I have a pair of salient and entirely discordant memories that vie for my attention when I think about school, which I often do around this time of year. The first took place in the dingy basement of Brooks Hall (shown above), a Gothic style anthropology building out of keeping with the rest of the University of Virginia’s columned Jeffersonian buildings. There, I took an advanced elective in Folklore with Professor Charles “Chuck” Perdue who — I have just learned, sadly — has since passed away. The class was odd in many ways, and not only because of its cramped, damp location (though I have learned that space is formative of experience), where I would often find myself wedged in a corner behind a load-bearing post, unable to see the professor and half of my classmates.
“And it stoned me like jelly roll,” came the bemused voice of Chuck Perdue from somewhere in that dimly lit classroom (was it even a classroom, I now wonder?) one morning, disembodied, floating into the ether. He was quoting Van Morrison at the time. I’ll never forget that particular stretch of class because I learned that “jelly roll” was short-hand for a woman’s sexual organs — or, maybe, heroin.
As is often the case, the class and its curriculum mirrored its instructor: a bit free-form, a bit out-there, a bit odd. Why, exactly, was I learning about the double meaning of jelly roll in the basement of an old anthropology building from an incorporeal voice amidst a truly oddball assortment of classmates — some lacrosse types who had probably heard Professor Purdue was “cool” and “an easy grader,” and some hardcore lit types like myself pushing their glasses up their noses as they mimeographed every word from the professor’s mouth?
I asked myself these kinds of self-distancing questions many times, finding the class difficult to participate in, as Professor Purdue favored “real life” questions rather than the technical ones with which I more commonly excelled. There was no “let’s talk about metonymy.” References to iambic pentameter and alliteration were nil. Instead, for our one and only graded assignment, Professor Purdue told us to “pick a topic and write a paper about it.”
Oh, Lord. I was not cut out for such wooliness.
I hunted for a suitable topic for weeks and finally decided to write about Nick Drake, a British folk musician whose haunting song “Pink Moon” had been used in a VW commercial a couple of years earlier. I had loved the song and the commercial at the time; its sound was artsy and evocative and fetchingly esoteric (“oh you listen to Britney Spears? I’m into Nick Drake these days”), and it made me want to drive a VW. I’d read somewhere that the commercial had “made folk cool again.” And so, with the sophomoric linearity I then possessed, I thought: “folk music cool again…folklore class…done.”
I wrote a long piece explaining how Nick Drake fit into the folk music tradition. I used scholarly articles defining “folk” as a genre and reviews of Nick Drake’s album to piece it together. I worked hard on it, as I always did. I edited it. I turned it in early. I receive an A on it. But I was dismayed to find, in scrawled writing at the foot of the fourth and final page:
“Well argued and thoughtful. But why must Nick Drake be classified as folk? Who cares?”
I was astounded. I felt something like anger flare inside. My cheeks reddened. Who cares indeed! Well — he should care! He’s the folk expert! And what, exactly, am I doing studying literature if the professors themselves don’t care about such classifications?
My huffiness gradually resided as I traipsed the familiar walk north on Rugby Road. In its lieu, everything I had taken for granted about academia slowly and uncomfortably unspooled before me. I saw for the first time my studies in a new light, apprehending the distinction between literary analyses that instruct us, that teach us, that help us wrap our arms around life’s experiences — and ones that scuttle into academese, existing solely for the purpose of esoteric debate. Yes, one could argue that Nick Drake was a folklorist, or that he was not, but what, in the end, did such channels of inquiry achieve for us in the vacuum of a classroom or, worse, a one-sided paper?
Professor Purdue, in two inches of scribbled ball-point ink, had entirely reshaped my understanding of what I was supposed to be doing at school. He had tossed me out of the ivory tower, and I had landed — well, deep in the basement of an old anthropology building.
Several years later, I sat in a third floor classroom of a stately stone building at Georgetown University that was outfitted with long tables suggestive of the seminar-type classwork I was undertaking as a graduate student. In strode Professor Wu, a formidable-looking Brit who ran his classroom with the kind of structure and formality of a German automaker. I would have expected and appreciated his style as an undergraduate coming out of a rather formal prep school, but now found it startlingly out of keeping with my graduate program’s otherwise exploratory and forgiving ethos. I can’t quite remember what was said, but someone’s off-handed comment about one of the beloved Coleridge poems at the heart of the curriculum led the class to a wheel-screeching halt. I can still recall the weight of his appraising silence, his hawk-like stare of disapproval, and then the sharp turn in the class’s trajectory as he proceeded to launch into a line-by-line reading and annotation of the poem. All of us in the classroom — including a particularly free-spirited classmate who had introduced herself earlier in that class by saying: “I’m Kate, and I like puddles” (oh Lord have mercy, English majors) — sat frozen, eyes on the pages in front of us, scarcely breathing. I remember worrying for my seatmate, who had the wrong edition of the book. I hoped Professor Wu wouldn’t notice. (He did.)
I left that class in a kind of ecstasy. My heart was racing. I could hardly wait to get home and read, carefully, at that white desk beneath the window of my garden apartment, our assignment for the week following. I was determined to come to class not only prepared but masterful. He had restored to me a sense of righteousness in my lingering over every last syllable and punctuation in a given text. His precision, his seriousness in the reading of that poem, each phrase — each word! — a door to dozens of different meanings and contexts and possible interpretations reminded me that there is beauty and reward in such mental exertion. He made me feel as though the enterprise of graduate school was worthy at a time when friends of friends (most of whom worked in finance or consulting) tended to enjoy asking me what the hell I was going to do with an advanced degree in literature.
And so what do I make of these two extremes now, so far away from the classroom? On the one hand, we have a down-to-earth insistence on tying study to the real world, a reluctance to placing too much importance on the argot and apparatus of scholarship. The who cares? of it all. And on the other hand, in answer to that last query: Professor Wu’s “Well, I do.” A recognition of the art of scholarship, an exulting in the details.
Nowadays, I can occupy both roles, I think, possibly to the frustration of those sitting in my company. “And so what?” I might ask, when I find myself at the outer reaches of the recondite. (Maybe we just collect to collect?) And just as easily, I might say: “But I like it here. Look at the dip of the syllable here, at the echo and rattle of bone there.”
+How preppy cool are these school/location-customized sweaters?
+I was completely out of ideas for my mom’s birthday earlier this week, so I skimmed through this post and this post, but I’d given her almost everything on both lists, or knew she already had one of whatever I was considering. I ended up giving her one of these foldable Scout bags which is one of my absolute favorite things to travel with — and she travels A LOT. I find that it’s convenient to have a decent-sized tote bag on vacation to throw random stuff together for a trip to to the beach or the pool or even just to stow laundry or miscellaneous new purchases in.
+Contemplating buying this now that it’s marked down and saving it for a year or two for mini…
+This feels like a good staple for fall. I like the length of the sleeve!
+Such a cute gift for a Windy City baby. (They have other cities, too!)
+Love these bow-and-pearl drop earrings! They look vintage!
+Must own this Victorian-style blouse in the white. Must.
+These black suede flats would be a work wardrobe WORKHORSE. Unfussy but stylish. Currently 40% off!
+You must watch the Netflix original movie “To All the Boys I Loved Before.” It’s like an old school John Hughes-esque rom com BUT modernized in some meaningful ways. I adored it.