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John R. McLane

Great Expectations: A Guru's Life Lessons for His Chelas

John R. McLane, professor emeritus of South Asian history at Northwestern University, passed away on Jan. 24, 2020. This essay by Anupama R. Oza and Rajesh C. Oza, honors a scholar’s passion for India and a teacher’s commitment to his students.

If tenure-track academics are so blessed, they will move through three career stages: assistant professor, associate professor, professor. We like to think of this as striving, arriving, thriving. 

Professor McLane, known to family, friends, colleagues and students as Jock, experienced all three stages in more than half a century at Northwestern. After his undergraduate studies at Harvard (which included a three-month trip to India in the fall of his junior year), in 1961 Jock earned his doctorate in South Asian history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies; at the SOAS, Jock studied with A.L. Basham, a professor who taught many budding historians and is perhaps best known for having written the classic introductory text The Wonder that Was India.

As a young man still in his mid-20s, Jock came to Evanston with his wife and their two children to teach history of the Indian subcontinent. He was at the very forefront of American scholars introducing India into undergraduate education. Indeed, only a decade before Jock came to Northwestern as an assistant professor striving to research and teach about the vast area called South Asia, the entire field of “Area Studies” was just beginning to take shape in the United States.

In the middle of the 20th century, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and, subsequently, the National Defense Education Act funded more than 125 university-based area-studies units known as National Resource Center programs. In the Midwest, much of this funding went to the University of Chicago, which established its South Asia Language and Area Center (SALAC) as the preeminent locus of scholars concentrating on Indian civilization.

It was within this context of America’s outward gaze toward India and other Asian nations that Jock arrived as an associate professor and thrived as a full professor at Northwestern. During this time, he wrote Indian Nationalism and the Early Congress in 1977, which won the Watamull Prize awarded by the American Historical Association, and Land and Local Kingship in Eighteenth Century Bengal in 1993.

While Jock can surely be honored for having progressed through the three stages of professorship (culminating in being distinguished as professor emeritus), we best remember him for a different tripartite aspect of his life cycle at Northwestern: to be sure as a teacher across generations, but also as a champion of non-Western cultures and as a lifelong mentor encouraging lives well lived. It is in these roles that Jock served as a guru to so many of his chelas, a guide who imparted knowledge to his disciples through enduring relationships.

Teacher Across Generations

Jock taught both of us — the father and daughter authors of this memoriam: Rajesh in 1978 and Anupama (who goes by “Anu”) in 2005. Much changed across that quarter of a century. To be sure, History 385 remained History of Modern India, but Professor McLane evolved his curriculum to reflect the significant arrival of new voices from the subcontinent; as his chelas changed, the guru learned from them and updated his teaching accordingly.

When Rajesh took History 385, the reading list included Stanley Wolpert’s A New History of India, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight (all of which were sourced at the Great Expectations bookstore on Foster Street, quietly suggesting the great expectations Professor McLane had of his students). By the time Anu took the “same” course, the reading list had expanded to include writing by Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Sambuddha Sen. You’ll surely note that there is a reclaiming of history at work here: Western authors transformed into Indian authors. This is what scholars of subaltern studies call giving voice to the subject (or in India’s case under British imperialism, giving voice to the subjected peoples). Along with an evolution in whose perspective students read (Indian creators), the mediums (film, interviews) allowed for many more Indian voices to be shared as evidenced by Professor McLane’s use of Anand Patwardhan's documentary film “In the Name of God/Ram ke Naam.” 

Beyond the pedagogy of the classroom, Jock became more accessible; in part this had to do with the guru’s own evolution as a teacher; but it also resulted from the chelas finding their own voice on a more democratized campus. Perhaps a couple of anecdotes will bring life to this change. 

In the spring of 1978, while still a freshman, Rajesh reached for the stars and took Professor McLane’s class that was designed for juniors and seniors. He was distraught in discovering that he knew so little about the history of the country of his birth; and he was taken aback by the intellectual acuity of the dozen or so older students (all non-Indians) who shared the classroom in Harris Hall. But most of all, Rajesh was intimidated by the bearded professor with his Harvard and University of London pedigree; this professor had high expectations, and Rajesh’s midterm blue-book suggested that he was barely keeping up. Suddenly Rajesh had the flu and a dental problem. Given that his family could not afford dental care, he went to the free clinic at Northwestern’s School of Dentistry (subsequently closed in 1998) and learned from the dental students that he had periodontitis; to address this serious gum disease, Rajesh’s root canal treatment required that he make weekly trips downtown at the same time as Professor McLane’s class. Rather than explain his dilemma, Rajesh, for the first and last time, cut class. One day, while playing basketball in Blomquist Gym, Rajesh saw Professor McLane shooting hoops. The chela tried to avoid making eye contact with the guru, but the guru saw his chela and inquired about the absenteeism. With dental treatment completed, Rajesh was back in Harris Hall and made a modest comeback on the final exam.

Champion of Non-Western Cultures

Anu first met Professor McLane in her first-year dormitory, the International Studies Residential College (ISRC), where he had served as its first master in the 1980s. Student life outside the classroom was a cause that was close to Professor McLane’s heart. As a founder of the Residential College system, he believed that interaction between students and faculty was part of a robust college education; indeed, if the Northwestern University Press were to publish an illustrated dictionary, perhaps “collegial” would have a photo of Jock McLane, eyes twinkling with a hint of intellectual collaboration and shared merriment.

For many years, Professor McLane championed a global outlook on campus. He had a solid relationship not only with his students, but also with the University’s presidents, provosts and deans of the College of Arts and Science. While he was not successful in advocating for a substantial change to the curriculum that would have required that all students take one course on a non-Western civilization, he never stopped looking for ways to expand the worldview of Northwestern administrators and students.

By the time Anu took History 385, she had already developed relationships with Professor McLane and many other students at the ISRC and across campus who believed that an educated mind is an open mind. In Anu’s version of the History of Modern India, the classroom seated dozens of students from across the world who challenged each other and Professor McLane to consider and reconsider the reading and writing of Indian history.

It was this type of dialectic that the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen wrote about in his Argumentative Indian, a book that Rajesh reviewed shortly before Anu graduated. The review closed with this small tribute: “For Professor John ‘Jock’ McLane, the first of a long line of teachers who fostered in RCO a life-long learning about — and love for — all things Indian.”

The tribute led to Professor McLane and Mrs. McLane inviting the Oza Family to their home for tea and biscuits. Besides the evident love that our host and hostess had for each other, their home on Davis Street was steeped in history, including a grand portrait of a Civil War military leader to whom Professor McLane was related. The McLane family’s gracious hospitality in the middle of Anu’s education led to a deepening of the guru-chela relationship, a relationship borrowed from ancient India and translated into the heart of a university campus in the middle of America. 

Lifelong Mentor Encouraging Lives Well-Lived

For Anu, her guru always remained Professor McLane: She took one more course with him on the Indian Partition, introduced him to her grandparents at her graduation, asked him to inspire her students to pursue higher education when she was with Teach for America on Chicago’s West Side (please see attached photo of the Guru, his chela and a batch of Anu’s chelas), and requested that he write a graduate school letter of recommendation to Harvard (which she treasured since it enabled the two of them to share an alma mater).

But for Rajesh, shortly after the tea and biscuits, Professor McLane became “Jock” and Mrs. McLane was “Joan.” Over the past decade and a half, Rajesh has been returning to campus to serve on the McCormick School of Engineering’s Industrial Engineering and Management Science Advisory Board. After the tea and biscuits, Rajesh (who became “Raj” to Jock) always made a point to meet with his old professor. They talked about so much under the sun:

  • Jock’s undergraduate days and his decision to study history to better understand social inequalities across the world, and in India, Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience against injustice
  • Raj’s shift away from biomedical engineering to organizational change consulting and a lifelong commitment to understanding India, America, and the world through a Gandhian lens
  • Jock’s happiness in his and Joan’s son, daughter and grandchildren
  • Raj’s happiness in his and Mangla’s daughter and son (and in 2019 Anu’s daughter)
  • Jock commiserating on how despite his best lobbying efforts (both on and off the tennis court where he parried with then Northwestern President Henry Bienen), he still could not convince the administration to require a course on non-Western cultures
  • Raj sharing that he met President Bienen at Anu’s graduation and asked about how we can best make Northwestern a world-class institute through greater focus on Asia, particularly India
  • Jock’s introducing Raj to newer members of the faculty like Rajeev Kinra to whom Jock had passed the baton of teaching South Asian history
  • Raj fondly recalling the troika of Jock McLane, James Sheridan and Conrad Totman teaching the histories of India, China, and Japan when he was an undergraduate student
  • Jock's perspective on how much the demographics and capabilities of Northwestern students had changed since 1961
  • Raj’s musing on how Northwestern’s students had improved, only half-jokingly sharing that he would not have been accepted in the year that Anu matriculated
  • Jock conveying his abiding interest in environmental history and “green Chicago”
  • Raj proudly appreciating his son’s majoring in Earth Systems at Stanford
  • Jock sharing his final academic writing on “Hindu Victimhood and India's Muslim Minority,” which was published in 2010
  • Raj sharing his book Satyalogue // Truthtalk, which is a portmanteau of “Satya” (Sanskrit for truth) and “logue” (Greek for discourse)

In Jock and Raj’s final email discourse last fall, Jock was open about his condition. He wrote, “As much as I would like to see you, I think we should look forward to your next visit. I have several things going on at the moment with the cancer and a faulty heart valve, and I need to conserve my energy. I will regret not seeing you. It is a rough period in my life.” 

Raj responded, “So sorry about this rough patch and hoping it is just that, a patch; but I do recognize that you've previously shared that it is likely to be more of a longer stretch of road. All this talk about roads inspires me to watch Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) for the hundredth time. I saw my first Satyajit Ray film at NU; I was a freshman in my first quarter and felt quite confused by "Devi" and all that it represented. A couple of years later I was reading Bibuthibhusan Bandhopadhyay's Pather Panchali and by happenstance went to Facet's Multimedia with friends to see the Apu Trilogy a week after reading the novel. My life was transformed by the transformations that Apu experienced in those three films. Indeed, the film nudged me towards marrying a woman from Bengal, and life has been forever changed.”

Jock’s final correspondence ended with reference to the part of India where he began his studies and what connected him and Raj at deeper, humanistic level: 

“Dear Raj,

I loved the Apu trilogy, especially Pather Panchali. I saw it (or maybe them) in London while I was in graduate school. I was already drawn towards Bengal because my friends at the India Office Library were Bengalis. They included Barun De, Tapan Raychaudhuri, and Ranjit Guha, if you know who they were. Is there any prettier pastoral landscape with the pleasing hut shapes than Bengal’s, I do not know it …

With best wishes, Jock” 

In his preface to Introducing India in Liberal Education, the University of Chicago anthropologist Milton Singer wrote, “Leaders in the field of liberal education are now generally agreed that a student cannot be considered liberally educated if his undergraduate studies neglect the Asian world. The major question now is not whether to include the Asian world in the undergraduate curriculum but how.” Jock McLane learned that the answer to “how” came from being in ongoing dialogue with his students. And because of a dialogue that transcended the classroom, two generations of the Oza family (and we imagine multiple generations of Northwestern students) have benefited from having their worldviews enlarged to encompass India.

We will miss Professor McLane. Given Jock’s love for the Bengali countryside, perhaps it is fitting that we end by quoting the Nobel Prize–winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose Gitanjali (Song Offerings) reminds us that our guru’s undying values live on:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;…

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits.

 

Anupama R. Oza ’08 is on sabbatical from teaching, committing herself to raising her daughter who turned 1 this year. Rajesh C. Oza ’81, ’84, ’86 MS is a change management consultant and also contributes to the development of interpersonal dynamics of MBA students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Photo caption: Jock McLane giving a tour of University Library to Anu Oza and her students in 2010

Kristin Rose Lentfer Pancner

Kristin Rose Lentfer Pancner ’61, 80, passed away Saturday, July 7, 2018, at Lake Wawasee, Ind.

Kristin Lentfer was born and raised in Livingston, Montana and attended Park County High School, graduating Valedictorian. She graduated from Northwestern University in 1961, majoring in nursing and sociology. Kristin further advanced her education, earning her master's degree in counseling psychology in 1978, and her doctorate in psychology in 1992 at Adler University of Chicago. She was employed at Pancner Psychiatric Associates throughout her career as a counselor and psychologist.

Kristin was a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority while at Northwestern. In Fort Wayne, she served as vice president of the Newcomer's Club, a camp nurse at the Episcopal Church Camp and volunteered at the American Red Cross as a mental health counselor. She was also co-chair of a national convention for the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology and President of the Pastoral Education Advisory Committee at Lutheran Hospital. She was a published writer for a number of publications, including The Individual Psychologist and the International Journal of Individual Psychology.  

Kristin was known as an intelligent, charismatic, caring and compassionate person. She was a devoted and caring wife, mother and grandmother who enjoyed travel, reading, learning and entertaining. Kristin particularly loved spending time at Lake Wawasee, Ind., and Sanibel Island, Fla., where she spent winters with her husband and family.

Surviving are her spouse of 58 years, Ronald J. Pancner; two children, Paul Pancner and Jennifer Ennis; as well as five grandchildren, Austin, Dominique, Cameron, Alexa and Olivia. Her companions Tux and Diablo survive as well.

Please send memorials to Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and the Fort Wayne Rescue Mission. There will be a private Celebration of Life scheduled at a later date.