Charles Moskos was one of a few celebrity professors at Northwestern, the kind that students chose for the name and not for the course description (“You haven’t had Moskos yet?!”). He drafted “don’t ask, don’t tell,” wrote for the New York Times Magazine, and hung out with Wesley Clark. Like other celebrity professors (Gary Saul Morson), he taught his classes using a lot of one-liners, and his tests were never very hard.
But Moskos didn’t act like a celebrity professor. Students didn’t talk about his lectures the way they revere Morson’s—they talked about him as a person. Even during lectures, Moskos would spontaneously start individual conversations with students. When North by Northwestern wrote a profile of Moskos last year, SESP senior Rachel Bitman remembered what was most different about him as a professor: “He speaks to students, and not just because he’s been teaching for so long…He would spend two hours talking to any one of the 200 students in his class.”
It was easy to feel like you were Moskos’ friend, even if he didn’t know your name. Before class one day, I was eating a C-Store sandwich outside Tech Auditorium and said hi to him from across the street. “Why are you out here?” he said, “Don’t you want to go inside?” So I silently picked up my things and followed him. He asked me where I was from (“What do you mean?” “Where did you go to high school? That’s where you’re from.”), he had trouble opening the door so I helped him out (it was easy to forget that he was both 74 years old and suffering from prostate cancer). And then I never spoke to him again.
But even though he was as much a part of Northwestern as anyone else, he never completely fit in here. He was a self-proclaimed economic liberal and social conservative, a category that represented exactly two percent of the last 600-person intro sociology class he taught. His rationale for “don’t ask, don’t tell” (which he figured would be gone by 2010) was bizarre—he told Lingua Franca “fuck unit cohesion…I should not be forced to shower with a gay.” (His original title for the policy also said, “don’t seek, don’t flaunt.”)
A few people liked to call Moskos a bigot, but like most students, I didn’t spend much time thinking about Moskos’ politics. Most of the kids in his class liked to think of him as their crazy uncle—”he’s not homophobic; just old.” The truth is that Moskos’ politics didn’t really matter. Few people at Northwestern (liberal or conservative) are very dogmatic, and Moskos’ eccentricity was part of what made him so likeable. He put the people in his class before his own agenda, he was always curious about others’ opinions even if he didn’t like them—basically, everything the military, and its flawed but workable policy on homosexuality, stand for. Who knew such an army man would end up being Northwestern’s hero?