SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 3, 2008

You Better Believe That’s a Paddlin’

 

An old Chinese lady put a curse on me outside the grocery store this morning. At least I’m assuming it was a curse, given the hand gestures and guttural tone of voice. Considering the way things have been going lately, I wouldn’t be surprised. Of course considering the way things have been going, I’m not sure how I’d be able to tell.

            But that’s beside the point.

            A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor Daniel called and asked if I’d be interested in teaching one of his classes while he took a semester-long sabbatical in the Fall of 2009.

            He made it clear from the start that there was a good chance it wouldn’t happen—a number of things still needed to be cleared up and approved by various departmental administrators—but he wanted to get things lined up just in case. Since he had to find his own replacement instructors for the, what, eight courses he taught, he wanted to see who was interested. He knew I’d tried (and failed miserably) to get a teaching job awhile back, so there you go.

            Given that things were still up in the air I assumed that meant it would never happen, and so said yes just to be nice. Things that are up in the air never happen.

            Still, there was something attractive about the idea. Daniel’s courses, as he described them, were freewheeling and wide ranging. Most all of them seemed to use history, literature, film, visual arts and the usual critical hoo-hah to explore topics like rebellion and technology. I could do that, I figured. In fact it reminded me of the classes I used to teach in grad school.

            That’s when the Big Fear began creeping up on me. Back then, I was teaching roomfuls of kids who, in reality, were only three or four years younger than me. Even though I was the one standing at the front of the room, bumbling my way through a lecture on Candide (or some other book I’d just read for the first time the night before), we still shared the same culture. We were familiar with the same music, the same popular films, the same television shows, so talking to them was fairly easy. We spoke the same language. Now mind you, it was not simply an age before videophones, texting, iPods and Wikipedia—it was an age before the Interthing and laptops and email. Hell, the Mac hadn’t even been introduced yet—personal computers, while not unheard of, were still rare on college campuses. People still used pencils and typewriters.

            In short, unlike that first time around, teaching a class now meant facing down a roomful of blank faces I simply could not comprehend. To deepen the fear, Daniel commented, “if you mention something like The Renaissance, you can’t count on them knowing what you’re talking about.”

            Christ, if they don’t know The Renaissance, what happens when I start dropping liberal references to Whit Bissel and King Ghidarah? Just as bad, what would I do when they started talking about some hippity hop singer or spiffy new handheld device?  It would be disastrous, and might possibly lead to rioting and bloodshed. But I took comfort again in the fact that he said it might not happen. After a couple of days, I forgot all about it, and concerned myself with other things.

            I had forgotten about it so completely, in fact, that when Daniel called and said, “Fall ‘09 is a go!” I had to ask him what the hell he was talking about. Then he reminded me.

            The really weird thing is, learning that it was actually going to happen, that I was in it now, that I’d actually have to face down those glazed, American Idol-dulled eyes, didn’t send me into a panic. Part of that might have something to do with my new blood pressure medication, but still. Something in me was actually looking forward to it. I was being given the chance to mess with some young minds—assuming of course that I don’t, you know, die sometime between now and then, which is always a possibility.

            Nevertheless, I began dredging up and dusting off some of those old lectures I’d been giving to myself during my morning errands, and typing up a potential reading list.

            That’s another thing—I hadn’t actually read any of these books in years. Few if any of them were available on audio or in electronic form. Well, maybe I could fake it again. Then there’s the issue of tests and papers, and how, exactly, I might go about reading those.

            Well, I’ll figure something out. See, there’s an absolutely hopeless notion that’s feeding my enthusiasm.

            For the most part, I considered college—and by “college” I’m referring specifically to the lectures and the course work—a complete waste of time. What went on outside the classroom, well, that’s another matter. The classes, though, offered me nothing. I think a lot of us can say that.

            But I was lucky enough in those years to encounter one professor—Diane Rubenstein was her name—whose courses (I took a few) introduced me to writers and thinkers I never would have encountered anyplace else, especially given my background. It was called a political science course, but it had precious little to do with politics. She had us reading Situationist pamphlets, and Philip K. Dick, and Jim Thompson, along with contemporary French critical theorists.

            Even if I didn’t always understand what she was talking about or appreciate the readings at the time, they stuck with me, and did more to help define the way I perceived and interacted with the world—and helped clarify what I was going to do with my life—more than any literature, philosophy or history course could ever hope to do. Even though she encouraged me on to grad school, it was only after grad school and I decided to part ways that the significance of what she’d presented to me really came to the fore.

            In short, she really warped my mind without my realizing it, and I’m forever grateful.

            And that’s exactly what I would like to do here—warp a few minds without anybody realizing it until it’s far too late.

            Now I just need to figure out how to get my hands on twenty-five copies of the Arthur Bremer diaries.

 

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