Thomas Wartenberg

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 09:15

Thomas Wartenberg
Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Thomas Wartenberg, a full professor in the philosophy department for the past 20 years, graduated from Amherst College, summa cum laude, in 1971. While at Amherst, Tom befriended a restless Mount Holyoke student named Wendy Wasserstein who, like Tom, had an emerging interest in the performing arts. People who attended the exhibition in the Mount Holyoke Art Museum last fall dedicated to Wasserstein’s work may remember an extremely interesting and affectionate letter on display, to Tom from Wendy (who identified herself as “the other Wendy,” since Tom’s wife happens to be named Wendy as well). Tom went on to get his master’s from Stanford in 1973 and his doctorate from Pittsburgh in 1977, and taught for a while at Duke, where he also reviewed current films for a local paper. But we like to believe that this was all a detour, and that his heart remained in the Happy Valley, where he began teaching, at Mount Holyoke, in 1984, while also serving, since 1988, as a member of the graduate faculty in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Students repeatedly speak of Tom’s passion for his subject. “Professor Wartenberg has a passion for teaching philosophy for children,” writes one student. “Professor Wartenberg is a pro at this,” another writes. “I remember coming into class excessively nervous about what would happen, and then leaving thinking ‘What! We did this?’” She added that she was “humbled by his commitment to this program and his passion for it: it’s contagious and also thoroughly refreshing.” Look around you at Mount Holyoke and you will find things that Tom’s passions and his intellectual commitment have brought into being. Film was nowhere to be found in the Mount Holyoke curriculum when Tom arrived here. Through his tireless efforts, film studies is now here to stay.

Tom teaches on both sides of the philosophical divide, in both continental philosophy—with courses on such pivotal figures as Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, and the major Existential philosophers, and poststructuralist thinkers—and recent analytic philosophy. He also teaches a wide array of classes in film studies, including philosophy of film and film comedy from the silent era to the present.

Tom’s wide-ranging teaching has informed his impressive scholarship, which includes more than a dozen books over the past couple of decades, beginning with The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation (1990). His important study Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (1999) shows how the temperamentally mismatched couples of the old screwball comedies have, in more recent films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, addressed the more challenging differences of race, ethnicity, and social class. Tom’s work on children and philosophy, in books like the wonderfully titled Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children’s Literature (2009), has garnered scholarly awards such as the APA/PDC Award for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs, 2011, and media attention. He is extending that interest, this semester, in an innovative course on children’s books cotaught with the embedded practitioner Barry Moser, one of the most distinguished children’s book illustrators in the world.

“Because children are born with natural inquisitiveness,” Tom observes in Big Ideas for Little Kids, “it is important to foster this aspect of their creativity.” Somehow, Tom Wartenberg has managed to maintain and foster his own natural inquisitiveness, and has made us all his beneficiaries. Congratulations to Tom for winning the 2013 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.