February 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 2

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Emeritus Profile

Sheldon Stryker:
Influencing Students Even in his Retirement

Sheldon Stryker

Sheldon Stryker

Craig Schaar, ASA Membership Department

Sheldon Stryker likes to tell the story of being on a cruise ship with his wife traveling through the North Sea. At a formal cocktail party on board the ship, he met famous fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor. After a conversation about their colorful life in Minnesota and their backgrounds, Keillor asked Stryker, "What the hell are we doing here?" The two men from Minnesota have had quite a journey through life.

Stryker was born in St. Paul in 1924. His mother died shortly after his birth. He was cared for by his grandparents and aunts while growing up in Minnesota during the Great Depression. Stryker played some basketball during his youth and worked as a newspaper carrier. He was a talented bridge and billiards player although he never thought about going professional.

In his youth, Stryker worked as a construction laborer in order to save money for college. According to Stryker, one of the proudest days of his life occurred when the foreman said to him; "I am sorry I am losing a good man," as he was about to began his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. In June 1942, Stryker tried to enlist in the U.S. military during the height of World War II, but his vision did not pass the military standard.

Stryker was expected to be a physician by his family, but he never had much interest in the medical field. Eventually, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, and he received specialized training in engineering at the City College of New York. Because of his poor vision, he was not supposed to be sent overseas and into combat. But Stryker’s engineers battalion was sent to the European theater anyway, where he served as a combat medic and earned a Purple Heart medal.

Finding a Career in Sociology

A career counselor recommended that Stryker pursue a career that involved helping people. He had a friend who was going to study social work and Stryker decided to major in the same thing at the University of Minnesota. While embarking upon his social work studies, Stryker had to take sociology courses and he was hooked immediately.

Stryker joined ASA in 1948 when he was a graduate student. He attended his first annual meeting in 1950 in Denver, CO. This was when ASA meetings had a sit-down dinner for all attendees. In an interview, Stryker said the proudest he has felt of the ASA was when the Association threatened to cancel its annual meeting in St. Louis because the hotel refused to allow African-Americans to register. The hotel backed down, thus effectively desegregating St. Louis.

It was Stryker’s mentor, Clifford Kirkpatrick, who helped shape the young student’s passion in sociology. Kirkpatrick contacted Stryker about an available teaching assistant position at Indiana University in 1950. The starting annual salary was $2,500. Stryker completed his doctorate in 1955 and he was recommended for tenure in the following year. The tenure rules at Indiana required that a departmental recommendation be made after five and a half years of teaching service and Stryker had been an instructor for several years while earning his doctorate.

Stryker received a Fulbright Award to teach for one year at the University of Trento in Italy during the 1966-67 academic year. While he was in Italy, there was a crippling student strike. The students were opposed to curriculum changes that focused on more quantitative methods as opposed to strict theoretical teaching. Through this protest, Stryker learned that there was one important difference between radical Italian and American university students; "the Italian radicals have a sense of humor," he said.

Stryker was department chair from 1969-75 at Indiana University and he served as director from 1977-2000 of the NIMH-sponsored Pre-doctoral and Postdoctoral Training Program in Social Psychology.

"The most rewarding experience has been the responses from students who write to me about how important I was to them," said Stryker. Brian Powell, sociology professor at Indiana University, praised Stryker’s long-term relationships with former students. Stryker’s commitment lasted beyond the person receiving their PhD.

Richard Serpe, chair of the sociology department at Kent State University and a former student of Stryker’s, is one example of a long-term scholarly relationship. "He has graciously read and worked with my graduate students over the years and is currently an outside member of a doctoral committee for one of the graduate students at Kent State University. At 86 years of age he is still influencing me and the next generation of sociologists," said Serpe.

In 1980, Stryker wrote a groundbreaking book called Symbolic Interactionism: a Social Structural Version, which introduced the concept of "identity theory" to describe how social structures influence an individual’s role behaviors. Stryker has been a recipient of multiple career achievement awards from several organizations including the Cooley Mead Award from the Social Psychology section of the ASA and the association's 2009 W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award. Stryker was the editor of the Rose Series, the Social Psychology Quarterly (1967-1969), and the American Sociological Review (1982-1986). He also earned public recognition from the psychology field for his identity theory contribution.

Stryker believes sociology offers "a better sense of complexity in the world and the changing character of the world". Since his retirement, Stryker continues teaching a graduate class at Indiana University, and he is currently working on new papers for publication. He enjoys conversations with students and attends lectures whenever he has the opportunity.logosmall

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