Breaking Barriers with Professor William Schonfeld

Courtesy of Alexander  Guardado

Courtesy of Alexander Guardado

Pacing the halls of Social Science with the intensity of Swag-Man, Professor William Schonfeld is one of the most renowned figures at UCI.  He is a Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Social Sciences, and is known for engaging any subject with brilliance and bravado. Never one to remain complacent, Schonfeld continually pushed himself out of his comfort zone, gradually creating his own path to success.  Many students cite him as their favorite teacher at UCI. Professor Schonfeld currently teaches undergraduate courses in Micropolitics and Honors Social Sciences. A witty and rousing professor, he uses various methods to keep student involvement high. This ranges from his unfiltered humor, to his unorthodox lecture style where he walks up and down the rows calling out students.

Schonfeld’s  focus on political authority relationships and major fieldwork, done in his earlier years in France, was shaped by the entropy of life. Schonfeld grew up in New York and described his experience taking French as a foreign language.

“In high school, French was my worst subject, and then I had to take it for two more years in college.”

While in college at NYU in the early 60’s, he applied and was accepted as an exchange student at the nation’s oldest all-black University, the Hampton Institute in Virginia. This was the first of many examples of his challenge to break new grounds.

This trend continued even after his undergraduate career. Wanting to further his education in a new environment, he set out to do graduate school in England. On the way to submit his scholarship for studying abroad, he ran into his French professor. His professor convinced Schonfeld, that even though he was terrible at French, he would be forced to learn the language by studying in France.

“So then I went to France and that shaped everything, and none of that would have happened if I hadn’t met that man,” said Schonfeld.

This idea of taking on new challenges continued even while back in the states. After returning from his time abroad, he received his PhD from Princeton in 1970. In an effort to have more teaching freedom and avoid the rigidity of his school, Schonfeld decided it was time for a change of pace and new scenery. His motive was to create something new at UCI and bask in the fair weathered Southern California

“In those days in particular at UCI, whatever you wanted to do was okay,” said Schonfeld.

There were no rules to break because none had been written. So Schonfeld took a chance and taught a political science course called ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,’ which focused on the authority relations inside of deviant organizations. His immense popularity and candor enchanted his students, with over 450 people overflowing the Social Science hall.

On discussing the school culture, Schonfeld mentioned the tolerance and atmosphere at UCI.

“I used to smoke in the classrooms in those days and once, the New University made a parody issue where I had been caught on fire and the Fire Department had to be called.”

This good humor is reflective not only of his personality, but also of the attitude of the campus at the time.

Always one to speak his mind, Schonfeld commented on his articulate, witty and nontraditional teaching style. In his lectures he includes no online notes. His hour and a half classes range from 40-45 minutes long. He paces up and down the rows and speaks with a humorous yet provoking teaching style. Using his experience as a student, he creates a learning environment that engages his class.

“I justified walking up and down during lectures to break down the distance between me and the students. Joking around with them creates a healthier learning environment,” said Schonfeld.

This makes for must see lectures, and Schonfeld’s tangents range from talking about sex and drugs, to calling out students in his large lectures.

“I think any material can be made interesting and any can be made tedious,” said Schonfeld.

What sets him apart as a teacher and researcher has been how he doesn’t follow the norm. He was the only UCI Dean to also teach regularly scheduled courses. Most older and distinguished professors will only teach smaller upper division courses, but he has a desire to reach a large audience by teaching introductory classes with a large student population. He continues to approach these large classroom settings as a sort of challenge to see how long he can stay passionate teaching in these physically demanding lectures.

His influence to motivate and be passionate outside of the curriculum is well documented, and many undergrads know of his fiery ‘Hot Topics’ debate series.

What started out as an idea by the Dean’s Ambassador Council has now become a regular spectacle where he and Professor Petracca debate various current events and trendy political topics. Both good friends, their discussions are insightful and often get heated. They promote student interests and have great turnouts.

Reflecting on his career, his advice to students is to “find something that turns you on intellectually.”