Oral history interview with Catherine Hurt Middlecamp

  • 2008-Dec-10 – 2008-Dec-11

Catherine Hurt Middlecamp was born in Queens, New York, though she grew up in Garden City, New York. Hers was a family of teachers and so Middlecamp wanted to be a teacher as well. She loved school, was active in many sports, and played the piccolo in the band and orchestra. In 1968, she wanted to go to college at Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, but at that time, women were not admitted to these schools. Instead, she selected Cornell University, where women made up about one-fifth of the undergraduate student body. In 1971, when Princeton began to admit women, an administrator attempted to lure Middlecamp away from Cornell, but she was no longer interested. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell with a BA and a major in chemistry. She intended to teach high school, but her mentor, Professor James Burlitch, encouraged her to attend graduate school. In addition, she was selected as a Danforth Fellow for graduate study at any institution of her choice. Middlecamp chose to do her graduate study in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), where she entered Robert West's research lab on organosilicon chemistry. Though only about 15 percent of the doctoral students at UW-Madison were women, women composed about one-third to one-half of West's lab, one of the reasons she selected this group. While working in West's lab, she had the opportunity to teach a real-world chemistry class designed by her advisor. During her college years, she was a social activist, joining with others to speak out against nuclear weapons and the arms race of the Cold War; more than once she was arrested with the Catholic Worker Community of Iowa. Just as she left graduate school, she married. After finishing her PhD , Middlecamp served for a year as a Danforth Teaching Intern at Knox College. In 1977, she took her first faculty position at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Realizing that she would not get tenure there because of the economic times (and that the woman before her had not gotten tenure), she and her husband moved back to Madison, Wisconsin. There she taught as a lecturer in the Chemistry Tutorial Program for Minority/Disadvantaged students, later named the Chemistry Learning Center; in 1989 she became its Director. Building on the Robert West course she taught in graduate school, Middlecamp developed (and still teaches) a general chemistry course for non-science majors, Chemistry in Context. Students in the course use the textbook of the same name, which was developed as a national curriculum reform project of the American Chemical Society; in 2007, Middlecamp was appointed the Editor-in-Chief of this national curriculum reform project. With a Navajo colleague, she designed and taught the first chemistry course at the UW-Madison to meet the ethnic studies requirement, Uranium and American Indians. In 2003, she sought a faculty line with tenure in the Chemistry department but was turned down. At about the same time, though, she was invited to teach in the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) program, a long-standing interdisciplinary certificate program on campus, teaching a course on radioactivity, The Radium Girls and The Firecracker Boys. In the ILS Program, Middlecamp found an intellectual and social home (shortly after this oral history interview she was elected as its chair). The interview concludes with Middlecamp's views on teaching versus research, which she believes is a false dichotomy; what she believes are the many nefarious ways in which women are seen as unserious scholars; the undervaluation and dismissal of women and teaching; and the inherent difficulties of the tenure system. She talks about her grant from the National Science Foundation—one that seeks, from her perspective, a 21st century science curriculum for a 21st century planet. She also speaks of her Master's degree in counseling psychology and her practice of the martial art of aikido. She believes that as the world becomes ever more interconnected, so must academic disciplines.

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