He’d Rather be Studying

Professor John Pease, who recently retired after 50 years as a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, will deliver the winter commencement address for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

When John Pease first arrived at the University of Maryland as an assistant professor in 1967, he brought a manual typewriter with him and was so excited about his $10,000 salary that he called his grandmother and told her: “I’m gonna be rich.” His original plan was to teach at UMD for a few years and then return to his home state and work for his alma mater, Western Michigan University.

Fifty years later, Pease claims he “forgot” to leave UMD and remains a fixture among the Department of Sociology faculty. Although he officially retired and became an Associate Professor Emeritus on June 30, most days you’ll still find him in his office on the third floor of the Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building, or teaching Sociology 200, a general education course on human societies.

 “I’ve been trying to think about why did I retire?” Pease said. “The main reason is I get free parking.”

Student Advocate

That dry sense of humor and deadpan delivery are part of what have made Pease a favorite with sociology students throughout the past five decades. Although he’s taught dozens of courses to thousands of students, his passion and enthusiasm have not diminished with time.

“I enjoy working with students,” Pease said. “I enjoy having a job that pays the rent, where I get paid for studying. I was never good at anything but I was okay at studying. Teaching is a little bit like that: You get paid for reading and talking.”

Students say Pease’s tactics of purposely contradicting himself, telling deliberately bad jokes at the start of each class, and slipping off his penny loafers to lecture in his socks make him a quirky and engaging instructor. They also describe him as a dedicated mentor who is generous with his time and career advice.

“He’s one of the kindest people I know,” said Hannah Cash, a sociology graduate student currently serving as Pease’s research assistant. “He’s always mailing books out to former students he thinks might be interested in the topics. He’s just really thoughtful. Because he’s such a good person, I think that’s what makes him such a good professor.”

“He taught his students that we should not take things at face value, but rather question and explore the theories behind why people engaged with each other and how cultures evolved,” said Karen Grill Sitnick ’72, who credits Pease with inspiring her to pursue a career in public service. “John encouraged me to be inquisitive and to try to better understand the world around me.”

Transformative Figure

Pease’s influence at the university extends well beyond the classroom. Throughout the last half-century, he’s served on numerous student committees and participated in many student-led efforts. He fought for years to lower the price of textbooks and was part of the push to include a study day at the end of each semester before final exams.

One of Pease’s favorite initiatives surrounded the folklore of fictional UMD student Sara Bellum. As the legend goes, Sara died from a lack of studying and wrote the words “I’d Rather Be Studying” on her last midterm exam before falling to her death. Pease and a group of students convinced the university to adopt the slogan as its informal motto in 1988. The phrase still appears on a plaque on Taliaferro Hall.  

Pease also chaired the committee that reformed general education at UMD in the 1990s. The committee recommendations became widely known as “the Pease Report.”

“We take so much pride now in the quality of students we recruit and the success they have and our graduation rates and so on and so forth,” said Brit Kirwan, former UMD president and chancellor for the University of Maryland System. “Well, I’m here to say none of that could have happened, in my opinion, without the contributions of John Pease; his vision, his foresight, his ideas.”

Although he’s reluctant to talk about them, Pease has received numerous accolades during his tenure at UMD, including: the 2009 Inspire Integrity Award from the National Society of Collegiate Scholars; the Excellence in Mentoring Award and the Faculty Award for Teaching from the Board of Regents; the Kirwan Undergraduate Teaching Award; and many others.

He also established the John Pease Scholarship in 2001 that provides need-based funding for tuition for sociology students.

Reluctant Retiree

Over the course of half a century, Pease has watched the University of Maryland evolve in almost every way imaginable. In 1967, parking on campus cost $12 a semester and membership to the university’s swimming pool was $1 a semester. “Diverse” was not a word used to describe the student body and the university’s academic standards were such that just about every student who applied was admitted.

“Students are much more prepared academically today than was the case way back then,” Pease said. “Also, the physical changes to campus: Most of the buildings are either new or have been hugely renovated since I’ve been here. This is a beautiful campus. You couldn’t say that in 1967.”

Pease has personally done his best to adapt with the times as well. He upgraded his manual typewriter to an electric one and, eventually, to a computer. Although he enjoys using email to keep in touch with former students, he doesn’t yet own a cell phone. He’s considering purchasing one next semester.

In his retirement, Pease plans to teach select courses as long as the university and his faculties will allow him to. He also intends to make more time for reading and writing and, maybe, to take a few train rides. Aside from that: “I don’t see much of a reason to change anything,” he said.

Photo of Associate Professor Emeritus John Pease