Christopher Pyle

Citation for 2007 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

We are so familiar with the Mount Holyoke classroom where we diligently ply our trade: the little wooden desks, the smell of chalk, the dust on our hands (or perhaps the hum of the computer and the glow of Power-Point).  However, some use classrooms that don’t look at all like this.  Take Christopher Pyle, who finds classrooms from the villages of Northern Ireland to the boat yards of New England. He taught his course “Community in Seventeenth-Century New England” at the Plimoth Plantation Village in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  His students became indentured servants shipwrecked from the boat Sparrowhawk off the Massachusetts coast in 1626.  "It's one thing to read 'muck manure,' " a student told the New York Times, "and it's completely different to actually muck it.  It gives a new aspect to learning about the period."

Chris has twice found a classroom on the high seas.  In 2005 he took eleven students on the HMS Bounty from St. Petersburg, Florida, to the Dry Tortugas, Key West.  This past year Chris taught “Piloting, Seamanship, and Tall Ship Handling,” a two week course where the students served aboard  the Picton Castle, a 300-ton, three-masted barque.  One student, after her return from the most recent trip, wrote in the class blog, “Coming home was a slight shock.  It’s cold and quiet and my bed doesn’t rock me to sleep at night.  Two and a half weeks is long enough to feel like months, change the way you live and perceive life, and open your mind to a whole world of knowledge and ways to live that you didn’t even know existed before you left. Without a doubt, I will keep the lessons I learned, about ships and life, and the energy we had close to my heart.”  To emphasize the serious and challenging nature of these adventures qua classes, one need only note that this year, just before the Mount Holyoke students boarded, the Picton Castle lost one of her permanent crew, swept overboard during a gale with 25 foot waves.

Doubtless, his professors from Bowdoin where he received his B.A., or Columbia where he received a Ph.D., M.A., and L.L.D, or the more staid among us, would be happy to know that Chris does find time to teach in the traditional classroom: American Politics, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, American Political Thought and Decision-Making.  Chris is challenging, provocative, demanding, imaginative, fair, and contagiously enthusiastic.  His classroom is a high energy affair, where the students are encouraged to take stands and to defend them.  “I love how he is controversial,” says one student, “and how he encourages us to argue with him.”  A master of  the Socratic method and a compulsive devil’s advocate, he challenges his students to think for themselves, “I was made . . . to formulate my own opinions,” one student writes.  “He made us think.”

Chris’s scholarly work shows a deep commitment to civil and individual liberty.  In the 1970s Chris worked to end military surveillance of the civilian population.  He testified before Congress and wrote The President, Congress, and the Constitution and Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics.  His book Extradition, Politics, and Human Rights, is an utterly engaging, very scholarly, and very readable tour de force.

Chris has been as eclectic in choosing students as in choosing classrooms.  He loves to argue and the higher the stakes, and more hostile the audience, the better.  You may have even heard him during faculty meeting.  [In fact, in honor of Chris the activist/teacher, you might call this the Coed Naked Teaching Award.  And we do mean COED.]  In the process, Chris has taught us all important lessons about civil liberties and the proper role of government and administration.

As Chris saw the Bush Administration “trying to rig the scales of justice so outrageously,” after 9/11, he found a new educational mission. He had seen government trample civil liberties before and was quick to condemn the latest assaults.  Chris the teacher, Chris the scholar, and Chris the public intellectual again made all Americans his students as lectures rang out from the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Hartford Courant, and the Boston Globe.  Chris has made numerous television and radio appearances on topics such as warrantless wiretapping, domestic spying, extraordinary extradition, and torture.  He is currently working on a new book that examines the torture of prisoners in the war on terrorism.

Mount Holyoke is lucky to have such a provocative and energetic faculty member whose teaching transcends the confines of the College and whose very purposeful engagement with the world serves as a model for our students and for us all.