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Faculty Retirement: Steven Piker

Scholar, Friend, Mentor

By Susan Cousins Breen


During a 44-year career at Swarthmore, Professor of Anthropology Steven Piker’s most important contribution to the College was as adviser to the Foreign Studies Office—now known as the Off-Campus Study Office.

Surrounded by cherished travel mementos and photos of his sons, Joshua and Tobin ’92, and three grandchildren, Professor of Anthropology Steven Piker thoughtfully recalls a 44-year career at Swarthmore and responds without hesitation when asked about the best part of teaching at the College. “It’s the people,” he says. “We have the best of the best in all areas of the campus community.”

Joy Charlton, director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, has known Piker since 1980, when he picked her up in a hippie VW van at the Philadelphia Airport for an interview at the College. He regaled her with wonderful stories about Swarthmore on the ride back to campus. She regards Piker as one of those “best people”—deeply caring and fundamentally decent. “Steve was the main reason that I came to Swarthmore,” she says. “Years later, when I became department chair, I wanted to be the kind of chair he had been when I first started here.”

Piker was just 28 when he joined the fledgling Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1966 as the first anthropology professor. “I grew up with the department,” Piker says, “and was fortunate to have a hand in its early development.”

“There was never a day when I was coming to work and wasn’t in a good mood,” he recalls. “I’m grateful to have had the chance to spend most of my career here [Piker began his career at Carleton College.], where there is such a familial feeling.

Since he was a graduate student doing fieldwork for his dissertation in the Thai Central Plains rice-farming village of Baan Oi, Piker’s main area of interest was culture and personality (today known as psychological anthropology), and he has taught a course in his specialty almost every semester. More recently, he has studied religious conversions in the United States, and medical anthropology and field research methods have been the mainstay of his teaching.

Piker served as department chair for 11 years and participated in the development of the Asian studies, linguistics, and education departments. But his most important contribution to the College, undoubtedly, was as adviser to the Foreign Studies Office—now known as the Off-Campus Study Office. It has been a year since he retired from that position.

Rosa Bernard, today assistant director for off-campus study, assisted Piker in establishing the Foreign Studies Office in 1992 at the request of President Alfred Bloom. She describes her former boss as a humble leader who set the groundwork for the Foreign Studies Program. “Steve is responsible for what the program is today. He was a guiding light—skilled in tapping campus resources and faculty visions for the program. He also didn’t hesitate to make special arrangements for students who studied abroad in individualized programs. In all, 2,000 students traveled abroad during his tenure.”

Piker, who devoted 40 percent of each academic year and all his summers to the Foreign Studies Program—and jokingly says that Bernard and he “lived in each other’s hip pockets”—has a pragmatic perspective on the program’s growth. In the late 1980s, 15 to 18 percent of students participated in the foreign studies program. Today, 40 to 45 percent of the student body heads abroad for a semester or two.

Of the many changes at the College during Piker’s tenure, he believes demographic changes—the higher percentage of female faculty and minority faculty and students—has been most significant. “And yet,” he says, “the civility of the campus, which has had such an impact on my experience, continues unaffected by the many changes I’ve seen.”

Last July, Piker began the transition into an idyllic retirement when he moved to Yarmouth, Maine, where his younger son, Tobin, lives with his family. During the 2009–2010 academic year, he taught part time, commuting from Maine and renting a room in Swarthmore. “Yarmouth,” says Piker, “is the stereotypical New England town that you would find in a Norman Rockwell painting.”

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