Trailblazer with a Talking Stick
Sociology professor’s life, legacy honored with scholarship fund
With his trademark ponytail, black Stetson and cowboy boots, Tim Anderson cut a distinctive figure on campus. But it’s the caliber of his teaching for which the associate professor of Sociology, who passed away on Sept. 11, is best remembered.
Born and raised in Middleboro, Mass., Anderson joined Bentley in 1985 to teach in what was then called the Behavioral Sciences department. Before long, he was appointed its chair — a daunting task for any new professor, says longtime friend and fellow Sociology professor Anne Rawls.
“Tim took to it as a fish to water,” she says of his work to develop the department. Today, it boasts 14 full- and part-time faculty and courses that explore topics from criminal justice and racism in America to the sociology of sports and entrepreneurship among immigrants.
Anderson’s commitment to the university extended well beyond his own department. During his 34-year career, he spent non-teaching hours serving on both the Faculty Senate and Teaching Advisory Committee and as director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching.
“Tim’s impact runs deep across this institution,” says Donna Maria Blancero, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “He left an indelible impression everywhere he served.”
In the classroom, Anderson emphasized learning over studying.
“For him, this meant hands-on experiences, learning by doing,” Rawls explains. “He’d point his students in a direction, give them encouragement, provide a path to experiences, and then let them discover for themselves the sociological wonders all around them.”
Indeed, as Anderson himself once reflected: “If I’ve done my job right, my students learn more about asking the right questions than getting the right answers.”
This philosophy stemmed equally from innate curiosity and personal experience. A scholar of Native American culture, Anderson spent considerable time with the Crow Nation on their 2.3 million-acre reservation in south central Montana. During his first visit, in 1992, he taught classes at Little Big Horn College, a tribal community college dedicated to preserving Crow language and culture. He soon discovered that his true purpose there was not to teach but to learn.
Anderson returned to “the Res” year after year, developing a deep appreciation for the Crow and their traditions. He saw firsthand the hardships of reservation life, including poverty and alcoholism, and grew increasingly indignant at the way native peoples have been erased from American history.
“It’s one of the great silences of the world,” he once observed, “how little most people know about Native Americans.”
Over time, he became friends with four Crow brothers: Richard, Henry, Kennard and Jim Real Bird. The siblings welcomed Anderson to join them in taking tobacco, riding horses through the Montana wilderness, and seeking spiritual support in the sweat lodge. Their bond deepened to the point where the Real Bird brothers invited Anderson to step behind the “buckskin curtain,” officially adopting him as their brother.
“Becoming a blood brother to the Crow was something Tim took very seriously,” says Rawls, citing his efforts to bring lessons learned from the Real Birds into the classroom. Most notable: the use of a “talking stick,” an object used during tribal councils to make sure that all members present have a chance to speak.
“Tim used the talking stick the way it was used by the Crow, to organize and focus attention,” Rawls explains.
The practice fostered a classroom environment fueled by careful listening, mutual respect and shared understanding. In 2012, when Anderson received the Adamian Award for Excellence in Teaching, the selection committee lauded his use of the talking stick “to build student confidence and encourage class participation.”
Moreover, Anderson brought Bentley students to Montana for direct experience with reservation life. These trips were life-changing for students, according to Barbara Paul-Emile, professor of English and Media Studies and Anderson’s friend for more than 20 years.
“Tim’s teaching did not deal merely with the transfer of information; it illuminated and transformed,” she says. “Among his many gifts was the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds. His openness and warmth made everyone feel understood and appreciated.”
Rawls agrees, citing Anderson’s lifelong commitment to social justice. “Tim believed in respect for all, and in the power of diversity to inform and inspire our better nature. He embraced the obligation to use his privilege to dismantle and overcome racism wherever he found it.”
Recognizing Anderson’s wide-ranging influence, the university reached out to his wife, Teri, and daughter, Sara ’03, for their blessing to establish a scholarship in his memory. The W. Timothy Anderson Scholarship will be awarded annually to an undergraduate.
“I was privileged to know Tim Anderson,” says Paul-Emile. “While he no longer graces this planet with his presence, he is alive in the hearts of those of us who loved him.”