Master Class

An urban university invites a distinguished immigrant writer to inspire students -- in theory, at least.

November 23, 2005

The humanities aren't doing too well these days in academe, as most humanities professors would agree. But this does not prevent these dedicated souls from attempting to expand the perspective of more vocationally oriented students. After all, professors know that a sensitivity to the subtleties and graces of literature, the arts, the history of ideas, and culture (whether it be an analysis of snow imagery in the work of Robert Frost or a re-deconstruction of cyberlit-crit) is purported to awaken and refine the impulse that allows us to appreciate and understand those things which are not autobiographically implanted. The target of this acculturation to culture has often been those undergraduates who look upon the acquisition of information as building bytes toward their entry into an  impregnable high-status profession. You can't blame liberal art aficionados from trying to make a dent.

To this end, one recent fall the humanities department at a large urban university with the requisite highly-rated programs in business, technology, and health sciences, created a committee to devise a "real time" literary experience for the freshman that could make the spirit of F. R. Leavis proud (no online learning/WebCT/software intensive/biomorphically challenged experience here)! After the committee deliberated the needs of the freshman for cultural refinement, a well-known literary author was contacted. By masterful coaxing, he agreed to participate in a two day literature-fest wherein he'd lecture on his literary roots, development, and subsequent opus. In addition, he agreed to participate in leading a master class in the art and craft of his métier.

What might intrigue, impress, and broaden the students -- the expert thinking ran--was that they would be exposed to one of the "new immigrants" who had mastered the English language, and who wrote about his native country in his adopted tongue. And to assure that he would be welcomed by informed students (not merely technically proficient ones), a letter was sent out to all freshmen requesting that they read one of his well-respected volumes: a literary paperback available at any Borders or Barnes & Noble outlet. I've seen copies for sale online for a quarter, so it would be difficult to plead poverty. As for the fee negotiated with the author, we can assume it wasn’t small change.

About a week before the author's visit, another announcement was made in preparation for the esteemed author's engagement: any student could submit an original work of fiction -- in draft or any other form -- and the same selection committee would choose 10 with the most merit, and offer their student authors a workshop with our visiting guest. Even though the fledgling students had good academic credentials (no remediation required here), they did receive word that they were expected to attend the guest lecture by our guest lecturer. On the day of the presentation, scores of students were led in lines and groups, with others straggling behind, to their rendezvous with a new cultural destiny.

As is the case with many expanding urban universities, architecturally this one reflects the hodgepodge of style that is caused by perpetual renovation, building, and expansion of its academic mission, and growing enrollment. To find an auditorium large enough to hold our soon to be captive audience, the event sponsors chose a large, stately auditorium whose acoustic challenges,  well-trod wooden stage and generic proscenium belied the advances the university had made in creating state-of-the-art IT and research centers.

But this was, after all humanities, so the site would make any neo-Luddite comfortable.  Unfortunately, there were few such ideologues among the student body. The length and breadth of the space allowed many students to sit far back from the speaker, so that even halfway between the presenter and the back wall, the lecturer appeared as a small homunculus.

The students meandered in, and proceeded to find seats at a safe distance from the stage.  Up front, the humanities staff filled up the "orchestra" section. So the entire chamber, if not packed, was intermittently filled with bodies.

The speaker began in his hard earned English to lecture on his personal, social, and creative development. Unfortunately, many students seemed to have a different developmental agenda. Laptops popped up, monitors ablaze, their owners’ faces focused on business algorithms, Web sites, even a downloaded movie or two. These little illuminated squares dotted the hall -- bringing cyberspace into space designed for public assembly (perhaps the first mass medium of all time). Meanwhile a poorly amplified voice competed with a low-key mumbling that reminded me of a type with which a sound engineer might overlay a courtroom scene in a TV drama.

When Q&A time arrived, there was thankfully Q & A. However the cue of questions was entirely provided by the faculty. At the conclusion, there was some literary mingling along with the requisite students stuffing their faces with free food amid buffet tables of celery sticks, dips, and sliced meats.

As for our master class, who would those lucky 10 individuals be? Would the 40 English majors trump the 15,000+ non-English majors in participation? The results will never be known. Alas, we had a total of four entries. Calling on my altruistic inclination, I e-mailed all of my former creative writing students and told them of the master class, and suggested they submit something ASAP.

A number of them did, the workshop went on without a hitch. The guest made the rounds (whatever rounds there may have been), had dinner with the committee, and was whisked off to the airport. What could be learned from this experience? The next fall, another "new immigrant" writer of high stature was invited. But that's another story.



Izzy Academic is the pen name of a college teacher and writer who lives and works on the East coast of the United States.His essays and fiction have been published under his given name.


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