Dr. Michael Thornton Retires from UW-Madison After 30 Years
Journey of Thought & Place
|Dr. Michael Thornton was one of the the first professors at
UW-Madison to incorporate service learning in his class
curriculum back in 2000.
to be bad to you,” Thornton asked. “They ignore you. They act as if you don’t exist on the positive side. What does that feel like?’ I did the traditional things, as I
describe it, where you take the students to the ‘zoo.’ You bring people in and they observe them and they talk about themselves and then they go away and you
never see them again.’ And I noticed that the students were able to hide some of their emotions. If someone comes and talk, maybe you understand them
intellectually, but you never have to dig deep to understand who you are. It doesn’t test who you are in terms of prejudice. Most white folks say, ‘I’m not prejudiced.’
And they can honestly believe that of themselves because they are never tested.”
Thornton turned to service learning as a component of his classes where the students would gain real-world experience that would make the intellectual content of
his class more personally understandable.
“I got in touch with the Morgridge Center and I talked to Randy Waller, who was associate director at the time,” Thornton said. “That opened up my eyes to service
learning, so I’ve been doing that for about 20 years now. That led me to really focusing much more on teaching because — to be honest and I think this is true of
most people who like to teach — you get a lot more feedback, a lot more immediate feedback and satisfaction in that process because it’s a human process as
opposed to a research process where maybe, if you are lucky, 100 people will read whatever you wrote. But you don’t see or feel any tangible difference. I’m not one
of those stellar scholars. I have some groupies, but not a lot. I hear from them, but it really isn’t satisfying. But teaching, in that sense, became much more
Given the sense of journey that has pervaded his life, it is not surprising that Thornton and his wife will be moving to the Tampa Bay area once the bulk of COVID-19
is behind us. He has plans to find a lot to do.
“If I just laid in the sun in Florida, I would be dead within a month and I’m not ready to die yet,” Thornton said with a laugh. “I still like my research, so I’m going to
continue to do that. That’s half of what I am going to do. The things I’m still working through is I want to work with non-profits. I want to use my expertise to help
them. Maybe I can do research. Maybe I can do a lot of other stuff for them. At the same time, I don’t want that to be my main focus. I want to get involved in
community there, if nothing else, to dig into the community in a way that perhaps I didn’t do here and get closer to the community. It’s kind of like going home again
because that is the population that I grew up with. I still struggle. Inside I’m working class.”
In some ways, Thornton will have come home again in the Tampa Bay area that has a large working-poor community and is home to MacDill Air Force Base. And he
will continue the struggle.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
In some ways, Dr. Michael Thornton has been on a journey of thought and place. A self-described army
brat, Thornton lived in four foreign countries and 15 states by the time that he was set to go to college.
Thornton earned his Ph.D. in sociology and Asian American Studies at the University of Michigan and
came to UW-Madison for a tenure-track position in the UW-Madison Afro American Studies Department
after an unsatisfactory stint at Cornell University.
Thornton is deeply appreciative of his stay at UW-Madison although he experienced micro-aggressions
and the negative climate that can exist for people of color on the campus.
In 2000, after he obtained tenure, Thornton focused more on the content of his classes and how he
could make the experience in his Afro Am classes more real to the predominantly Euro-American
students whom he taught.
“One of the struggles I always had was, ‘How do you get them to understand what that feels like to be
a Black person in an environment of mostly white people even though most white people aren’t going