“The only sentence I could ever say in the Thai language was ‘can you show me the way to the ladies restroom?’ I could say it right every time.”
Los Medanos College’s retiring political science teacher of twenty years, Dave Zimny, recalled the 8 months in which he struggled to learn Thai in 1975. He was working on his dissertation at Yale University on the subject of the bureaucratic culture of rice administrators in Thailand and the Philippines. To this day, he has never been to Thailand nor has he learned how to ask for the men’s restroom.
Despite the complicated topic of bureaucratic cultures in foreign countries, Zimny never found himself to be a natural when it came to publishing research papers after finishing the dissertation that took him 7 years to complete. But what he lacked in self-discipline he made up for with a genuine passion for the science of politics that stemmed from growing up during the Cold War.
Whether it was the Cuban Missile Crisis or the escapades of the Soviet Union, he found himself drawn to the complex politics of the world around him since the 6th grade, the year he remembers to have taken an interest in foreign policy.
“The biggest ‘focusing event,’ as political scientists call it,” said Zimny, came when the war in Vietnam left him as a junior in college with a draft lottery number of twenty-three. Although it turned out he had a medical condition that disqualified him from being drafted, he still wonders what it would have been like to have served in the armed forces in the late 60s and early 70s. Instead, he spent his time trying to mediate between student protesters and administrators at his undergraduate school, the University of Chicago. He quickly found out how rough the waters of politics could be.
“The 60s were a bit fun because that was a time when college students thought they could really change the world. They were maybe a bit naïve but they were really invested in politics and that’s my formative period, the 60s.”
His teaching career began when he was in a graduate program at Yale. The program was known for turning out professional political science researchers. But without the motivation for writing books, he wound up teaching at a community college while finishing his dissertation and never looked back.
“The people who went to grad school with me were mostly interested in teaching other political scientists. When I wound up at Lansing Community College, I found myself teaching citizen literacy. I found that to be a worthwhile thing and I still do,” Zimny explained.
Now that he is retiring from his forty-two year teaching career, the professor expressed how one of the main reasons that he felt attracted to teaching politics was because he thought it made a major difference in the world. Today he feels that history may be recycling in a better way than the 60s because of the people who are out demonstrating and getting involved in politics. Observing the diversity of not just college students, but people from all walks of life showing interest really inspires him.
However, when you walk into his office and see the Barack Obama pin on his desk or see him in the parking lot at his car with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, one may guess how he feels about the current executive administration.
“I’ve got to say, even though the 60s were filled with turmoil, I almost wish they were back when I look at politics today. This is probably a good time to retire from politics,” Zimny said, “Political science in general kind of lost it with Donald Trump in the White House. We didn’t predict that he was going to be there, we don’t know what he is going to do; everyone is scrambling around trying to figure out what this means for politics so it’s time for a younger generation to come in and explain all this that’s giving me trouble to figure out.”
He is interested to see how he adjusts to life in Lansing, Michigan, where he and his wife will be moving for a retirement closer to their grandkids. Michigan was a state that voted for Donald Trump, a stark dissimilarity from California where he has lived for the past twenty years.
But the challenge doesn’t seem daunting to him as much as it piques his curiosity. He is eager to become involved in local community political organizations, such as one that focuses on educating citizens on how to influence their congressional senators and representatives.
At LMC, he is known for having taught basically any political science course a school could offer, but also as having worked with the debate team and teaching many honors courses, which he said to be some of the things he is really going to miss after moving. In Lansing, he doesn’t intend to keep teaching, like some retired professors still feel the drive to, but rather he anticipates that he will be volunteering in grade schools and participating in local debates. Retirement and a red state will not shut down his passion for a hearty debate—his favorite characteristic of a good political science class as well as favorite students he’s taught.
“That’s what makes a class fun, when there is disagreement where you can talk and work it out. That’s one of the things that political science classes can model is civil argumentation. You may disagree with somebody else but you take that persons argument seriously and don’t inject any hatred or anger into the mix. There’s so much bitterness in political discussion nowadays that it’s hard to believe we can get back to a civil kind of debate,” said Zimny.
The latest election took a noticeable toll on his students to a degree that Zimny had never seen before. As a political scientist, he felt slightly responsible to give his students comfort or even a solid answer as to what they could expect to happen next in the country. But working through his own puzzlement, the most he felt he could do was assure his classes that California is the best place to be if you are an undocumented immigrant or have close relationships with people who are.
Still, the atmosphere in his classroom has changed, “This is the first time in my 42 years I have seen anyone personally threatened and showing fear for what a president might do. It’s important not to normalize this,” said Zimny.
He does make an effort to make it clear to his students that his own views are not going to affect the outcome of their grades. He encourages people with different views than his own to express them and talk from their own experiences. His favorite students have been the ones who challenge his own thinking and call him out when they believe what he has said to be illogical or wrong, “Every once in a while you’ll get a student who really pushes you and you have to think a little extra hard. Those are the students I love to have and I’ve had a good number of them over the year.”
Zimny has come to appreciate those students who he believes will undoubtedly make a change in the world. One of his students he says he expects to see on the news one day, famous and in a very high elected position. Although he never felt the desire to be a politician himself, he is happy to have had the opportunity to teach others about how to get involved in their government.
At 67 years old, the career highlight for the self-confessed political science nerd has been teaching at LMC. He doesn’t know if it’s the tradition of the college or the way LMC approaches its mission, but the environment has been the best he’s ever been in, “It was like joining an all-star team when I first got here. I’ve taught at a lot of places but this is the best faculty I’ve ever known.”
The feeling on campus is mutual. Fellow political science instructor and twenty-year long office mate Milton Clarke will miss him immensely, “Not only did Dave and I share the same discipline, but we also shared the same office for twenty years and I could not have had a finer officemate. I can truly say that Dave and I have never had a harsh word for each other while at the same time comparing notes on the major political events of the last two decades and having a bunch of laughs on the appropriate occasions. Dave is consummate intellectual and the best read person that I know and I will miss having the benefit of that intellect.”
As a young aspiring political science instructor, Zimny couldn’t have foreseen how much his colleagues and students would teach him. His time at LMC has assured him that even though the political atmosphere is changing, the new generation will tackle it head on with a political literacy that intimidates even his own cultivated familiarity.
Zimny is confident that the younger teachers will bring enrichment to their students just as they to his own life. Leaving a growing cohort of instructors at LMC behind, he feels comforted by their abilities, “I have a feeling that if I were applying for the job again I wouldn’t stand a chance because all the young professors are truly great,” he said, I think it’s time to move on though and let the young hot shot political scientists take over.”