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Outstanding Faculty Award: The Accidental Professor

By Kim Billings, Advancement Communications
February 7, 2007


© Lisa Nugent

James Tucker was an accidental professor who has become an enthusiastic and intentional professor. The UNH sociologist graduated from college and went to work for an advertising agency, then a greeting card company, and then a series of other white-collar jobs. He learned that he was more interested in the social dynamics of the business organization than he was in making money. So, he went to graduate school. A highly regarded book, The Therapeutic Corporation, published by Oxford University Press, was based on his Ph.D. dissertation, which was inspired by his experience in the private sector.

Tucker’s subsequent research and publications have examined the unusual such as psychics and schizophrenics. “I like to look at what goes on at the margins,” Tucker explains, and he adds, his research makes a contribution to the discipline. “I study what appeals to me personally, but I also try to fill in the gaps in my field of study—unconventional businesses, unconventional religions, unconventional forms of social control.”

Currently Tucker researches legal and social responses to suicide. His approach is historical and cross-cultural. In the U.S. he’s talked with the friends and relatives of people who have committed suicide. “I have an open mind when I talk to anyone,” he says. “I’m interested not only in how they respond to situations, but why.” And, according to Tucker, people like to talk about the beliefs they have and why they do what they do.

This summer he gave several talks on this research in Taiwan and traveled in Southeast Asia, making research connections with scholars in Vietnam and Thailand. Additionally, Tucker is collaborating with a former graduate student, who is exploring these questions in the UK.

But if his research is about the unconventional, about life at the margins, his academic life is steeped in the conventional, about being solidly in the middle of things. He has taught at UNH since 1991 and became department chair this fall. Tucker has served on several College of Liberal Arts committees and boards and earned several awards, including faculty development grants, the Faculty Scholars Award, and a fellowship in the Graduate School. From 2001 to 2004, Tucker was the Lamberton Professor of Social and Criminal Justice. That prestigious appointment provided Tucker with resources to continue his research on the various formal and informal ways people seek justice. He consistently earns high scores from his students, teaching a full load, including two large undergraduate courses, advanced undergraduate courses in his area of expertise, and graduate courses on sociological theory and crime and conflict.

“He has the great skill to be able to combine charisma and rigor in his work with students, and he has contributed significantly to the curricula of the department, Justice Studies, and Cinema Studies,” says sociology colleague Sally Ward.

“I love teaching,” Tucker says. “I like the bigger classes and engaging my students. When there is mutual engagement in teaching between a professor and his or her students, there’s nothing quite like it. Students keep me going.”

During the 2004 New Hampshire Presidential Primary, Tucker undertook a documentary film project with a local homeless man. Tucker filmed him as he attended events with all of the Democratic primary candidates. The Nice Man Cometh was selected for last year’s Carolina Film and Video Festival and was screened for the UNH Center for the Humanities Documentary Film Series. It also was awarded the Best Documentary at the 2005 CheapShot LA Film/Video Festival.

The subject of that film is no longer homeless. He has moved away from the margin and toward the middle. That doesn’t mean Tucker has lost interest. “I just gave him my old computer and he’s online now,” Tucker says.

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