Notes from Day Two

The schedule as it stands this evening:

Cognitive Sciences/Linguistics: “The Mind and Language.” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m.

History: “Modern Ireland” (“modern means from 1600 till now). Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m.

Letters & Science/International Studies: “Global Transformation and Cultural Change: NGO’s, AIDs and Sub-Saharan Africa.” Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m.

Subject to change, perhaps. I actually was signed up for a fourth class, but because of some work commitments, I’ve had to try to pack as much of my class time into the mornings as possible. What doesn’t show here is that each class includes at least one hour of discussion outside the lectures per week — that’s something new since I was last making out checks to the Regents of the University of California. I talked to my advisor in the history department today, and she said if she were in my shoes she’d take just two classes. We’ll see.

***

Without doing the Rip van Winkle thing too much, some impressions after waking up from my decades of academic slumber:

–My dog doesn’t know me anymore. The son of the man who used to run the CIA is now president of the United States.

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–One doesn’t say “freshman,” “sophomore,” “junior,” and “senior” anymore. Now, perhaps to remove the sexist stigma of freshman and the superior/inferior relationships implied by the other terms, students refer to themselves as “first year,” “second year,” and so on.

–Dave’s Smoke Shop is closed. So is its competing flammable materials emporium, Drucquer’s. The latter used to be a great source for cigar boxes (and cigars, though I’ve never smoked one) and was a serious pipe-smoker’s shop. The former carried every magazine you could imagine and lots of out-of-town and foreign newspapers. What happened? Well, business along the commercial strip just south of campus, centered on Telegraph Avenue, is doing poorly (it has become genuinely seedy, especially after the closure a couple years ago of the one real draw for non-students, Cody’s Books). And you got to think the Internet has cut the legs out from under magazine peddlers and specialty merchants of all sorts. And we’ve made it pretty clear to smokers that their sort aren’t welcome in these parts.

–The Caravansary, a coffee place (and purveyor of poisonously good fudge): long gone.

–The fraternities are out on Sproul Plaza looking for pledges. No one’s tried to buttonhole me, yet.

***

And then there are those classes. Two or three other old guys, even older than me, I think, showed up in the Irish history class. They sat right behind me, so we had our own little Baby Boomer ghetto over on one side of the room. I’m not going to let that happen again.

I was warned before the class that the instructor, an emeritus professor who has come back to teach this course, is on the phlegmatic side. He sported longish white hair, mutton-chop whiskers and a mustache. A tweed jacket and some fashion of a tie-tyed shirt. For the introductory lecture to the subject–he prefaced his remarks by saying he had no qualifications to teach it–he actually read directly from his notes while he delivered up almanac-style factoids about geography and historical points of interest.

For me, the attraction of this class is that Ireland and its history and its culture are intrinsically interesting. It’s where half my immediate gene pool comes from, and it’s one of the few places outside the United States I spent enough time to get a feeling for. So, a high-school style lecture with a dry reading of notes–it’s a disappointment. I’m pretty sure I could do better myself if someone gave me a couple days’ heads-up that I was going to lecture. If nothing else I’d fall back on Flann O’Brien to spice things up.

***

I also spent a couple hours today in company with what will be known unfortunately as my “AIDS class.” I’ve got to say it: Everyone’s so young. In the discussion section, when people were going around introducing themselves, I couldn’t help myself saying that I realized looking around the room that I was the only one there who could remember the world before AIDS.

I was also exposed to a style of teaching that was nonexistent or greatly understated the last time I tried out in an undergraduate role. I’m not sure what to call it, but “cheerleading” is what I came up with. Example one: One handout for the class starts (all caps in the original), “THIS COURSE IS GOING TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” And continues (exclamation point in the original): “Without a doubt, this course will open your mind and help you to think about the world in an entirely new way!” Not that I can’t benefit from thinking about the world in an entirely new way, not that I’m impervious (I hope) to life-changing experiences (preferably of the kind that don’t involve meeting a stranger with a gun), but this is a style of persuasive writing that strays toward the breathless. (The Irish history guy could use a touch of that — just a touch.)

And Example Two: During the first class lecture, the veteran sociologist leading the class conceded that a lot of the subject matter — AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, lots of death and disease and so forth — is a downer. “But studying it is fun!” she exclaimed. “If you’re hoping for a class where you can be somber while you’re talking about this, you’re going to be disappointed.” She then proceeded to give a short slide show of her travels in southern Africa. She described a gourmet meal she had enjoyed in Botswana by way of informing us that Africa wasn’t as backward as we might think. “It could have been Berkeley. If you think Africa is a bunch of people wearing loincloths, you’re wrong.” I’m wondering how many of the kids in the class, not having the benefit of full exposure to Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan, really think of Africa that way. And I’m wondering how many of them will really find it fun — or should find it fun — to learn about an epidemic that has unraveled the lives of families, communities, and whole societies.

Anyway, that was just one day in that class. The one thing I’m seeing about the registration system is that it seems to be somewhat open to experimenting and exploring: you’re allowed to sign up for classes and drop them if they’re a poor fit and try something else. As I said somewhere earlier in this unreasonably long post, we’ll see.

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