Good teachers teach students a subject. Great teachers do that and more. They change how we think. Chandler Davidson was a great teacher. I was fortunate to learn from him in my undergraduate days at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Davidson, sadly, recently passed away. Reading his obituary brought back memories and a deeper appreciation of him and his impact on me. A sociologist and political scientist, Davidson’s research was on voting, race, power and justice – especially in Texas. He won numerous awards – for research, teaching and service, authored important books, and made a difference in the classroom and the courthouse. His scholarship on voting is regularly cited in court cases. He was a genuinely good man, a teacher and mentor who went out of his way to connect and guide his students.
It was the 1980s, and I took his class on Texas politics. I didn’t know much about the Lone Star State. My childhood was in New Jersey and Houston was exotic and strange. What did all the references to the “Republic of Texas” mean? What made Texas history and politics special? While searching for an elective in the social sciences, I asked classmates for teacher recommendations. Everyone had good things to say about Davidson. Checking out the Texas class syllabus sealed the deal. It was a mix of history, political science, theory, and a slew of articles, research papers and journals that could only have been assembled by an obsessed expert. It was eye-opening, filled with theory and practice, and would have been overwhelming without some judicious leavening with anecdotes and humor. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was a popular movie at the time – and it found its way into one of the section headings. I knew it would be an interesting class and it turned out be outstanding.
Professor Davidson shared history, theory and practice in a way that connected the dots. I could not tell what was sociology, political science, history, or something else, and it did not matter. The class gave us an extraordinarily powerful understanding of how power played out in Texas. He lectured in conversational tone that invited discussion, pulling us into the subject. We had guest lectures, including a major immigration official from the former Carter Administration. He led us through voting practice and history, teaching us that democratic government is no guarantee of particular outcomes. So much rests in the details, in the way that voting and power connect. We worked through race, racism and how it was employed to secure and maintain power. Several sessions, accompanied by a broad range of readings, detailed how voting rights, registration rules and practices, and voting systems would determine election outcomes. Many of the issues we are hearing about today as states debate voting laws were discussed in that class thirty plus years ago. Davidson did not make impassioned speeches or demand that our social conscience awake. Instead, he carefully, thoughtfully, and with great understanding, guided us through the subject with facts and arguments. It was so compelling that I have never thought of politics in the same way. He also ignited an informed awareness of justice, and injustice, that has remained with me.
It is strange to realize how vivid the memories are.
Though I did not become a sociology major – something Professor Davidson suggested – or even take another class from him, I did stay in touch with an occasional note or email. Many other students, I am sure, did the same. His teaching had an impact on my future studies, my historical work, and even career choices.
Thank you, Chandler Davidson.