James Patrick Shenton CC '49 MA '50, PhD '54 was a popular history professor who officially taught from 1951 to 1996, after which he continued to teach and advise students on a less formal basis. He died shortly following heart surgery in July, 2003.
Early life and education
After serving in the army during World War II in Europe, Shenton entered Columbia College as a 21 year old freshman on the GI Bill. He said that he chose Columbia because a great-uncle had once been head of the Sociology Department, and because of a radio show he had heard in the 1930s that involved Irwin Edman discussing Dostoevsky.
While a student, he spent nights repairing refrigerators, not caring a whiff for extracurriculars. Among his academic influences were Henry Steele Commager, Lionel Trilling, Edman, and Jacques Barzun. He was especially close to Harry Carman, on whose farm he once worked. In the history department, he bonded with Richard Hofstadter, Richard Morris, and David Truman.
Academic interests and career
Among other topics, he lectured on 19th-century American history, World War II, and the history of immigration and ethnicity in the United States. He also habitually taught Contemporary Civilization and was a leader in the Double Discovery Center.
Beyond Columbia, he taught at Montclair College, the Manhattan School of Music (where he supervised academic programs), and the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, in addition to holding televised classes on New York's PBS station.
Positions on campus issues
A longtime antiwar activist who had protested the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Shenton was known (probably among those who held the same views on issues) as a "conscience of the Columbia faculty". He supported the 1968 protests and served as the go-between for black and white protesting students. He was among other professors who formed a human chain to physically block violence from breaking out during the protests' building occupations. When the police broke up the protest, he was among those severely injured.
In the early 1970s, he flew to Sweden to support a draft-dodging student. Later, he encouraged students seeking divestment from South Africa.
In his last days as a professor, Shenton took a more nuanced approach to campus issues. He found ethnicity to be a "more complex issue" than it was being portrayed by those participating in the 1996 Ethnic Studies Demonstrations, for example.
Shenton "won every award possible for a Columbia teacher", including the Mark Van Doren Award given out by students (1971), the Great Teacher Award of the Society of Columbia Graduates (1976), and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching (1996), of which he was the first recipient. He also won the John Jay Award for outstanding Columbia College alumni (1995) and an Alexander Hamilton Medal.
Among his unheralded accomplishments, Shenton was the only Columbia professor to visit every single Columbia alumni club in the U.S., and believed that he supervised more PhD dissertations than any other history professor in the university's history.
Shenton was known for his reenactments of historical moments. Among other episodes, he would act out shootings during the draft riots and bring megaphones and phonographs to class.
He was known as a tough grader ("he continued to give C pluses and B minuses long after these grades had disappeared from the repertoire of other teachers"). Nevertheless, he was also known for his personal touch: remembering students from lecture classes twenty years later, and grading all papers and exams himself.
He lacked a driver's license but owned a handsome MG, so that "someone would always be willing to drive" him. Nevertheless, he endured a daily commute by bus from Passaic, NJ, during which he got most of his reading done.
His teaching inspired alumni such as Eric Foner, Sean Wilentz, David Rothman, Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Ross, Robert Fogelson and Thomas Sugrue to go on to become historians themselves. He endowed the Lily Prize in History in honor of his mother.