Dan Sankowsky: from the inside
art | writing | teaching
I’d like to explain the origins of the material on the web site. In order to do so, I need to include some personal history.
I grew up in an academically oriented family. I refer to an extended family of aunts, uncles, and grandparents, all living in the same house in Philadelphia until I was 1, when my parents became the first to go out on their own – 0.8 miles away! One of my aunts is an accomplished mathematical physicist who collaborated with Einstein for a time. Her husband, my mother’s brother, mentored Noam Chomsky in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
My parents had somewhat more modest credentials, but they were impressive to me because of the obstacles they had to overcome. My mother was a high school history teacher who had to endure surgery in her native Russia at age 4 that required 9 months of confinement on a board fastened to a bed for post-operative recuperation. That experience undoubtedly forged her character, giving her an iron will and yet still a soft heart.
My father was an artist regionally well regarded (in the 1970s, the governor of Pennsylvania asked to have several of Dad’s paintings hung in the mansion), but he had to travel a circuitous route to get there. Also born in Russia, his parents and siblings were forced to flee during the Revolution, eventually relocating in (then) Palestine. He had to help support his family from age 14 on, but found time for art and mathematics. After marrying my mother and emigrating to the U.S., he got his master’s degree in math, but found it impractical to go for a doctorate. He settled into high school teaching until becoming quite sick with a chronic condition. During this time, my father satisfied his deep-seated urge to paint, also teaching at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That’s a thumbnail version of my roots. Along I came, however, with no interest in school, in reading, or in learning much of anything. I gravitated towards sports and music – spelled rock and roll rather than classical. I was a fish out of water in that regard, both at home and also in the extended family, where all my cousins showed a natural affinity for the world of scholarly pursuits.
I wasn’t a complete flop academically. I found it distasteful, but managed to pull the marks and grind out a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California, in 1967 – during the counter culture heyday. Teaching math at a university was really a default occupation for me: it wasn’t something I had always wanted to do, the way teaching and art was for my Dad, whom I envied and admired. But I was fortunate to begin an academic career as an instructor of mathematics at MIT. Then I felt the pressure to excel academically subside; in part, I liberated myself by deciding not to engage in research in mathematics in spite of my having earned a doctorate in that field.
I also felt that I could develop other interests and express myself creatively for the first time. Make that the second time: while in graduate school, I collaborated with my good friend Marcia Hutchinson, the designer of this Web site, on some children’s stories that aired in San Francisco in 1966 before being reincarnated four years later as a record. I wrote the stories and Marcia did the voices. We were a good team, had lots of fun, and put out an original product.
This experience sowed the seeds for a variety of ways to express myself, most of which are included here. First, I got a typewriter shortly after arriving in Boston. It was a beat up mess, but it had a strikingly new font – for those days – a precursor of Arial. I began playing with words just to see the letters on the page, like a four year old. Out of that modest beginning came a verbal style and then the poems represented on this site.
A couple of years later, I was again taken with letters, this time on a John Coltrane album. Drawn to copy them and then to embellish them, I happened to pick up some magic markers. Mesmerized by all the colors out there, again like a kid with a 64 crayon box, I began a series of almost scientific experiments. Using very porous paper, I found ways of blending and bleeding the markers. Almost inadvertently, shapes would emerge from this experimentation. I let them tell me what to do and soon found I was producing little (5" x 8") paintings. Throw in some technology, e.g. color copying and scanning, and they can grow tall – go ask Alice!
Meanwhile, my teaching career also became meaningful as I saw how fear undermined students’ learning attempts in mathematics. I suddenly realized that I had an academic interest –- only it was in psychology and I wasn’t about to go back to school for another degree. Instead, I worked at a clinic in Los Angeles made famous (or maybe infamous would be more accurate) in the 70s by the phrase "primal scream." I learned a lot, some of which I applied to education.
In the classroom, I found that I could be funny in unexpected ways. So I thought about what I did and wrote a paper about it. Before that, I had appeared on a radio talk show as a character named Dr. Jeffrey Gladstone, ostensibly a seer from the Ukraine. This time I was the voice and was able to find some ridiculous things to say. Transcripts are available on this site.
Finally, after teaching at a business school, Suffolk University’s School of Management, in Boston, for a number of years, I began to publish articles – something I had been trained to do, but wanted no part of in my younger days. The difference was that I could now focus on such topics as "leadership," "training," and "organizational behavior," all of which involved psychology to some extent. Another difference was my colleagues: I have found a great group of people to work with as well as a great environment to do that work. I just retired from Suffolk after 26 years and I want to acknowledge how happy I was there and how I was able to add academic writing to my list of activities because of that environment. I’m finally doing what I was supposed to in the first place!