As a freshman at Truman, Jason Beckfield (’98) laughed at the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology after his undergraduate degree. Now, after many laborious doctoral years, Beckfield has moved from the “Harvard of the Midwest” to full-time professor of sociology at Harvard University in Massachusetts.
The liberal arts program drew Beckfield to Truman, allowing him to explore different career paths and major options. With the help of his professor and mentor Jack Mitchell, Beckfield became interested in the field of sociology. Intimidating and demanding, Mitchell would often come to class still dressed for duck hunting, occasionally barking out questions to his students.
“His answer to all my attempts was something like ‘No!’ or ‘You’re thinking about it wrong!’” Beckfield said. “Being a student in his class was a little scary, and also intellectually thrilling.”
Mitchell was crucial in Beckfield’s decision to attend graduate school. He cleared up Beckfield’s initial hesitations and explained the positives of good graduate programs in sociology. His compelling lectures and excellent teaching helped Beckfield excel in school, which earned him a Chancellor’s Fellowship to Indiana University.
After Indiana, Beckfield taught as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Later, Harvard offered his wife a postdoctoral fellowship and the two moved to Massachusetts, where they still live with their two kids. Beckfield picked up work as a visiting assistant professor during his first year at Harvard, yet had no intention of staying.
“I thought I might go back to Chicago, or go somewhere else,” Beckfield said. “To our shock, both my wife and I were offered jobs at Harvard and we have been here ever since.”
Relieved and ecstatic, Beckfield was promoted to full-time professor of sociology at Harvard in February 2011. His job is equal parts research, teaching and service. In the past, he has served as director of undergraduate studies and is the current director of graduate studies.
“Few people in the world are so privileged as tenured professors,” Beckfield said. “We have a lot of freedom to ask and answer the questions that we find important, and we have very nice working conditions compared to nearly any other job in the world.”
Fairness, whether it is in working conditions or quality of life, is a particular area of interest to Beckfield. He is currently devoting his time to exploring the effect of the European Union on social inequalities, and how social inequalities in the United States compare to inequalities in other countries. With his research, Beckfield has published books, papers and numerous journal articles, including one of his favorites “The Social Structure of the World Polity.” In this article, he illustrated growing political inequality around the world.
Although Beckfield might not come to class dressed for duck hunting, he still relates to his Midwest roots. Compared to Truman, Harvard is a much larger environment with high research expectations. However, Beckfield says the universities are similar in the fact they both place a strong emphasis on undergraduate teaching.
“I am glad people still call Truman the ‘Harvard of the Midwest,’ because in some ways they do share a similar spirit of encouraging and nourishing the curious mind,” Beckfield said.