2022 – As Augsburg’s Department of Sociology celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, it is a good time to look back at how the program began. Or, rather, at who began it.
Joel Torstenson came to Augsburg as a history major from rural West Central Minnesota. After graduating in 1938, he worked in education for Farmer’s Co-ops. He began teaching part-time at Augsburg upon earning a master’s degree in history and sociology.
During the war years, he became involved in the Peace Movement and participated in establishing a cooperative farm community, which led to employment with Midland Cooperatives as an educational director and community organizer. In the fall of 1947, President Christensen invited him back to Augsburg to develop its programs in social work and sociology while completing his PhD in sociology at the University.
Besides the introductory courses in sociology and social problems, he added courses in sociological theory, social psychology, racial and inter-group relations, and rural sociology.
“As the instructor in rural sociology,” Torstenson writes, “I sought to relate my experiences in the rural communities of my early life and those as an elementary school teacher in a rural community.”
His involvement in rural community life and culture continued through his service on the American Lutheran Church’s Rural Life Commission and through representing Augsburg at a conference on Lutheran Higher Education in Service to Rural People. “Through such participation in rural life activities, I sought to enliven my teaching with reflections on contemporary developments in rural America.”
In the 1950s, Torstenson became involved with Church-Labor relations. “From my very beginnings as college student and resident of Minneapolis, I became intensely interested in the momentous labor-management struggle that led to the historic Truck Drivers Strike in 1934.” This interest led him to serve on and later chair a Church-Labor Committee to address the question of what role organized religion and church-related colleges play in the struggle. One of the consequences of his work on the committee was his decision to add a course in industrial relations to the sociology curriculum. “Again, the labor leaders visited the class and told their story, thereby adding some additional drama to the class deliberation.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968, Joe Bash, director of youth programs for the American Lutheran Church, picked up the phone and asked people what college would be responsive to some of his ideas. Torstenson’s name arose again and again.
Out of their conversation “The Crisis Colony” was born. Students lived on the north side of Minneapolis, first in public housing and later in an abandoned synagogue, while learning from people who lived and worked in the community. Led by Torstenson and Gordon Nelson, it became an intense summer program first, then a semester program, where students were immersed in the culture. This program became the Metro Urban Studies Term, or “MUST,” which was the first academic program of HECUA, the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, which today is a key element for all urban studies majors and is one of the premier interdisciplinary experiential education programs in the nation.
Torstenson’s sabbatical to Scandinavia led to the development of the Scandinavian Urban Studies Term, or “SUST,” the second program of HECUA.
Today, the legacy of Joel Torstenson lives on through the sociology and metro-urban studies majors, the Center for Service, Work, and Learning, HECUA, and the college-wide “Engaging Minneapolis” requirement. Indeed, the fingerprint of Joel Torstenson will be a permanent marking at Augsburg University for generations to come.
In his pursuit of racial justice and human rights, these programs provided a natural foundation for urban studies, which surfaced 20 years later. “The more we became involved in urban affairs, the more we began to ask the question—what is the appropriate role of a liberal arts college located at the center of an exploding metropolis?”
Torstenson used his sabbatical during the academic year of 1965-66 to explore this question. He visited east coast schools that had urban studies programs. Upon his return, he wrote a position paper, “The Liberal Arts College in the Modern Metropolis” which built the case for a metro-urban studies program at Augsburg. In it, he provided the rationale for an interdisciplinary program that would actively take advantage of the Minneapolis location.
Torstenson’s work also gave birth to the college-wide requirement that started as the “Urban Concern,” which was succeeded by the “City Perspective,” and is now known as the “Engaging Minneapolis” requirement.
The objectives set before Torstenson in developing the sociology major were: 1) to help students attain a better understanding of society; 2) to prepare students for social service, graduate training in social work or sociology, and 3) to explore the relevance of Christianity to effective social service.
“In developing the department of sociology,” Torstenson writes in his memoirs, Takk for Alt: A Life Story, “I consciously sought to promote a rigorous and dispassionate, as well as a sympathetic understanding of society, the human community, and personality. I thought it important for both student and teacher to wrestle with the tension between a ‘rigorous and dispassionate’ quest for societal understanding, and the more ‘compassionate and sympathetic’ concern for the fate of the human community.”