Sara Pfaffenroth

July 8, 2008


Interviewed by Ann Kelsey

Filmed by Michael O’Hagan

For the County College of Morris, Learning Resource Center

Randolph, New Jersey

County College of Morris 40th Anniversary

Transcribed by Jardee Transcription, Tucson, Arizona


Today is Tuesday, July 8, 2008, and this is an interview with Professor Sara Pfaffenroth.  Professor Pfaffenroth is being interviewed at the Media Center, County College of Morris, Randolph, New Jersey.  The interviewer is Ann Kelsey, Associate Director, Learning Resource Center, County College of Morris.  The interview is being filmed by Michael O’Hagan, Producer, Learning Resource Center.  This interview is for the County College of Morris’ 40th Anniversary Oral History Project.  Professor Pfaffenroth is  one of County College of Morris’ founding faculty.


Kelsey:          When and where were you born and raised?

Pfaffenroth:  I was born in Pennsylvania in the city of Reading, in the year 1941.  Actually, I was born five days before Pearl Harbor.  So although I don’t remember it, my parents tell me I grew up in an era where we had blackout shades on the windows.  My father was not in the military, because he already had two children, but he taught the Civilian Defense Corps and helped the spotters on the East Coast identify airplanes.  So I grew up with playing cards with different color airplanes, and different insignias, and different engines, and different wing models, and I probably, to this day, could identify a bunch of World War II airplanes, from playing with them in my childhood.

Kelsey:          Where did you go to college?

Pfaffenroth:  I went to Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  It was a women’s college then, and it still is—one of the Seven Sisters.  I had a wonderful experience there, absolutely wonderful experience.  Indeed, I had such a great time that my daughter wound up going to the same institution thirty years later.

Kelsey:          When did you graduate?

Pfaffenroth:  In 1963.

Kelsey:          What degree did you earn?

Pfaffenroth:  I earned a bachelor of arts degree in English, and took as many English courses as I could.  I loved it, particularly writing, and writing poetry.

Kelsey:          And then did you go on?

Pfaffenroth:  I went to graduate school right away, University of Indiana, into their master of arts in writing program, which was partly based on literature study, and partly based on, in my case, writing poetry.

Kelsey:          Why did you decide to teach?

Pfaffenroth:  I come from a familyof teachers.  My father is a teacher, my mother is a teacher, my grandmother is a teacher, my sister is a teacher.  I frankly didn’t know how to do anything else.  So if you had put me in a business world somewhere, I would have no clue what to do.  It was the only thing I ever knew, and I understood it from the time I was young, and I loved it.

Kelsey:          How did you find out about County College of Morris?

Pfaffenroth:  I got married in 1966 and left the Midwest and Pennsylvania, to come to New Jersey with my new husband—he was from New Jersey.  So we lived in Newark.  He was working for a big law firm in Newark, and I had to find a job.  I couldn’t sit around all day doing nothing.  So I found a job in a brand new community college New Jersey was just starting the community college movement, and I had already worked at a community college for two years in Michigan, so I knew what the structure and philosophy and purposes of the institutions were.  So when New Jersey was starting this, I got my first job at Middlesex County College, and I worked there for two years.  Then two years later, Morris County College was just starting in 1968, and Dean Gilsenen, who had been the dean at Middlesex, brought, I believe, nine of us, from Middlesex County College, and had us become part of the founding faculty at Morris County College.  We were known as Middlesex North for a number of years, I think.  But anyway, the nine of us already had experience in setting up the programs, policies, institutions, that would be required for a new community college.  So we were kind of leaders for the rest of the faculty that Dean Gilsenen had brought on board.  It was a wonderful faculty.

Kelsey:          How old were you when you started working at CCM?

Pfaffenroth:  Oh, let me think.  I must have been twenty-seven, I guess—twenty-six, I think, twenty-six probably.  I could still wear short skirts in those days.

Kelsey:          What was the physical campus like?

PfaffenrothMud!  That’s spelled M-U-D, mud.  There was mud everywhere.  There was one building, Henderson Hall.  I don’t think it was named at that point, but it became known as Henderson Hall.  But every access to and from the building, and everywhere else on campus, as it was being built, was on planks—plywood planks here and there.  Occasionally you’d find a sidewalk somewhere, and the parking lots were paved—I think.   I’m not even sure the parking lots were completely paved.  But everywhere else was mud.

Kelsey:          Was there a cafeteria?

Pfaffenroth:  There was, yes.  The cafeteria was the gathering place on campus.  It was the largest room where more than a few people could fit.  Of course there was food there.  And it became my office for the first year.  The faculty had no individual offices during the first year of operation.  So the English department commandeered a table in the back of the cafeteria, and that was our office.  We would all sit there between classes and counsel students there.  But we could also see what was going on everywhere else in the cafeteria—and that’s where everybody was.  You got to know absolutely every student, every faculty member.  Even if you never had students in class, they knew who you were, and you knew who they were.

Kelsey:          What about a library?

Pfaffenroth:  Ah! the library was upstairs, and Bill Bunnell was the first librarian, a very gregarious fellow, very intent on making sure that the library was at the core of the learning experience for students, and encouraged all of us to use it, and use it well, and we did.  He was very helpful in making sure that we had assignments and material for the assignments that we would give.  Very enthusiastic proponent of the role of a library in a community college, and played an important part in those early years.

Kelsey:          And even in the first year, before the library building was built, there were still library services?

Pfaffenroth:  There were still library services, that’s right.  And actually, when I was hired, the first thing I was asked to do was to make up a list of 500 books that I would like to have ordered for the library.  I still have the list somewhere, I’m sure.  It would be fascinating for me to go through the card catalog now, to see how many of those books are still here.  Because what I ordered were classic books and criticism.  In those days, it was the new criticism, of course.  There was no such thing as gay and lesbian criticism, or feminist criticism, or Marxist criticism, or deconstruction.  None of those things had been invented yet.  So all of these books were classics from the period of new criticism, which is the way that I had learned to look at literature in graduate school, of course.  So it would be fascinating to see how many of those books are still here in this age, after all those other eras in library transitioning and looking at criticism differently.

Kelsey:          You might be surprised.

Pfaffenroth:  I’m sure I would be.  (laughs)

Kelsey:          What were the rules regarding smoking on campus?

Pfaffenroth:  I think you could smoke anywhere.  I smoked in those years.  I smoked until my second child was born, actually.  Smoking was what everybody did in those early years, so I probably smoked maybe for the first two or three years that I was employed here—maybe a little longer, even—not really long.  I stopped more than thirty-five years ago.

Kelsey:          Did you smoke in the classroom?

Pfaffenroth:  No, we never smoked in the classroom, but we could smoke in offices and the cafeteria.  I don’t remember ever smoking in a classroom, though, no.  Classrooms were very formal.  I addressed my students as “Mr.” And “Ms.” all the time, I never used their first names.  In later years, my preferred teaching method was to sit on top of the table in the front of the room with the lectern next to my elbow, and my feet dangling over the desk.  But I doubt that I ever took such an informal position in those early years of teaching.  The classroom was a very formal place in those years.

Kelsey:          What was the atmosphere like on campus during that first semester—especially given the fact that there had been so much upheaval in the six months preceding the opening?

Pfaffenroth:  There was some uneasiness—not just because of what was going on in American society at that time, but also because nobody really knew what this kind of college was, and why they should go here, and what they should teach at a place like this, what we should expect of students who….  Most of the faculty there had never taught at a community college—only a few of us had.  So what should we expect from students, what should we demand from them, how was all of it going to work?  So add to that the uneasiness that was coursing through the American society at the same time, and it was a touchy period for a while.  But we all felt that we were supporting each other, too, and we were on this little adventure together.  So in a lot of ways, the fact that we were in a small space, generated a kind of intimacy that probably the college could never again achieve.  It was a very positive and upbeat place.  Dr. [Sherman H.] Masten[1] is a very positive and upbeat person as a leader.  He had hired administrators who were positive and upbeat, and they were all leaders for setting the tone on the campus.  It was a good place to be.

Kelsey:          What about the students?  What were their attitudes?

Pfaffenroth:  The students, again, didn’t quite know what kind of place a community college was.  They may have read about it a little bit.  They also came, for the most part, from families in which no family member had ever gone to college before, so these were all neophytes not just for the school, but for the whole process of higher education.  There were a few students who had been away at other schools and came to county college that year as transfer students, or beginning over again sometimes.  The students were typical of their time.  They were activists when they wanted to be, but typical of Morris County students, they were also reserved in their activism.  One of the most important things that came out of that was a picture of a girl holding the flag here on campus, at one of the campus protests, which I think was eventually made into a postage stamp.  But it was, “Yes, we’re protesting, but we’re Americans and we want to be heard, but we’re not rabble-rousers, we’re not radicals.”  And all of the protesting that was done on the campus was like that.  I had, in college, been a very active civil rights marcher, so I had seen that same kind of activism ten years before.  And now I was seeing it in the same tone in Morris County.  And it reflected what the county really was like.

Kelsey:          Were you aware of any veterans that were going to school?

Pfaffenroth:  Oh yes!  Oh! lots of veterans, absolutely!  And I remember so many of them very, very well:  the Early brothers….  Jim Henderson was the advisor for the veterans club in those early years, maybe the second, third, or fourth year.  The veterans were campus leaders from the very beginning.  They even talked me into being the advisor for the folk music club!  Oh my! that was a job I never wanted again!  But they were leaders, they had real-time experience, they brought the war and their war experiences back home to all of us, and they were a major part of the tenor on campus—major part.  They were great.

Kelsey:          So they didn’t encounter any hostility or animosity that you could see?

Pfaffenroth:  I think maybe once in a while they might have, here and there, from an individual or two.  But campus-wide, I don’t think so.  Maybe there were just things that I didn’t see or hear, or I don’t remember, even, perhaps.  But I remember being really enamored of the leadership skills that those veterans brought to the campus, and the way that they approached things.  They were wonderful.

Kelsey:          Did you know they were veterans because of their participation in the veterans club?

Pfaffenroth:  In the veterans club, and also because most of them were older.  We didn't have the number of older students, or the age range of students that certainly the college had experienced later on. Most of the students were fresh out of high school in those days.  And the veterans clearly were more experienced, they’d lived more of life, and it showed in their faces and their attitude and their bearing.  So even if you didn’t know that somebody was a veteran, you could tell from the way they handled themselves.

Kelsey:          What was the world like for you in 1968?  What concerned you as an adult?

Pfaffenroth:  I’d just been married shortly before that, so I was getting to know a husband, getting to buy a house for the first time, trying to figure out whether I wanted children or not.  Students who knew me in those early years when I was teaching literature, remember me as making derogatory comments about what children do to the lives of women.  And later on, when they would come back to school and discover that I’d actually had three children, they would fall on the floor in laughter, not believing that I was actually the same person who had said such nasty things about children earlier.  So I was trying to sort through all of those things for myself.  It was a growth period for me as well.

Kelsey:          Was there feminist activity on campus?

Pfaffenroth:  At that point….  I’ve been a feminist my whole life, so I don’t know that I would notice anything different.  I don’t remember any demonstrations about feminism.  I think it’s just something that was happening everywhere around us, in the media and things like that.  I don’t remember activity in that field in those days.  I never felt that I had any reason to look at being discriminated [against] in the college in those early days.  If I didn’t earn as much money as some of the other guys did, it was because, frankly, I’d only had four years of teaching experience before I started here.  And most of the other faculty here had had much more experience.  I was kind of low on the totem pole in those years.  I was more concerned about becoming respected as a professor, as an intellectual and an academic, than I was really about my feminist role.  Probably that’s because I had gone to a women’s college, and I’d always just taken for granted….  And I had strong role models for women in my family:  my mother, my grandmother, my older sister, who’s eight years older than I am.  These were all women who just did what they wanted to do, and never had any issues with any of that.  It may have also come from growing up in the Pennsylvania Dutch environment, where women were absolute partners with their husbands, because most of them were farm women.  And the man had his farming to do, and the woman had her farm-related chores to do, and they were partners in all of this.  I never experienced much discrimination at this campus, or in my life generally during that period of time—except for my mother-in-law(chuckles), who couldn’t understand why I didn’t stay home with the kids, why I went back to work.  I was supposed to stay home and take care of the children.  But you know, I loved my job here, and I loved teaching.  So it took about thirty years for her to understand that.

Kelsey:          Was the student body and faculty and staff diverse, in the sense that we think of it now?

Pfaffenroth:  Not in the sense that we think of it now.  But then Morris County was less diverse than it is now, as well.  Dean Gilsenen was very careful to hire very strong women for the faculty, so in terms of the number of women and their visibility on campus, that was not too much of a problem.  Dr. Louise Heim as head of the biology department, Agnes Clark as head of nursing.  You couldn’t have found better role models for women anywhere on the campus.

So diversity in terms of race, there wasn’t a whole lot, but it wasn’t the same kind of population to draw on, that we would have later on as the county became more diverse itself.

Kelsey:          What was social life like for the faculty and those working at the college then?

Pfaffenroth:  It was drinking coffee in the cafeteria with all of your friends.  There were a few parties here and there, probably mostly founding parties, a groundbreaking here for another cornerstone on some building somewhere, and the usual Christmas party.  But we all knew each other very well.  We knew about each other’s lives and children and wives and husbands.  It was a warm, congenial place.

Kelsey:          Did people go out after work?  Were there any local hot spots where the people went to lunch?

Pfaffenroth:  I was in a carpool for two of those early years, so I didn’t participate in going out after work.  I’m sure there were other people who went to Senatore’s frequently, but I had to leave when the carpool left, and so I don’t remember much of that.

Kelsey:          So you were part of a carpool.  How many people were in the carpool?

Pfaffenroth:  Three of us.  We went from here to Madison-Chatham area, where we all lived.

Kelsey:          And you all took turns driving?

Pfaffenroth:  We took turns driving.

Kelsey:          What kind of cars did you all drive?

Pfaffenroth:  I had a Corvair.  Everybody felt unsafe in it.  But that’s okay, I never had an accident, it was all right.  So it wasn’t unsafe at any speed, it was probably unsafe at too high a speed.  My Corvair lasted me a long time.

Kelsey:          What did Route 10 look like at that time?

Pfaffenroth:  Ah, Route 10.  You know, I think it looked pretty much the same as it does now, except far fewer buildings—just less development.  It was still a four-lane highway, just far fewer buildings—many more fields, far fewer buildings.  And that long left-hand turn lane, turning into Center Grove Road—very long left-turn lane.

Kelsey:          Do you remember what, if anything, was on the four corners at Center Grove and 10?

Pfaffenroth:  There was a diner of some sort, where the current diner is.  And where the bank is now, there was some sort of house with a fence around it.  And I think there was an old A&P.  I think there was a primitive shopping center on the far corner, and a gas station on this corner, but not much else in the whole area.

Kelsey:          Were there traffic lights?

Pfaffenroth:  There was a traffic light at Center Grove Road, yes.  Traffic lights before that, far fewer than there are now.  I know that when I left Chatham and moved further south because my husband had a job in the middle of New Jersey at that point, and I had to drive up here, about a twenty-five-mile drive each day, I encountered only three traffic lights on the entire route, up to the college.  And now I would easily encounter twenty.  So there were far fewer….  This was a rural area, still, this part of New Jersey.

Kelsey:          How did you dress to go to work?

Pfaffenroth:  I always wore dresses.  Nobody wore pants to work.  You wore dresses or suits.  Pantsuits didn’t begin for a number of years after the college was founded.  It would have been shocking for a woman to show up in a pantsuit.  So we all wore dresses or suits.

Kelsey:          What about the students?

Pfaffenroth:  I do think they wore jeans for the most part.  I think that was the uniform—jeans.  Yeah.  I don’t remember them wearing more formal clothing, no.

Kelsey:          What were the students like?

Pfaffenroth:  They were very eager.  They didn’t know what to expect, and so it was easy for you to guide them in a path.  And sometimes it was easy for you to overestimate what they were able and willing to do.  I remember that the first year I taught Survey of British Literature, Semester 2, in which the most important thing that happens in British literature is the development of the novel.  So I wanted to give them not just the poetry from the Romantic Period forward, but also a sense of how the novel grows and where it comes from, what happens, how it changes along the way.  And so I had carefully worked out a plan in which I started with a very early 18th century novel—in this case Moll Flanders—which they all loved because it’s a story of a thief and a prostitute, so that was fun.  But then moved on to, I think I used to try to teach something from the more Classical Period, usually Jane Austen, one of the Jane Austen novels.  And then moved to a Romantic Period.  Very often I would pick Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or one of the other novels, a Scott novel sometimes.  And then I would try a Victorian novel, because Victorian novels were a major part of what happens.  Charles Dickens, maybe one of the….  Thackeray, maybe one of the others.  And then a modern novel, from the modern period, so that there was a flow for all of this.  And I discovered very quickly that Victorian novels, which generally are about 600-700 pages in length, were never going to fly with any of the students.  I had to find something shorter.  There were no really short, good Victorian novels.  The shortest of all would have been Thomas Hardy, and I could never expect them to read this much in one semester.  So I had to change my outlook on how I was going to do things.  And I quickly cut back—the third year that I taught that, I cut back to four novels, made sure they were much shorter novels, and that all worked well.  So I had high expectations, but I was just out of graduate school five years earlier, where the reading was piled on, and you were expected to do it all.  So when I looked at these students, I had to be much more realistic about what I could expect from them.  All of them had jobs, many of them were not well-educated in literature in high school, so I had to start at a different level.  I started at the same level, I just couldn’t go to the lengths that I might have gone to otherwise.  I had to fashion something into the curriculum that was more likely to suit the students.  But they were enthusiastic, they learned a lot.  I found out which novels they were too young to handle.  I tried teaching D. H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love one year.  Well, you can’t read that novel unless you’ve been in love, been horribly rejected, tried love again, been hurt again.  I mean, it’s a novel of passion, and if you’re too young to have experienced all that passion, you’re never going to get it.  So I had to really retrain myself to think in terms of what good experience would move the students forward from the age they were at, and not the age that I was at.  Because to me, Women in Love was the most important novel ever written, when I was twenty-seven.  But not to them at twenty-one and twenty-two.

Kelsey:          What was considered cutting edge classroom technology in 1968?

Pfaffenroth:  Technology?  The mimeograph?  That’s all I remember, the ditto machine.  Yeah, that was it.  Did we have any other technology?  Chalk.  I seem to recall that the music department had one of those chalk holders where you could draw five lines of the music bar with five pieces of chalk at one time.  Technology.  I suppose that would be technology.  Other technology:  books.  Books were it.  Books and a ditto machine.  Maybe I used a phonograph now and then.  If I wanted to have them listen to somebody reading Beowulf in Old English, instead of me trying to recite it.  But I didn’t use a phonograph very much at all.

Kelsey:          What differences—because you’re still teaching, even though you’ve retired, you have taught some classes …

Pfaffenroth:  I have, yes.

Kelsey:          … very recently.  What differences do you notice in terms of student behavior, dress, interactions with faculty, between then and now?

Pfaffenroth:  I think a faculty member determines some of those things in the way he or she structures a class from the very first day.  I’ve always been a more formal teacher, but very open to discussion.  My inclination personally would be to have a very loose class.  And I’ve had to make a concerted effort not to be too loose.  For instance, in teaching creative writing in a real classroom, students write something every week, they have everybody else in the class read what they’ve written, and then the rest of the class comments on it, and I comment on it.  Now, in most ways, I have to be a real balance in a class like that, between somebody who understands what these kids are writing, and is in touch with the modern world to know what they want to be saying.  But I also have to be an authority figure, because in the end, I really am the one who has the most experience about what’s going to fly, in terms of successful writing, and what is not.  So one of the things I always had to do in that class was to be very careful what I wore to the first day of class.  I could not look like an old fuddy-duddy, or they would all disregard anything I said from that point on.  I couldn’t look too modern and too with it, or they would think I was a chum, and wouldn’t regard my authority and what I had to say.  So it was always a big deal for me to pick the right thing to wear to that first day of class, to set the right tone.

The way that I set that right tone with students in my other classes, was to walk in the door the first day of class, pick up the roster, read all the names on the roster, have students raise their hands so I could see who they were, and then I would start again, and read through the roster again.  This time I asked them not to raise their hands, and I would point out who they were, and I would make a few mistakes here and there, not having remembered completely from the first one.  And then I would turn the roster upside down, and I would go through the class and name each one of them, without looking at the roster at all.  So in three tries through the roster, and a lot of short-term memory games, I was able to make them think completely that I had control of the situation, that I would know who they were from that point on, that they couldn’t get away with anything, because I would remember exactly what they had said.  And it was very effective.  And of course they had no idea that by the next time, I only remembered a third of them.  But it set the tone that I am in charge of the classroom, and then the rest of my tone—which is my real nature coming through—was very open and very eager to answer questions, eager for them to ask questions.  And so I always managed to maintain a balance.  So I think a lot of that is the relationship of professor and student hasn’t changed all that much.  The students are more forward, they’re more informal, they’re more vocal, but in the end, if they respect you as the academic that you are, it’s never been a problem for me.  Have I had any problem students over the years?  Oh yes.  But you send them right over to the dean of students office, and deal with it that way.  Those are the professionals.  You don’t have to be able to deal with all of it.

Kelsey:          What do you remember most about that first year?

Pfaffenroth:  Loving all the people I worked with.  Just feeling so excited that this was a project that was getting off the ground, and it was going to work.  There were so many competent people, so many committed people, that the place was going to be a success.  We knew all the board of trustees members, they would come visit us in the cafeteria, sit down and talk to us.  There was no separation of anybody, from the highest board member, to the most recently-admitted freshman.  It was all really a very cohesive, congenial group, and we sensed that spirit, all the way through.

Kelsey:          How has CCM changed since 1968?

Pfaffenroth:  Anything that grows begins to be depersonalized in a lot of ways.  It’s just hard to maintain a close relationship with so many people all the time, and so things just fall by the wayside.  There are things that you don’t express and don’t say out loud.  It’s just when something gets large, it becomes different.  It’s not anything CCM has done wrong, it can’t be helped, it’s just a function of size, that’s all.

Kelsey:          What do you think were your best and worst moments that year, 1968?

Pfaffenroth:  It was either ’68 or ’69 when the Mets won the World Series.  That was absolutely the best moment from those early years.  We were all in the cafeteria together.  The cafeteria manager had kept the place open so that we could all stay there and watch the game together.  He brought in an extra-large TV screen so that we could all watch it.  The energy in the cafeteria that day was great.

Worst moment?  Learning to drive in snow—you know, the fog around here.  It was generally connected with getting to and from the campus—fog, rain, snow, mud.  That was it.

Kelsey:          Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Pfaffenroth:  Can’t think of anything.  Unless you ask me something else, I probably won’t remember.

Kelsey:          Okay, thank you very much, this was great.

Pfaffenroth:  Thank you!





Activism, 7

Atmosphere on campus, 6

Bryn Mawr College, 1

Bunnell, Bill, 4

Cafeteria, 4, 6, 11, 18, 19

Campus, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 19

Center Grove Road, 12, 13

Civil rights, 7

Clark, Agnes, 11

Classroom decorum, 16, 17

Curriculum, 13, 15

Development, 12

Diversity, 10, 11

Dress, 13, 16

Early life, 1

Faculty, 1, 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 16

Family, 2, 9, 10

Feminism, 9, 10

Folk music club advisor, 8

Gilsenen, Dean, 3, 11

Heim, Louise, 11

Henderson Hall, 3

Henderson, Jim, 8

Indiana, University of, 2

Library, 4, 5

Madison-Chatham, New Jersey, 12

Masten, Sherman H., 7

Middlesex County College, 3

Mud, 3, 4, 19

New criticism, 5

New York Mets baseball, 19

Newark, New Jersey, 2

Parking, 4

Reading, Pennsylvania, 1

Route 10, 12

Smoking, 5, 6

Social life, 11

Students, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

Technology, 15

Transportation, 11, 12, 13, 19

Veterans, 8, 9

World Series, 19



County College of Morris opened its doors in September of 1968. Join us in celebrating 40 years of connecting learning and life. Read about THE EVENTS that shaped the times, remember THE CULTURE, and join the founding CCM students, staff, and faculty as they share with us THE MEMORIES of those early days.