By Michael Mishler
Q: What made you want to teach at Washtenaw?
A: When I came out of Congress, even though I had a law degree, I felt like I had had more than enough conflict for the rest of my life. I just did not want to be in a situation where my livelihood was predicated on being adversarial. The other thing is that one of the things I really liked in Congress was the interaction of people explaining how the various bills would affect people. So I felt like I wanted to be a teacher, but the trick was finding someone that would hire a teacher who’d never taught, and I talked with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, and Washtenaw. Washtenaw was very quick in offering me a position and I liked the idea of being with freshmen and sophomores. I also like the vibe here: it’s a supportive institution that is very well respected in the broader community and I wanted to be part of that.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: The interaction with students and helping people understand the Constitution, because as Americans, we’re pretty woefully ignorant about what it says. We tend to think “If I like something, it must be constitutional, and if I don’t like something, it must be unconstitutional.” Most people are pretty ignorant of the values our country is founded on.
Q: What did you want to be growing up and why?
A: I wanted to be a doctor, and I’m not sure why. Then as I got older, I worked in restaurants and I thought I wanted to be a chef. Then I ended up getting married at 18 and having two babies by 21, so as a result, everything was sort of put on hold. Ultimately, I decided to go to the University of Michigan and get my undergrad from UM and my law degree from Wayne State, but it took me 15 years to do it. So I really wanted to be a lawyer at that point, but I got elected to the school board and I found I really liked public policy. So from the school board, I was elected to the state legislature and from there to Congress.
Q: What types of music do you enjoy the most?
A: I like Reggae and Zydeco. I have to confess, having grown up in a German family, on Sunday mornings, we played polkas because that’s what my grandparents and parents did, so my husband took it on. I like most kinds of music. I have lots of classical music and will even occasionally listen to country music. Hip-hop, not so much. I’m of a different generation.
Q: What is the number one item on your bucket list?
A: Going to Africa. My undergraduate degree is in biological anthropology, and I did a lot of work with monkeys and apes. I have a lot of monkeys: I have a whole room filled with monkeys, monkeys woven into the carpeting, monkey lamps. So for me, as I went through my undergrad career, I really wanted to go to Africa and see the Great Rift Valley, see the populations of primates, and that’s something I never had a chance to do.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: I’m a big reader, so to look back, it’s pretty hard to say. Other than the Constitution, I like biographies a lot, particularly the founding generation era. I like humor, so I like P.G. Wodehouse a lot.
Q: What do you want to get out of your life the most?
A: Well, my 60th birthday is coming up in December, and those kinds of landmark birthdays cause you to step back and say “What do I really want to do?” But I would really like to be able to retire from teaching full-time and write about American politics, like the election this year. I’m fully engaged, but there’s lots of stuff I’d like to write about. For awhile, I blogged with the Detroit News on constitutional issues, which I like a lot, but apparently the only people who read the Detroit News blog were trolls because it got to be a fairly punitive situation. But I’d like to go back to that, write a column, spend time contemplating politics of the day and our constitutional history. Essentially, privatize what I do now in classes.
Q: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your job as a teacher?
A: To be tolerant of different points of view, different learning styles and the fact that there will be some students who have a greater capacity than others or students that have really difficult pressures in their life. It’d be easy as a teacher to say “Here’s what you have to do, everybody has to do it. Let the chips fall where they may.” In some way, since I went to UM at a time in the past when that was really the attitude, I had to really reevaluate.
Q: How do you think the tension in this election has affected your students?
A: I think there’s a lot of disgust. People are really turned-off by a lot of it. I’m troubled that a lot of people are taking the position “Well maybe I just won’t vote because I don’t like any of these people.” I read an interesting piece that said millennials are less troubled by aggressive disagreement than older people. In other words, if older people have a fight with people over politics, it tends to make them pull back and be less engaged. Millennials dive into it. It makes them more engaged. Speculation is that it’s because we have a generation that’s grown up used to conflict, it’s just part of the internet generation. You engage in debates, back-and-forth and aggressive disagreement. It looks like you will have maybe the usual level of participation from young people, “usual” meaning non-Obama (that was huge compared to usual participation), so that’s my observation.