Episode 47: Sing to the Colors, featuring James Tobin

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Episode 47: Sing to the Colors, featuring James Tobin

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode, my guest is Jim Tobin, a longtime writer for Michigan Today, who is back in the fold after more than a year of COVID-19 budget restraints. And here’s even more good news: Jim has just released a new book about the history of your favorite university called ‘Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores 2 Centuries at the University of Michigan.”

If you know Jim’s writing, you can be assured this is not some dry tome listing dates and dusty details of days gone by. One of his greatest talents is taking a historic event or significant development and teling it through the experience of a person. An actual human you might find interesting.

So a story about the trees on the Diag becomes the tale of one professor’s heartbreak over U-M students lost to the Civil War. A well-known story about three professors who were ousted during the communist scare gets a new read when Jim finds a fourth professor – way more captivating than the other three – who received minimal coverage at the time. His essay on the now-defunct and controversial senior honor society Michigama doesn’t just describe the society’s racist underpinnings – it becomes a personal reflection about when Tobin found a photo of his father dressed as the chief of that very society when he was a U-M student.

Jim enriches these essays by including himself in short introductions that illuminate his connection to his beloved alma mater and the subjects he covers.

So I hope you enjoy these musings by Michigan Today’s favorite son. We kick off our conversation by talking about college in general – the scholarly mission today and why those of us who work in academia often are described as “lefties.” He’s got some keen cinsights into our culture’s latest fixation with anti-intellectualism, a plague that has long been visited on U-M. Who am I kidding? I admire Jim and it’s just plain fun to talk to him about the craft of storytelling.

James Tobin: The complexity of the world has become more clear to more of us with the coming of the web over the last 20, 25 years. We are so bombarded with complexity, that I think maybe we grasp at simple answers, It’s easier to believe in Q anon than it is to think the world is a really complicated place, and things I don’t like have really complicated causes.

I mean, you know, one argument is that conservatives, you know, sort of value the way things have been and there are skeptical of radical change because they think that radical change often destroys more than it should. So that means that conservatives tend to stand for the status quo.

Well, scholars are by their nature people who are looking into the way things are questioning, questioning authority. All those are good things. Well, does that make them leftists? That exactly, makes them contrarians? So I think I think sometimes members of the public looking in at the university, from the outside see a contrarian side and they brand that as major leftism. It’s not. It’s more complicated than that.

I remember I remember a story about I remember a story told about Lee Bollinger, the former dean of the law school and president of the university, giving a lecture and engaging in a kind of Socratic dialogue with a student where the student is trying to defend a point that he’s making. And Bollinger keeps asking one question after another, and finally, after 20 minutes, the student kind of stops and says, well, it’s complicated. And Bollinger says, Mr. Smith, that’s the only point I wanted you to make. And, you know, that’s, that’s the nature of, you know, sort of scholarly inquiry, things are more complicated than they seem.

We reject simple, simple explanations, simple answers, we look deeply. To some people that looks just, you know, that that looks like constant leftism. But that’s not quite what it is. It’s not It’s not what it is.

You know, we have a great disillusionment right now, with kind of start that over don’t. We have a great degree of disillusionment in our society right now with institutions in general. And God knows institutions have done badly in American life in many ways. On the other hand, they make up the structure of what people used to call our civilization. And yes, they are flawed because they are made up simply of a bunch of human beings who are also flawed and people are flawed in the way they get along with each other.

But look at the amazing work that has been done in a place like the University of Michigan. And that is because, you know, the founders and the people who perpetuated it, and improved it made this network of human relationships bound together by common purposes.

It’s really extraordinary. We so take it for granted that, that, you know, that just doesn’t occur to us very often. But an institution like, like Michigan is, is really one of the crowning glories of, of this society and others, others like it, that have valued education.

One of the stories in the book, about the first real president of Michigan, Henry Philip Tappan is about how anti-intellectuals in the state and even on the Board of Regents sort of got tired of his rather esoteric vision, what was then esoteric vision for the university what it would be, and got rid of him, he was overthrown by that sentiment in the populace. So it goes back as far as that and you know, we’ve seen we’ve seen plenty of anti intellectualism in the 20th century. And so it continues now. And maybe there’s a pendulum that goes back and forth,

I do think that we’re in a new era of constant distraction, because of the web, and especially because of smartphones. But I do believe we can bring people back with stories.There’s enormous appetite for stories.

I’ve been lucky enough to live in Ann Arbor ever since I graduated from the university.

But many alumni have those feelings of, of bondedness to this place where they were young. And I don’t think we think about that enough, the kind of the role of college experience in in our lives as adults. That’s an important thing in American life. And so this is, this is one little reflection of that through my eyes.

There really is for all its faults, a sense of community, a sense of place, that gets associated with starting your life and learn it environment. Now. God knows a great many of us as college students have never, you know, never did take full advantage of what the university offered to us.

And of course, now, it has gotten so terribly expensive for students to go to school. But that’s not the university’s fault. You know, in principle, you know, for the most part, that’s the fault of our states, which have, cut and cut and cut the investment in public higher education. So that’s why tuition is so high. Because for many, many years, the state has reduced its appropriations. Once upon a time, it was not terribly difficult for students to be able to afford to go to the University of Michigan. When they did, it was a pretty, it was a good bargain for the state.

That sense of, of, of a campus as a special place grew and students became attached to that place. And as I think the book points out, the students had a great deal to do with creating the culture of campus life. And that’s what so many students, so many alumni, now, remember so fondly.

The really warm feelings they have tend to be toward the culture of the place, the culture of the campus, and the physical, you know, the physical nature of the place, the way the buildings look, the way the streets are laid out, the walks that you took off campus. And that’s totally associated with coming of age. One of the major dramas of all of our lives, wherever it takes place, is to pass from childhood to adulthood. And for so many, you know, Americans, especially now in post World War Two era, that transition has taken place on a college campus. So naturally, we have powerful feelings of attachment and allegiance to that place.

The right faculty can have an enormous impact on people’s lives. For me it was the historian Sidney Fine, as well as other historians. The best example in the book is my profile on Yale Kamisar in in the Law School. I quote, one of his colleagues, a law professor named Hart Wright who was a professor of tax law, and a brilliant person, and somebody who was so learned about American tax law that people from the IRS would come and like, ask him questions like about the whole structure of tax law.

Hart Wright was once asked, why, when you could have been, you know, a millionaire tax attorney in Washington, DC or in New York City? Why did you choose to be a law professor instead, and he sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, Well, I like to profess. Now, I talked a little bit in that piece about what that word actually means, what it means to profess.
It’s not just an instructor, it’s someone who sort of embodies his or her discipline, the whole structure of learning that that is in that discipline.

A really great professor, whether it’s in a lab or in a lecture, or in a discussion seminar embodies the values of learning. So I mean, that’s one thing. And then and then another is the actual research that that they do. And you’re right, most undergraduates don’t really understand what their professors do and the time that they give to research.

We live with a lot of myths about that the publisher perish syndrome, the view that, that scholarly research doesn’t really affect anything, or help anybody unless you’re in very practical fields like engineering. But the fact is that those professors are adding every day to the body of our understanding of the whole world and their various disciplines.

So somebody like Kamisar, it turned out because the sources on Kamisar’s career are so rich, he was a great, I think, person to represent that whole story. Here’s what he did, in his career, his illustrious career, the enormous impact that he had on students, but also the enormous impact that he had on American law.

So in the in the 50s. Many people of a certain age would remember that three members of the faculty were basically fired, because they had had ties to the Communist Party or have been members of the Communist Party years before.

This was a celebrated incident was covered in the media very heavily. So I started to look into it. And then I realized, oh, my goodness, there was a fourth figure who lost his position. And nobody knows about him. And he was by far, sort of the most prestigious or the, you know, the most accomplished of the group. His name was Lawrence Klein, he was an economist. And he had been a communist in his student days before World War II, probably still during World War II. And then had become increasingly involved in his own research and scholarship, which was amazingly important. He was one of the pioneers of what we now call econometrics, the application of statistical models to economics.

So Michigan grabbed him. And this fact about his past became known. And so the administration started to investigate him, the FBI looked into him. And it was clear that he was not a member of the Communist Party was not subversive in any way, not a revolutionary wasn’t secretly indoctrinating students with Marxist principles. But there was one member of the faculty in particular, of the business faculty, also an economist, who was an anti Semite, and decided that Lawrence Klein was a great villain and mounted a steady campaign to get rid of him, and did so none of that made the headlines. So when that story, when I sort of traced that story deep in the archives library, I thought, wow, this is the story to tell. I like Eureka. You know, this is the big deal, whereas Klein and Stanley went on to teach it that we’re in school of economics, and won the Nobel prize well that’s a Nobel Prize winner that that Michigan lost because of its own shortsightedness.

Michigamua now, word not known to the vast majority of Michigan students was once a very prestigious senior honorary society that had a Native American theme started very early in the 20th century. It imitated older fraternal organizations that imitated Indians and appropriated kind of pop culture ideas about what American Indians stood for. It went on for many years was very popular and well thought of it engaged in every spring these public hazing rituals when it initiated new members.

Then in the 60s, and then especially in the 70s, became more and more controversial, admitted only men. And then by the year 2000, Native American students and their allies took over the Tower of the Michigan union to protest the role of Michigamua on the campus even though Michigan had just decided to admit women and had almost entirely discarded any use of Native American associations except its name.

So it was reconstituted in 2006 with a new mission, highly multicultural purpose, admitted students of all sort of sexual orientation and gender from across the campus and lasted for about 15 years, and then was finally disbanded by the current group early this year in 2021. So that’s the whole saga of 120 years. My father was a member in 1940-41. And then I was briefly a member in the 1970s but I quit after just a week or two because I just decided it wasn’t for me not because I was any great reforming figure.

So I wrote about this and about how about the complicated feelings that that had brought up for me as I as I was watching the movement against Confederate statuary as I watched coverage of white people using blackface. So this piece emerged. How should I think about especially my dad’s role in this organization that many people would now say was racist, or at least guilty of cultural appropriation? How should I feel about my own brief involvement? So that’s what that essay about that’s one of the one of two essays in the book that had not been published before. That’s a way to start that conversation, but it doesn’t end the conversation.

Certainly, the Michigan Daily from practically the first week I arrived in 1974 was the center of my life as an undergraduate. And I still think back to that place and the people that I worked with, as, as my, that’s my most important Michigan experience. Look, the best thing you can do in college is to find a way to make something with friends of yours, It might be in theater, it might be in music, it might be in sports, it might be in the publications. But that’s the really exhilarating work that you can do in college. There’s a lesson in that for college faculty to make your own courses as much like that experience as you possibly can.

I realize, looking back, these are the stories of my own life. I mean, the story of the Negro Caucasian club — Why did not have such a strong connection. I’m not sure except that, except that I think it allowed me to write about the experience of African Americans at at the university in a way that wasn’t usually done mostly that history is told in terms of athletics, because so many of the well known black students have been athletes.

It allowed me to look at the way race relations were at Michigan in the era of the early 20th century, when my grandmother was a young woman herself, a progressive young woman teaching in Detroit, and sort of forming the whole set of ideas about race that she would pass on to my, my father, my mother, and then to me and my siblings. Sounds convoluted, but I think that’s real. That tells me something about myself. What was it like to be an African American student on the Michigan campus, and it wasn’t very much fun. And what was it like to be white students who made common cause with those students?

That’s that’s a personal story. My name doesn’t appear. The word I does not appear in that story. But it’s a story that comes out of me.

There’s a great, great, sort of creative coach named Jessica Abel. She’s a cartoonist and graphic novelist, who got fascinated by podcasting, and then wrote this book in graphic novel form, about the great narrative podcasters. So her story is about storytelling, but it bridges all genres.

So, in that book, one of the things she says a very simple thing, which I think she derives from Ira Glass of “This American Life,” advice to storytellers: Pay attention to your attention. I’ll repeat it: pay attention to your attention. That’s what we’ve just been talking about. Why would the Negro Caucasian club crossing my radar leap out at me?

Well, it’s complicated, as we were saying, but it did. And in some ways you don’t even have to know that why it speaks to you, why it reaches out to you and grabs you, but you have to pay attention to the fact that it does. And take that seriously and realize, that’s what I want to write about. And so if you look up and wonder, you’re halfway there.

DH: That’s great advice not just for storytellers. It’s good for all of us. Look up, you might see a little character peering out from an arch in the Law Quad. You might see a hawk making off a squirrel, God forbid. Or you might see a copy of Jim’s book, Sing to the Colors, on a shelf at Literati. Such a great book. Especially for alumni parents who are missing the place after so many years. OK. Go buy your copy of the book and, until we meet next again, Go Blue!

The Yellow and Blue

Michigan Today readers should be familiar with longtime contributor James Tobin, BA ’78/Phd ’86, author/historian and journalism professor at Miami University of Ohio. For years, Tobin has gifted readers with delicious tales of U-M history. Just click on the “Heritage & Tradition” tab to learn all kinds of things. Seriously, who was Alice Lloyd? And why didn’t Law School benefactor William Cook ever visit the grand educational complex he funded?

Sing to the Colors book cover. Cartoon of Ann Arbor

University of Michigan Press, 2021.

Tobin is a master of narrative non-fiction and has written books about such fascinating characters as Ernie Pyle and Franklin D. Roosevelt. His latest book covers his favorite topic; the title is self-explanatory: Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores Two Centuries at the University of Michigan (University of Michigan Press, 2021).

Tobin delivers 23 articles and essays, some of which have been published at Michigan Today and the Heritage Project. But he adds new context by bringing himself to the page. On the advice of Fran Blouin, former director of the Bentley Historical Library, Tobin introduces each piece with a personal reflection about his beloved alma mater and the subjects to which he is drawn.

And not all of the tales are flattering. Tobin’s essay on the now-defunct and controversial senior honor society Michigamua doesn’t just describe the society’s racist underpinnings; it becomes a revealing meditation on the time the author found a photo of his father dressed as the chief of that very society, circa 1940-41. It is one of two essays that debuts in the book. The other new piece covers the Black Action Movement.

“Many of the stories I’ve written grew from some fragment of my own entanglement with the place,” Tobin writes in his elegant prologue. “This may give a reader some sense of how one student’s life can be so profoundly shaped by a university, and of how grateful one ought to feel for the long work of the many generations who envisioned and built and sustained the place, whatever its imperfections and errors.”

Fans of Tobin’s writing can be assured this is not some dry tome listing dates and dusty details of days gone by. One of the writer’s greatest talents is taking a historic event or significant development and telling it through the experience of a person, an actual human you might find interesting.

Thus, a story about the trees on the Diag becomes the tale of one professor’s heartbreak over U-M students lost to the Civil War. A well-known story about a trio of professors who were ousted during the Red Scare gets a new take when Tobin finds a fourth professor – far more colorful than the other three. And a piece about the Negro-Caucasian Club in the early 20th century sheds light on the University’s handling of race relations on campus.

Listen in, as we kick off our conversation by talking about college in general, the plague of anti-intellectualism in modern society, and why those of us who work in academia often are described as “lefties.”




  1. Deborah Schmidt - 1978

    I enjoyed listening to this podcast. Jim Tobin was one of my father’s students and Jim mentioned him briefly in the podcast: Sidney Fine. This podcast made me want to purchase Jim’s book. I not only attended the University of Michigan; I grew up in Ann Arbor which was a wonderful place to be raised. It’s always interesting to learn more about the school which has an interesting history.


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