I left the Peace Corps I came back and went to graduate school at Brown University. I stillwanted to serve somehow so I got involved in a master's of arts and teaching program at Brown University that was geared toward inner- city teaching and I spent a year and a half in Providence, taking courses at Brown and teaching in a ghetto high school.
Q: And how did that end?
A: With a whimper, not a bang. They were trying to integrate schools and that meant taking all- Italian high school and the all-black high school and mixing them together. Two ethnic groups, both with a certain amount of pride and a desire to remain independent and distinct, and we were trying to mesh them together. It was a nightmare, brutal.
Q: Do you find yourself serving as a particular mentor for the women?
A: Approximately 5 percent of the students at the Naval Academy are women.
Q: What percentage of the faculty?
A: Roughly the same. The women there I admire enormously for their guts in coming to the Naval Academy. It is not an easy environment for them. In some respects, they are fully integrated, in others, it's still a very hostile environment.
Every spring during commissioning week there is an event called the "Herndon Monument Climb." There is a marble obelisk, maybe 20, 25 feet. The equivalent of the sophomores go and put grease all over this monument and at the top they put an admiral's cap. As a kind of an official signal to the end of plebe year, the plebe class assaults this monument and works up somehow so that the cap is taken off the top. The tradition is that whoever gets the cap is going to be the first admiral in the class.
It's a strange event. To actually succeed in getting the cap off the top requires team work. Nobody can just climb up. But it's also competition. Some classes have taken pride in being the fastest to get the cap off the top, which would mean putting the larger football player types at the bottom and creating some kind of organized pyramid. But usually everybody runs out and they try desperately somehow to climb up on someone to get to the top. Any woman who starts to climb is pulled off. Just as a matter of course. There is that gut-level reaction by the male midshipmen, that no woman is going to get there, ahead of me, or ahead of us. There have been T-shirts worn, "No Women on Herndon."
The first time in the history of any of the service academies, the top student in last year's class was a woman.
Q: That must have been very hard for her.
A: Hard for her and hard for the male mids. They were not happy about it. At graduation, the person who stands first in the class is the first person to receive the diploma. When her name was announced, there was kind of polite applause. The number two graduate, a male, received a roaring cheer from the midshipmen. It was very blatant and disturbing. These graduates of the Naval Academy are going out to serve as ensigns or second lieutenants. That they could still show that resistance -- not to her personally, because many of them liked her personally -- but to the idea that a woman was number one. Many of the male mids think that things are made easier for the women there.
Q: Do you think that's true?
A: No, on the contrary. In some ways it's more difficult. Generally, I admired the women at the Naval Academy as a group for their guts, but I also find that the four years there on the whole teach them to be nonaggressive and to try to fit in, melt in with the group as much as possible. Most of them are very anti- feminist. They do not see themselves at all as feminists or as having benefited in any direct way from the feminist movement.
Q: Can you give me an example of misconceptions that really reflect the daily life of the Naval Academy?
A: One of the things that I've found interesting about life as a midshipman is really how isolated they are. They have this image as being very sophisticated men or women in uniform, yet they lead a very sheltered life. They're looked after, they're forced in a way to succeed. They're not given the opportunity to fail.