John Gamble reflects on his 44-year career at Penn State Behrend

John Gamble carries the Penn State Behrend mace during a college commencement program.

John Gamble, a distinguished professor of political science and international law, has retired after 44 years at Penn State Behrend. He was the longest-serving faculty member at the college.   

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — There are 44 letters in the Hungarian alphabet, and four of them are versions of “O.”

John Gamble knows this because he has a friend who is from Hungary. They have talked for hours about the alphabet, and how the verbs and genders work, even though Gamble has no immediate plans to return to Hungary. In July, when he retired, he moved to Redmond, Washington, to be closer to his son and his family.

“I am curious about everything,” said Gamble, distinguished professor of political science and international law and the longest-serving faculty member at Penn State Behrend. “I always have been.”

Gamble is a natural academic: He was the first faculty member at Behrend to reach the rank of full professor, and the first to publish a book, and he’s comfortable at a lectern, despite a lifelong stutter. When he asks a question, he doesn’t rush toward the definitive answer. He approaches it like a “Jeopardy” board.

He has refused to silo himself: In his 44 years at Behrend, he published 14 books and more than 100 chapters and journal articles. He gave lectures at Oxford, Cambridge and the United Nations, and he insisted that his students always consider the international perspective.

“It’s often hard for Americans to accept the fact that we aren’t the best at everything,” he said. “The surest way to guarantee that you won’t be the best is to rest on your laurels and not continually challenge yourself. And where better to do that, than at college?”

Here’s a look back at some of what he has learned, in his own words:

In my first year as a student at the College of Wooster, I took a chemistry course. I took my first test, and I got an A on it. The professor went around the room and called on people, asking them questions, and one day he called on me. He asked me something I knew cold, but I couldn’t answer him. I froze, because of my stuttering, and he kind of made fun of me. So I dropped chemistry.

Political science came easily to me. I could see the relevance of it on so many levels.

That was in 1963, which was the beginning of a sea change not just in politics, but in the look and behavior of students. I went with the other freshmen to an assembly, where the president of Wooster spoke. His speech in many ways seemed very liberal, in the best sense of that word. Then, at the very end, he felt the need to point out that one of the men in the audience had a beard – a short, carefully cultivated beard. He said that wasn’t an acceptable look for the College of Wooster. Two or three years later, of course, expressing such a sentiment would have been unimaginable.

I was at the University of Washington from 1967 to 1971. There were huge protests about the Vietnam War. I remember sitting in my office, looking out the window, and seeing 20,000 students on Interstate 5. They blocked all six lanes, closing the major interstate connecting Washington and California.

Students are different today, but how different? Was there more change from 1920 to 1960 than from 1980 to 2020?

In terms of politics, today’s students are as involved as ever. I think the most enthusiasm I’ve ever seen from students was in the presidential election four years ago. But for the most part, they’re enthusiastic now, too.

Teaching politics and government seems harder than ever. The United States is in a more complicated place. Our institutions seem unable to rise to the occasion. There are deep political differences – the Republicans and the Democrats can’t even talk to each other.

There are solutions to this: campaign-finance reform, for example, and strict limits on the length of campaigns. But they’re not going to happen in my lifetime.

We should admit that we don’t have all the answers. We’re never going to. Life is just too complicated. And we should be more open to different ways of explaining “complicated stuff.”

I did an experiment with one course. I was teaching comparative politics – 125 students in the Reed Auditorium. Right before every lecture, I gave myself a grade for how well I knew the material. Then, immediately after the class, I gave myself a grade for how well that class had gone. There was a strong, inverse correlation between the two.

When you know a subject especially well and you can explain it quickly and concisely and thoroughly, but it is still a complicated subject, that creates a problem for the students. The nuance doesn’t always come through. Often, I go off on a tangent, to clarify an important point.

I was 30 when I interviewed for the job at Behrend. The campus was so much smaller. Back then, we had only about 1,000 students, and we had just gotten the go-ahead to become a college, which would allow students to remain here for all four years. Only 10 or 15% of them stayed. But I liked the place. I always felt free to speak my mind.

At the beginning of every course I teach, I explain to the students that I stutter, sometimes quite a bit. I say, “I know a lot of you are scared to death to open your mouth. You’re thinking, ‘Will my classmates think I’m stupid? Will they laugh at me?’” By acknowledging my stutter, I can reassure them. I say, “There is not a feeling you have that I haven’t experienced in a first-hand way.” When I say that, and I look out at the class, I see this wave of relief just wash over their faces.

I always felt I had an obligation to explain to my students why the information they get from my class will be important to them, regardless of what they plan to do with their lives. I had one student who was obviously very smart. She was an engineering student, a Schreyer Scholar, and she already had a job lined up. She was assiduously prepared for each class, but up until week eight, it was clear that she was thinking, “What does this have to do with me being an engineer?”

In week eight, I took a detour and talked about the European Union. I explained that in an interconnected world, a lot of the standards for products engineered in the United States might now be set in Brussels. And it clicked for her. I could see the gears meshing. That’s a wonderful moment for a professor. That may be what I’ll miss the most.