Prof. Paul Sawyer’s, English, experiences in the turbulent 1960s inspired him to stay passionately involved in social activism.
As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Sawyer said he took part in several rallies —including the first massive anti-war rally — the largest ever in American history before 1965.
“I always felt like I should have an active life as well as a contemplative one,” he said.
At Cornell, Sawyer said he devised an interdisciplinary course centered around the 1960s as a way of commemorating the defining decade of social activism.
“I developed the idea to take a decade and go cross-disciplinary with that decade in the English department,” Sawyer said. “[The course] would include works of literature such as poetry and other representative productions around that time, such as film, art, music and so on.”
Through this course, Sawyer said he hoped to continue the political legacy and the lessons of the 1960s by enabling students to engage with the prominent figures of the decade.
“This course was not only educational for me, but also a hope for my students,” Sawyer said. “I had the sense that what was exciting about the 1960s — and of course risky as well — was not apparent to the people growing up under a president like Reagan, and I wanted to bring that back to the students. I wanted to engage deeply with figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.”
Sawyer said he also hopes to write a book about the 1960s “as a synthesis of different aspects of the decade.”
“The way I’m envisioning this book is that I would start out each chapter with a passage from different people of the era,” he said. “I hope my book will be a focus on particular texts, not only written text but also film and sound text.”
Sawyer added that he has been continuously engaged with student activism on campus, from the anti-Apartheid Movement to the Redbud Woods protest.
He said he helped with the student-led movement in 1985 urging the University to divest from South African companies in response to the Apartheid. While the movement was ultimately unsuccessful, it marked an important event in the history of student activism at Cornell, according to Sawyer.
The Redbud Woods protest was a smaller, less formal student movement in 2005, Sawyer described.
“I was arrested for trespassing in solidarity with the students by a Cornell security officer, who had actually been a student in my class in the 1960s,” Sawyer said. “So I was happy to be arrested by him.”
Sawyer was also one of the founding members of the Cornell Prison Education Program, a program that helps incarcerated men receive an associate of arts degree.
When Prof. Pete Wetherbee, English, began volunteering and teaching at Auburn Correctional Facility, Sawyer said he immediately jumped on board.
“My colleague Pete Wetherbee began driving up to Auburn one day a week to prep the prisoners for high school equivalency tests, doing grammar reviews and things like that,” he said. “That struck me as an interesting thing to do.”
Sawyer called his involvement with CPEP his “most gratifying experience as a teacher.”
Sawyer and Wetherbee eventually expanded their volunteer efforts into a formal program that offers associate degrees for those who successfully complete the requirements. He added that CPEP today is also in some senses a student movement, since several hundred undergraduates volunteer each semester. One of these student volunteers received a medical degree and is today the chief medical officer at Riker’s Island.
Sawyer, reflecting on his campus involvement, said he believes student activism is still as much a part of Cornell as it was in the past.
“With the advent of the internet, student activism looks different,” Sawyer said. “There is a wider variety of issues and it’s not always confrontational, but it’s still there. Cornell is an enlightened institution from both the perspectives of the students and the administrations. This is something that we should be proud of.”