Passion for teaching drives 45-year career at UMKC
Teaching is undoubtedly Dr. Harris Mirkin’s passion. Mirkin’s tenure with the Political Science Department has spanned five decades.
But his passion hasn’t always been clear.
A graduate student at Princeton University in the early `60s, Mirkin wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to take his life.
Then he joined the Peace Corps, where he taught students in Ethiopia and traveled to Europe.
“I was around 22 or 23 when I went into the Peace Corps,” Mirkin said. “In America, you’re considered young at that age. In Ethiopia, you’re a full-scale adult. It was an experience of being in both a period of my life and a different culture. I was becoming much more aware of who I was.”
When Mirkin returned to the U.S., his perspective had changed.
“I drifted into graduate school like a lot of people do,” Mirkin said. “Whatever other options there were, I decided what I really like to do is teach.”
Mirkin’s initial indecision had become resolute determination to finish graduate school, and he was eager to explore the world outside the one in which he had grown up.
“I was from New York, and people in New York tend to think there is no life outside New York, and if there is any life outside New York, it’s in California,” Mirkin said. “Ethiopia made me aware there was life outside New York, and it made me more willing to come to the Midwest.”
In 1966, Mirkin accepted a job at UMKC’s new Political Science Department. Although Kansas City was a place Mirkin hadn’t seriously considered, he quickly discovered that he liked the city and the school a lot.
“Everywhere else the teaching obligations were very specific,” Mirkin said. “Here somebody was needed to develop a political science curriculum. That was very appealing.”
Mirkin’s interest in political theory and philosophy was influenced by the social movements going on around him. The `60s saw not only the rise of the Civil Rights, but also the feminist movements.
Mirkin began to analyze not only race and gender, but also sexuality in social constructions.
“The realization was that almost all these roles, the kind of sex we like, the kind of sex that’s acceptable, the kind of creatures we are, is a product of society,” Mirkin said. “They’re very private things, and they change over time, even in the same culture. It’s interesting to see who constructed them, what purpose they serve and what things reinforce the dominant social constructions.”
Mirkin’s work has pushed the envelope at times, sometimes stirring considerable controversy.
A 1999 article Mirkin published in Vol. 37, No. 2 of The Journal of Homosexuality titled “The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality and Pedophilia” led the Missouri legislature to cut $100,000, roughly the equivalent of Mirkin’s salary, from the university’s appropriations.
“Most people didn’t read the article,” Mirkin said. “It argued that the current attitude toward children is a social construction the same way as the attitude toward homosexuals and the attitude toward women. I came up with a theory of several stage political battle. It created kind of a stir. Most people didn’t get beyond the title.”
Mirkin’s article received national press, including coverage in The New Yorker and The New York Times.
“UMKC came off extraordinarily well,” Mirkin said. “The faculty senate and the administrators actually read the article and said it was a legitimate academic article and they stood up for the freedom to explore research.”
The controversy eventually fizzled, and several years later, Mirkin became chair of the political science department, a position he held in the `70s when the department had a rotating chair.
Mirkin retired Sept. 1, but his decision to pursue an Olson Professorship means he won’t be gone any time soon. The special position allows him to continue to teach while receiving his retirement.
“The Olson Professorship was a good deal,” Mirkin said. “I wanted to have more time to do some of the research that I wanted to do.”
This semester, Mirkin is teaching a Western Political Thought class, and will teach Contemporary Political Thought in the spring.
“When you retire, often that becomes cold turkey,” Mirkin said. “That didn’t appeal to me. That’s what I teach and I’m still involved with students, the department and the university.”