Happy 50th, CSUDH

My alma mater, California State University at Dominguez Hills, this past year celebrated its 50th anniversary, 1960-2010; they celebrated through commencement 2011, and had invited on their website alumni to share memories. The invitation limited submissions to 200 words, a detail I initially missed (ever the perspicacious student). But while I did eventually whittle my college memoir to the requisite 200 words, I was a little late with it, so I thought I might as well post the whole hog here.

What do I remember about Cal State Dominguez Hills? I was a student there in the 1970’s, first for a Bachelor’s in English, having transferred from El Camino, then, after teaching for a couple of years, for a Master’s in English. It’s been a wonderful world, as Satchmo sang, but those years as a student were the best.

Many days I rode my bicycle to school from my folks’ place in El Segundo, winding my way through the small towns, finding new routes to avoid traffic, no helmet, no bike lanes – I know, sounds like the clichéd story of how Grandma walked five miles through five feet of snow to get to the school bus stop, then rode the rickety old school bus another seven miles to the one room schoolhouse.

Actually, CSUDH in the 1970’s had a program something like a one room schoolhouse, called “The Small College.” Students in the Small College created their own, interdisciplinary curriculum. The program was experimental and well suited to the student population at the time. We were a small school yet, no football team; we won the national badminton championship one year when I was there.

The campus in those days, the rise from the west particularly noticeable if you happened to be approaching the school on a bicycle, was a peaceful, quiet, lovely place, full of open spaces and views of the surrounding South Bay areas. The campus never felt crowded. In the courtyards below the library, one could sit under trees and listen to the music students practice their instruments, the silences filling with breeze. Many of the books in the library were still marked “Cal State Palos Verdes,” the first planned site, before reconsideration following the Watts riots called for a campus nearer the south central inner cities.

Raleigh Super Course I rode to campus and 9' 2" Hobie - hanging from joists in basement.

I still have that bike; it’s hanging in my basement, an old Raleigh Super Course, with decals from Redondo, Hermosa, and El Segundo. Between the Bachelor’s and the Master’s, I rode it occasionally (when my VW was down) from El Segundo to Venice, where I taught junior high grades. It’s not been on the road in awhile (the 9’ 2” Hobie surfboard also hanging from the joists hasn’t been in the water in awhile, either).

CSCDH Catalog, 1977-78, next to stack of books I read for classes.

I also still have my CSCDH 1977-78 catalog (upright in photo next to a stack of books I read for classes), and perusing it now I realize what I remember and miss most from my days on campus: my instructors. My favorite teachers included Abe Ravitz, whose American lit. exams we wrote in “blue books” (the Huck Finn at the top of the book stack in the photo is the copy I used in one of his American lit. classes – his own worn copy was held together with rubber bands); Marvin Laser, whose bearing as a scholar and a gentle man was unmatched; the lovely and sensitive Violet Jordain – hello Dr. Jordain, if you’re reading this – I still have the big Shakespeare book we used in your class; feisty and energetic Agnes Yamada, who encouraged me to become a teacher; Joyce Johnson, still an assistant in those days, a local prodigy; and my good friend Mike Mahon, whose interests in reading and music, in Cage and McLuhan, Joyce and Beckett, put me on an intellectual path that still interests me today.­­

With Dr. Mahon in backyard on Mariposa, circa 1978.

We understood that we were in on the beginning of something, that someday there would be more buildings, more students, that the campus would grow into a cultural center, and there would be different teachers, and new students. What a remarkable time and opportunity, to be among those who helped start and build a college. It was a beautiful place and time, not without conflicts, external and internal, but no regrets; we had a good time, and learned to stay true to literature: Happy 50th, Dominguez Hills!

Blues Bus to the Blues Fest; or, The Blues Concert as Lecture

“I am here, and there is nothing to say,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1961). “If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.” So we boarded Line 15, ancient music now turned summer, for the 2011 Portland Blues Festival. The bus in summer is different than the bus in winter. The bus in winter is a lecture on nothing; the summer bus is a lecture on something. Yet Cage also said, on the flip side “Lecture on Something,” “This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing.”

We went down to hear a lecture by Lucinda Williams, who sings in a laconic voice, lips tight but arms open, looking like some hair-tired but blessed mom who’s just thrown a gutter ball. Singing on an outdoor stage close by the river spotted with yachts, Lucinda appeared to be glancing at notes loose on a music stand, and during “Born to Be Loved,” a breeze up from the water blew the notes off the stand and onto the stage, reminding us of a paper we recently read on the Norm Friesen blog: The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis.

Friesen, whose publication set-list rivals a Dylan discography, and whose research funding rivals a branch of the military, argues that the lecture is “a remarkably adaptable and robust genre that combines textual record and ephemeral event.” Thus Friesen tries to save the lecture as a meaningful pedagogical tool: “The lecture, I argue, is most effectively understood as bridging oral communication with writing, rather than as being a purely spoken form that is superseded by textual, digital, or other media technologies….”

Lucinda first appeared to want to rescue the fallen notes, then turned to face the born to drum Buick 6 drummer Butch Norton in cowboy hat and Bermuda shorts and banged a clinched fist against a desperate hip, for, as Friesen explains, “…the ideal for the lecture is to create an illusion. Parts of the lecture may be memorized, but in a long-standing tradition, it is generally read aloud. And in reading aloud, what the lecturer strives to create is the illusion of spontaneity and extemporaneity.” I started to jot down some notes, Joe Mitchell style, and the woman next to me (we were standing at a beer garden table behind the seated crowd, with a panoramic view of the Hawthorne Bridge to the north, the river, the water turning from blue to silver as the evening spread, dappled with the playful yachts, and Lucinda’s serious stage to the south) asked me if I was working on a set-list.

When we were in school, pre-e-hysteria, pre-WeakPoint, there were two kinds of teachers, those who lectured and those who ran discussion classes. Discussion classes were often popular for their freewheeling possibilities, yet many students avoided them, for they often filled with students who themselves seemed to want to lecture. My favorite lecturer was Abe Ravitz. There was never a syllabus, just a list of books we’d be reading, a set-list. Dr. Ravitz walked purposefully into class, book in hand, and started talking. He had no notes, just the text, which he referred to, quoting frequently. We took notes. This was not an illusion. We wrote in-class essay exams, in blue books.

Larry Cuban, commenting on the Friesen paper, asks, “if lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around?” Amiri Baraka explains in his groundbreaking lecture on the blues, Blues People (1963): “With rhythm & blues, blues as an autonomous music had retreated to the safety of isolation. But the good jazzmen never wanted to get rid of the blues. They knew instinctively how they wanted to use it, e.g., Ellington.” This is in the chapter titled “The Blues Continuum.” Just so, the best lecturers are part of a continuum, and don’t want to get rid of their roots, and know how they want to use them, and the worst lecturers are those who are self-satisfied, and who might lose their cool if they lose their notes. Yet there are always breaks in the texts, as we learned from the French scholars (Barthes, for example). Lucinda’s notes blowing off her stand was a break in her text, revealing that she is a blues lecturer, but not a self-satisfied one.