Bill's Blither

Location: Cheshire, Connecticut, United States

devilishly handsome, screamingly funny, overly modest

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Academic Evangelism

When I was a child I was raised in two small towns, one in southern Illinois and one in northwestern Connecticut. In both cases there were fewer than 5 Jewish families, so I was subjected to the hegemony of the overwhelming Christian majority. Most of this was an unconscious process, the singing of Christmas carols in school (Christ wasn't MY Lord, in song or out) and the chanting of the Lord's Prayer before class every day. This erosive process did little damage to my self-esteem, as I considered then, and still do, that blind faith and rote learning are marks of intellectual weakness, although I couldn't have expressed that thought in elementary school.

This feeling was re-inforced watching my grandfather argue with the evangelistic Fundamentalists at the Elk's Club in Illinois. He was an intellectual well-versed in biblical study of both testaments, having been a Rabbi in Russia and being schooled in classical Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and of course English and Hebrew. Watching him destroy Fundamental arguments with multiple literal interpretations of the supposed Word of God (which Word in which language?) taught me a prime lesson; intelligence trumps faith in trying to understand the unknown, and the organized religions of the world are a very weak link in that process, with agendas of coercion and power outstripping pursuit of knowledge.

The problem is that dogmatic coercion extends not only to religious areas but also to academia. I've observed in my graduate studies in creative writing that the poorer teaching involves sets of "rules" that stifle creative thought. When judgment of excellence is based on conventional form rather than insightful thought, learning and creative ingenuity are both stifled in the same manner as theological theory is quashed by rigid Fundamentalism.

A good example of this is my class on "Slave Writing", which should have been a perfect fit for an old civil rights activist like me. The content of the course was fascinating, but the professor's application of her version of academic writing left me feeling stifled and inept. She insisted in examining a minute detail of weekly reading and applying restrictive methodology to the writing.
When I wrote my (of course brilliant) interpretations I was told I was being too broad, B minus. Aside from the fact that no other graduate professor gave alphabetical grades and that in none of my other classes had I received other than a Distinguished(A+) or a High Pass (B+ to A-), my conclusion was that the problem was the professors lack of perception, not my own. I felt that I had learned little in the class other than my reading. A sampling of my graduate school classmates revealed that they shared a similar low opinion of her methods.

I've found traces of this syndrome in other courses. Even excellent professors fall into the habit of relying on elitist and non-creative academic methodologies. A dogma developed by a few educators, whose agenda seems to consist mostly of techniques for exclusion of creative thinking, has a large dominion over the academic world, and in many cases has become the standard. Arise and be heard, you free thinkers. Break the binds of academic stultification.

Somehow that trumpet call doesn't match up with "We Shall Overcome".


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Winter Semester

As you may have deduced by now, I love women. I am very appreciative of the fact that they come in all sorts of shapes, ages, and personalities. It's like Forest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. The fact that I am old as Methuselah only broadens my range of appreciation: 50s look as good to me as 20s, 180s as good as 110s, uppity as good as yuppity. This brings me to my new box of Whitman's Samplers, my graduate class in Western Cinema.

It is unfortunate that we are merged with a course-related group of undergraduates. You have to throw the 18-21 year olds back in the water. Like baby trout, they don't have the capacity to defend themselves against mature anglers. They have wonderful instincts and look delicious, but they don't make much of a meal until they add enough life experience to their native brain power to be mentally, sexually, and socially companionable.

Fortunately, our class has such an outstanding array of pulchritude that it will keep me blissfully content through Spring. One sweet young thing, a twenty-something of breath-taking beauty, has twice rescued me from techno-disaster. Trying to learn the newly computerized library system, I fell hopelessly behind the instructor because I couldn't manipulate the rollers they provide on a lap-top (to substitute for a mouse). Reading my SOS body language, this angel-of-the-classroom reached over with swan-like grace and, with two flashing strokes of her delicate fingers brought me and my laptop right up to speed. I should have swept her away to Camelot immediately, but just in time I remembered that her boyfriend is a rather large fellow who works in law enforcement, so I kept my peace.

Not to be discouraged, however, I found more appropriate objects for my weekly fantasy. One woman, whom I would judge to be (but never mention) in her mid-40s, sat next to me while watching a required film in the library. By the end of the first scene I had mentally projected us to the local drive-in in the back seat of my GTO. I was just rounding third base when I remembered that drive-ins were obsolete and that, anyway, her spouse (or mine) would in all likelihood object to the procedings.

I fall in love about twice a week. This usually occurs when I become aware of a woman's high intelligence or exceptional talent. The current object of my pseudo-romantic fixation is aroud 50 years old and has almost as many neuroses as I do, but she would fit well into the afore-mentioned GTO (which I sold, unfortunately, in 1967).

I enjoy being Walter Mitty, regally scanning my class for objects of fascination. So many dreams, so little time. Beats the h-ll out of reality, though. When I convert some of this stuff to real life, you can't imagine the trouble I get into.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sunday Brunch in New Haven

You'll find that this post is significantly different from my somewhat leering portrait of lunch at Giovanni's. This is because (1) my wife was there, (2) my wife's friends were there, and (3) in case you didn't get it the first time, my wife was there. My wife has an aversion to my acting like an adolescent, which is unfortunate in view of the fact that this is my usual behavior. For instance, when I throw popcorn in a movie I get a minorly violent slap on the back of my head. If at a party I inadvertantly brush my hand against a convenient luscious derriere (and leave it there for five or six minutes) I get the same sort of overreaction. The back of my head has a hollow spot from this mistreatment. So, as you can see, it behooves me to take some precautions in my wife's presence.

Meanwhile, back to the narrative. My wife had read a good review of a restaurant in New Haven, the Bella Rosa on Whalley Ave., which advertized a Sunday brunch. We gathered up our usual bruncheon companions, Peter and Nancy, and (me driving) headed to the Elm City (you"d think they'd rename the dam--d place after the elm bilght but no...). The drive was uneventful except for the following remarks from She Who Must Be Obeyed: (1) "Bill, try to drive on OUR side of the road", (2) "Bill, you didn't have room to pass that guy", and (3) "Bill, do you really think 75 is a safe speed?". With such pleasantries wafting to my ears the 30 minute drive only took 5 hours in Bill years.

We arrived at the restaurant and waited on the sidewalk for 15 minutes for a table (there were no reservations of course). The meal was, surprisingly, well worth the wait. The menu was varied and imaginative, the service excellent, and the ambience relaxed. The waitress was attentive without hovering and the maitress d' was smiley and helpfully efficient. The food was delicious, although the portions were so enormous that the % of obesity in the U.S. probably rose 5% by the end of the meal. When I mentioned this to the waitress she suggested that I could take some home, but what fun is that. When I looked down again I noticed that all my food must have evaporated or something. They didn't offer refills on entrees.

Peter and Nancy talked about their upcoming trip to South Africa, Kenya, Botswanna, at al. I was picturing a letter from Peter saying, "All's well. Nancy gored by a white rhino but it's fine. He had a short horn". I'm not sure where these bizaare thoughts come from, everyone knows white rhinos have long horns.

Anyway, I have to close now with the Super Bowl upcoming. Fortunately, I don't have to drive.