Led Zeppelin’s, “When the Levee Breaks” was blasting as students poured into Vinnie Ferraro’s World Politics class on Tuesday evening at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Ferraro leaned against the podium at the front of the room, rested his chin in his hands, and bobbed his head along with the beat.
When nearly every seat was occupied in the 300-person lecture hall, Ferraro finally broke his silence. “Okay, it’s the magic hour! How is everyone today?” he called out to the class. It was time to begin.
Vincent “Vinnie” Ferraro is the Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where he has been teaching since 1976. In addition to the introductory World Politics class he teaches at UMass on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ferraro also teaches courses on International Political Economy, the International Politics of Petroleum, and a first-year seminar on the Rhetoric of Peace and War at Mount Holyoke.
Though he’s published widely on the topics of global poverty, third world development, and global debt, along with being a consultant to the United Nations, it’s the classroom that holds the most appeal to Ferraro.
“I realize I come alive in the classroom,” said Ferraro, his voice brightening. “It’s an amazing occupation, and if you take it seriously, it’s very rewarding.” Ferraro said that watching students achieve a sense of awareness is his favorite part of teaching.
Ferraro, the son of a grocery store clerk and a stay-at-home mother, said his interest in international relations dates back to his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College during the Vietnam War era.
“When I was in college, we were all subject to the draft. It was something we talked about all the time,” he said.
Ferraro recounted how he had friends that went to war — some came back, some didn’t.
“I just wanted to know why. I’ve been asking that question my whole life,” he said.
In 1971, Ferraro received his B.A. (with distinction) in International Relations from Dartmouth, according to the Mount Holyoke website. That same year, he married his high school sweetheart, Priscilla. The two grew up in Melrose, Mass., and started dating when she was 14 and he was 16. They’ve been married for 42 years and have two sons, Nate and Zack.
Ferraro’s pride in the accomplishments of his children is apparent.
“They are two exceptionally fine men,” he said.
Nate is a plasma physicist who works on fusion reactors in San Diego. “He’s a genius,” said Ferraro.
Zack is a web developer, and lives in Boulder, Colo.
Two years after graduating from Dartmouth, Ferraro received his M.I.A. at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.
When Ferraro was in college a professor of Latin American studies kindled his interest in the politics of Latin America. During the summer of 1973, Ferraro studied in Mexico for three months. While he was there, Ferraro became fluent in Spanish, and a good part of his work in graduate school ended up being in Latin American studies.
However, Ferraro said that his real focus has long been on political economy questions, with global poverty being at the forefront.
“It’s a moral question of incredible significance,” he said, and added, “It’s something I think we could address if we had the will to address it.”
Through writing and publishing, Ferraro tries to get the political system to take the question of poverty more seriously. He said he feels as though he’s had direct input into policy through work he’s done for the United Nation’s Development Program, and consulting work he’s done for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
When Ferraro was in graduate school, a new wave of political science, known as “Quantitative Political Science,” captured his interest. At the time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the best place to study this subject, so Ferraro chose to go there. In 1976, he received his Ph.D. (with Distinction) in Political Science from M.I.T. Shortly thereafter; Ferraro began teaching at Mount Holyoke.
He’s been in love with the classroom ever since.
“I’m the luckiest man on the face of the planet, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Katie Wagner, a sophomore legal studies and anthropology major, took Ferraro’s World Politics class last semester. Wagner said that the course not only gave her an in-depth look at history and the controversial issues that are taking place today, but added that she was able to take away valuable life advice from Ferraro’s lectures.
“His class left me with the desire to question everything that is placed in front of me,” she said.
UMass sophomore Sean Ohnsman had a similar perspective on Ferraro’s class.
“He makes you think about every aspect of a situation,” said Ohnsman. He, like Wagner, was enrolled in World Politics last semester. Ohnsman said that Ferraro would bring up questions that are not typically asked, recalling one particular instance when Ferraro questioned the morality of World Wars I & II.
Ferraro said that playing devil’s advocate is one the best ways to get students to think.
“Now let me really, really make you uncomfortable,” said Ferraro during his lecture last Tuesday afternoon. The class was discussing imperialist theories, and Ferraro paced the front of the room, stopping occasionally to resume leaning on the podium. Eventually, he posed the question, “If the United States needs oil, why can’t we just take it from other countries by force?”
Ferraro walked upwards into the isles, looking at the students. He paused to scratch his head, and continued. “Yeah, I am really saying it, not because I believe it, but because I want you to answer.”
Hands immediately shot in the air.
According to Wagner, Ferraro is a great lecturer. “Even at the end of a long day, he would keep my attention,” she said. Wagner described how Ferraro would often incorporate audio and visual components into his lecturers.
Ferraro said that he uses music, paintings, and excerpts from novels and poetry to give students a sense of time and place.
“I believe that everything is connected, that the universe is one place,” he said. “Nothing happens without affecting something else.”
“[Ferraro’s] class was amusing because even though you walk into class expecting a strict professor, he likes to tell jokes and can make a whole lecture hall laugh,” said Ohnsman. During a recent lecture, Ferraro made a crack about Sarah Palin being able to see Russia from her house that made the entire room erupt in giggles.
And as for the rock n’ roll at the beginning of class, Ferraro said, “I play music to pump myself up.” He added that since World Politics is an afternoon lecture, the tunes also help to wake students up.
However, Ferraro said that he personally loves the blues, and plays groups such as Little Feat, the Rolling Stones, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Joe Bonamasso. “Just remember: Jimi Hendrix is God,” he added.
Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]