Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Friday, October 22, 2004
Losing a mentor
Late last night, after running a search for one of his articles, I learned that my favorite professor had passed away nearly three years ago. He had contracted a particularly virulent form of hepatitis while on sabbatical in Paris, and died shortly thereafter. He was sixty-four.
Michael Rogin's class on modern American political theory was the impetus for my major, and my subsequent area of emphasis, political theory. Political scientists like to talk about how huge a role economics play a role in politics and history, but he pointed out that in America, race, though slavery, defined one’s economic class. His take on political theory was that the pluralisman and liberalism that major figures such Huntington, Fukuyama and de Tocqueville espoused as in existence was a fallacy. Race, gender and other factors played key roles in shaping politics and history, and usually involved domination and subjugation, then demonization of the marginalized. He was fairly leftist, but his work was always meticulously researched, so he wasn't just an inflammatory radical. He would provocatively psychoanalyze political figures, outlining how family history informed decision making and philosophy. There were often lurid details (like the implications of Arendt and Heidegger's romance), but they were always backed up with fact. He didn't pretend to have all the answers or solutions - he had hoped that in exposing the fallacies in what we take for granted, we might be able to forge a different path for the future. By humanizing the struggle of the oppressed, he hoped bring empowerment.
Because Rogin’s breadth of knowledge was so broad, his lectures were often chaotic and seemed unstructured, though he was quite lively and passionate about teaching. He would stride into class wearing an old beret, and scribble out an outline on the board that was usually nearly illegible. He peppered many of his lectures with questions, and encouraged debate and discussion amongst the students. A question from a student would take him on a spiraling tangent, and it would seem that he would never be able to get back on topic. Amazingly, though, he almost always managed to bring it back to the outline (if you could read it) before class ended, linking together subjects as diverse as Das Kapital and Independence Day, the movie. (He didn't always finish the outline, though). When I began to sit up front, I discovered that he was constantly muttering little jokes throughout the lecture. "What can we do? I'm not sure, but I do know this - it takes a village..." (this was shortly after Hilary Clinton published her first book.)
Unlike many of Rogin’s contemporaries in the department, he was never condescending towards his students, and was often self- deprecating. Once, when he held lecture at the Presbyterian church across the street, he began the lecture, after contemplating the image of Christ over the pulpit, by pondering, "Does this make me the mouthpiece of God? I feel so empowered! It's rather sacreligious, though." before chuckling and stating "Either they can call me a megalomaniac or they can really go for the self-hating Jew angle." I remember a certain student (we'll call him Patrick) in the European political theory class who would always ask long winded and seemingly complicated questions. Even though I kept up with the readings, attended every class and went to office hours regularly, I could never understand Patrick’s questions. It created quite a bit of consternation, on my part. Later, I learned that I wasn't the only one. One day, Patrick asked an incredibly convoluted question (something about Hegel, concentric circles and free will). Professor Rogin, who always enthusiastically answered anyone's questions, paused, and gently declared, "I'm going to set aside that question for now, because I don't quite understand what you're asking."
Although his lectures were alienating at first, he became extremely popular among his students once they got the hang of them. Once, I ditched a rather dry and soulless International Relations class with a couple of Rogin’s other students to listen to him his keynote speech at a conference on campus. When I got there, the auditorium was packed. In the audience were a couple of the GSIs from the very class that I was ditching. At office hours, there was always a line of at least eight (not exaggerating) people - undergrads, graduate students, old students and fellow faculty sitting on the floor, waiting to speak with him, whether it was the beginning or end of the semester, during midterms, or all the times in between. He was generous with his time, usually staying past his office hours to make sure everyone got as much time as they wanted with him. When I managed to speak with him, he was always kind, encouraging and supportive, and managed to coax ideas out of me that I didn't realize were there. He was easygoing enough that I felt comfortable to joke with him about calling my paper on Nietzche after reading The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, "Why I Should Get an 'A'". (He replied that I ought to contradict myself repeatedly, then) He disregarded the stigma of mingling popular culture with political theory, his reasoning being that with modernity, film was an as appropriate a gauge of mass culture as anything else. So really, I often went to talk to him in office hours about... movies. Sometimes, he even incorporated some of my questions and ideas (as well as many other students') into future lectures. The last class I took with his was his prize conception - American political theory and film.
After I started taking his class, I pushed myself to sit in the front, and attend every class, not just in his class, but in all of my classes. I had previously been too shy and too intimidated to speak with my professors or even GSIs before, but with him, I found my voice.
I feel saddened and disheartened. Most of all, I feel regret. A large part of me doesn't want to believe he's gone. In my mind, he's still vital and energetic, lecturing at the front of the classroom, wearing the same battered old cordoruy jacket and a polo shirt, rubbing the bald spot on his head. There have been countless instances in the years following my graduation from Cal where I saw a movie, or read a book or article and wondered what he would have thought. What would he have to say about current events? What sort of jokes would he make? I had often thought of ditching work to drop by his office hours with these questions. About a year ago, I even tried looking up when he held his office hours. When I didn’t see his name on the faculty list, I assumed he was on sabbatical again.
I feel ashamed of myself for not attending his memorial service, and joining his colleagues and my fellow students in mourning his loss. The tears are still rolling down my face as I type away, but my grief comes three years too late. I always knew he was a huge influence on my education – he gave it soul - but I never realized what a profound an impact he made on my life.
Thursday, October 14, 2004
Apparently, Chris Rock will be hosting the next Academy Awards. I love Chris Rock - I just picked up his latest standup show ("Never Scared") on DVD. I may at some point pick up "Bring the Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker". Hilarious stuff - you should check it out, but somehow, I don't think his sort of humor will translate well to network television.
On fatherhood: "I was holding my baby girl, and I realized I have job in life: keep her away from the pole! If you're a father, and your daughter's a stripper, you fucked up!"
On abortion: "If you're a man, and your woman tells you she's pregnant, there's only two things you can say 'That's great! I can't wait! A new baby! I love you! [yadda yadda]' or 'Oh. So what do you want to do?'"
On Al Queda: "I ain't scared of Al Queda. The United States has the best army in the world. We took over Bagdad in two weeks. You couldn't take over Baltimore in two weeks. I'm scared of Al Cracker!"
On celebrities: "All this stuff going on [Paris Hilton video, Kobe Bryant trial, Michael Jackson] is just to distract us from the war. It's all Bush's doing! It's Bush in that video! Bush sent that girl to Kobe's room! Bush sent that kid to Michael Jackson..."
You get the idea. Hey, maybe Borat, or Ali G himself, can host next year!
Further musings on an iPod nation.
I wasn't sure how I felt when I learned that U2 were shilling for Apple. Actually, I'll admit that I was a bit taken aback. I mean, as huge as they are, they never took corporate sponsorship for anything. Nowadays, things have changed, and it's become acceptable for artists to do commercials, in order to get their music out there. But the Shins doing a McDonald's ad is one thing... does U2 really need to do a commercial? But as Zack pointed out, "I don't see why they wouldn't. It makes sense." If you look at iTunes as a vehicle for promoting music, then doing a commercial for it would be the newest way of promoting your band. It's not quite the same as selling cars and Big Macs: there's a more direct correlation between the music and the product. Let's be real though... it does sell more iPods, which is okay by me - I happen to believe that if everyone owned an iPod, we'd have world peace. So you see? Everybody wins. Except Microsoft (which is good).
And hey, for all you naysayers, at least they didn't go and join the circus in Vegas.