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Teaching Justice


Ian C. Mayer
Arizona Summer Wildcat

J. Douglas Canfield, UA English Regents professor, speaks about his involvement in a labor rights task force. Canfield was nominated by Students Against Sweatshops members.

By Stephanie Corns
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
August 25, 1999

More than 30 years after J. Douglas Canfield first became active in human rights issues, he now has an opportunity to continue defending his beliefs as a nominee for a new UA labor rights task force.

The task force will advise University of Arizona President Peter Likins on labor and human rights issues associated with university licensing contracts.

The committee, which will consist of students, faculty and community members, was one result from the 10-day protest in Likins' office lobby in April. Canfield was nominated by Students Against Sweatshops members.

Likins and the SAS each submitted a list of 12 nominees for the task force to Larry Schooley, UA Faculty Senate presiding officer. The executive committee will then select six people from each list on August 30.

Canfield, an English Regents professor, became active with SAS last spring when about 30 student activists camped out in Likins' office for a university record of 10 days.

"It's my university...and we have the right to demand fair labor practices," Canfield said. "How can we give our stamp of approval to a company that has questionable labor practices?"

Initially only picketing before the Administration building, Canfield later became an inspiration to the protesters.

Canfield stressed perseverance by singing "Sisyphus Rock," a song he wrote about the mythological character Sisyphus who spent his life pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down as a punishment handed down by Zeus.

"The song said what it felt like we were up against. If you take the long view it's absurd, but if you take the short view, it's the only thing he can do," said Avery Kolers, a political philosophy graduate student and SAS spokesman. "It feels like the corporation is like a tornado blowing over houses and we're trying to hold up one piece of wood."

Canfield later gave an impromptu speech to Likins stressing that this is "our university" and that students have a right to demand that certain expectations be met.

"It's our university and we're invested here, and he captured that very eloquently," Kolers said. "This university belongs to the students who study here, not the corporations who are trying to make a buck."

Canfield felt that it was his duty to protest human rights abuses.

"If I have not brought the sponge to the mouth of those who thirst for justice, then I am part of the problem," Canfield said.

Canfield's activism in human rights stretches back to the 1960s when he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame University, where he and his fianc­ ran a free baby-sitting service.

While the two were honeymooning in Vermont, Canfield befriended a man named Tom, who was black, and invited him to dinner.

Tom's boss, the commissioner of education in Pennsylvania, was also dining at the restaurant, and upon Tom's arrival, his boss whistled at him and forced him to leave.

"He was whistling at Tom like a dog," Canfield said. "I said, 'If you can't join us, then we'll join you.'"

Tom, Canfield and his fianc­ dined together in the servants' quarters behind the kitchen.

A second encounter with racism occurred when Canfield invited friends, including a black man from school to his parents' beach house in Connecticut.

After taking his friends sailing at the yacht club to which his family belonged, the owner told Canfield if he ever brought another "nigger" into his club again, he would kill Canfield.

He responded by asking, "Don't you have any respect for people who are trying to work their way up and become what America is supposed to be?"

The owner, who was also Canfield's neighbor, replied: "Not if they are black."

About a decade later, Canfield participated in "teach-ins" at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Teaching is one mode of activism," Canfield said. "The crucial thing is when you've left my class is that you've discovered the basis of moral action yourself."

One teach-in resulted in Canfield being thrown down a stairwell by the police.

"You just go into fetal position and hope they don't kill you," he said.

After leaving UCLA in 1974, Canfield moved east to settle at the UA as an English professor.

He became a Regents professor in 1994 and specializes in English drama during the Restoration period and comparative literature of the Southwest.

Canfield has won virtually every campus teaching award for which he is eligible, including the five-star teaching award.

"He's a superb teacher," said Larry Evers, English department head. "He's very passionate and knowledgeable."

Despite his many awards and honors, Canfield remains modest about his achievements.

"I'm not a hero," he said. "I can't take a lot of credit for having moved mountains."

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