The Power of a Mentor

Ray Browne founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in 1968. I was lucky to study with Ray while pursuing my Ph.D. A few years ago, I wrote the remembrance following on the occasion of Ray’s passing. I have been thinking of Ray a lot these days. Never underestimate the power of a mentor!

“Remembering Ray Browne is easy for me. Forgetting him will be impossible. You see, Ray Browne gave me my intellectual game—he grabbed me and pushed me hard onto the field to play the game that has become my life’s work—popular culture and higher education.

In the fall of 1970, on a Tuesday night, I was sitting in my first class in the English Ph.D. program at Bowling Green University. The class was 18th Century Sentimental Drama with a professor on whom I had staked my graduate studies career. I have no real recollection of how I got there, I had started college thinking I would be a microbiologist and work in the agronomy lab at John Deere & Company in Moline, Illinois up the river from where we gather today. I grew up a child of the new television generation, with a grandma who took me to movies every Saturday. I had a collection of comics that filled a closet. My mom was an antique dealer and jammed our house with the flotsam of everyday American life and living. Sputnik careened overhead and we all wanted to be scientists. In my town, that meant figuring out how to grow more corn and soybeans. So off I went to college and a career looking into a microscope and shaving paraffin to lay into slides.

Inorganic chemistry got in the way and I ended up majoring in English with minors in philosophy, history and Spanish. That made me useful only for grad school where I ran in all kinds of directions—English drama, 20th century novels, 17th century poetry, 19th century American drama—ending up in that class in University Hall at Bowling Green. I took it till the break—8:30 central time. It was raining.

I was in a bit of a predicament. There was no way I could take another hour and a half of 18th century sentimental drama—largely closeted and only privately performed? John Deere had no use for an English major. More importantly, my wife had the and I didn’t have a dime to call home. So I walked downstairs out of sight of the other grad students hanging through the break. On that lower floor, near the exit to the parking lot, there was a door with a sign–Center for the Study of Popular Culture. There was a light on and for some reason—maybe just to hide out till that class started again and the professor was occupied—I walked in. Ray Browne was standing in the middle of the room reading some papers, “Why hello there, young man, come in,” Ray waved.

That was it. Ray Browne caught me. He did not let go. It was a few hours later, when I made it home to chatter away about this silver-haired man with a gentle southern accent who said I could get my degree under his mentorship, had to read 19th century American literature, one area I had not skipped into, but would be specializing in popular culture and film. I mean, this guy said it was okay to watch TV and movies. He said I could admit that my love of great literature was inspired by Classics Illustrated comics. Detective stories were as consequential to understanding the human pursuit of truth as a re-reading of Oedipus the King. My then wife asked, “I thought you were going to do something with English?” Nope. Ray had me now. Things would change.

In his book Against Academia: a History of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, Ray described his graduate students in the 70’s at Bowling Green matter-of-factly: “Their drummers were somewhat off the conventional beat.” Yep. That they were. Still are, I expect. I met my fellow graduate student musketeers, Mike Marsden and Jack Nachbar, in that first year. I collaborated with and learned from many others who were the founders of this great academic association, the pioneers of this now ubiquitous arena of intellectual pursuit. But what is now so strong, so obvious, so unquestioned (make that mostly unquestioned—there are still those who look askance), was an incredible challenge to us then. We marched to a drum that drove the old folks crazy.

And we took a lot of shit. In that world of radical change growing out of war and civil rights protests that rocked the establishment throughout our society, to the academy we were just one more example of what was wrong with the young generation. We were reviled at faculty meetings, warned against studying that “Mickey Mouse” stuff called popular culture. Certain faculty would not work with us. We were the bad boys and girls of the English department. But we were driven. Ray and Pat Browne had plans for us, for all of you. They urged us to write, to present, to publish, to teach popular culture. When Marsden, Nachbar and I bemoaned the lack of scholarship on popular film, Ray told us to quit worrying and start working—The Journal of Popular Film (now JPF&T) was born. Ray and Pat had us on their mission–changing the face of academia.

Ray called it a “new” humanities. Popular culture was he explained, “the cultural environment that WE LIVED IN (emphasis mine)).” Our study was of ourselves. And not of the primly prescribed self that had been approved by an educational elite. But the stuff of our daily lives, the expressions of our collective values, beliefs, nightmares and dreams. Ray bridled at prescription, at any directive from on high that one thing was more important or worthy than another. He was relentlessly curious. He demanded that his students not seek refuge in the safety of tradition. His teaching was grounded in an essential hatred of any kind of oppression, physical or mental. “The first thing we need to realize,” he wrote in his article “Internationalizing Popular Culture Studies,” “is that the heavy hand of an established canon of subject to be learned and taught must be lifted.”

He saw our goal and purpose as profoundly democratic, just and essential. “Like it or not, every American owes it to himself and his society to make great effort, through formal or informal study and analysis, to understand the culture around him or her,” he wrote in Theory and Methodology in Popular Culture. “Often the student will discover,” he went on, “if he can rid himself or herself of blind prejudice, that much of popular culture is to be appreciated.” Today, these writings seem pretty self-evident. But they were clearly heresy at the time and Ray took a lot of hits for his advocacy of these “new” humanities. There were ugly fights over tenure, personal attacks on Ray and his students. But he never stopped pushing and never let us give in to those who would seek to bridal our curiosity, to ignore our inquiry, to stifle our questions. And now here we are. Remembering Ray Browne. Easy for me to do.

Ray Browne made all the difference to me and through me has, I hope, done the same for many others. I never stopped listening to his lessons, never stopped passing them on. Ray taught me to be continually curious, that nothing is unworthy of my attention and that the truth often lies in what others see as trivial. Ray taught me that the study of the past was necessary, but to study the present with critical rigor and confident conclusion is the acid test of intellectual maturity. And he taught me, above all, that my students are my colleagues as I was his. He taught me that I owe it to those who come after to share with them more than my knowledge and experience and what I have learned over a life time. By Example, Ray Browne taught me to say yes to my students and to show excitement and passion for the life they will live. Ray Browne waved me into his embrace on a rainy Tuesday night forty years ago. He listened to me and he said yes. Forget Ray Browne? Impossible.

Written for Tribute to Ray Browne at the PCA/ACA Annual National Meeting, April 2010

Students – Customers or Products?

Recently, a discussion appeared on a the LinkedIn group devoted to higher education teaching and learning (HETL) that asked the question “Are Students Customers or Products?”  I know that it is fashionable to use such terms when we are all being focused on the value proposition and the return on investment with regard to the high cost of education. What follows is my contribution to that discussion:

“We Are Not Customers!” a student protest sign rages in one of many video clips that pop up in the news stories and documentaries on the cost and corporatization of higher education. When considering the “customer” or “product” labels, I tend to be wary. Mostly I think of students as the next up—the future. They are going to pick up where we leave off. In my teaching and my work to support the mission of my College, the things I care about, the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and created over the years are offered to them with the hope that they will remember and preserve the best of it, use the useful and discard the useless, all in their construction of an individual and collective future.
I know that I am not without fault in generalizing about our students, in making sweeping generational judgments about their nature and character. They do the same of me and my generation as I did of those who had gone before. But I hope I spend most of my time calling my students by their names and not by labels, looking for and appreciating their individuality rather than dismissing them with generic references and superficial generalizations. Above all, I try to keep the lens of “students as future” at the core of my attitudes and expectations. We spend a great deal of our days in higher education looking to and revering the past. We introduce and immerse our students in what has gone before, in examples of others, experiences and revelations of days, years, centuries gone by. We bet that the rearview mirror will prepare our students for what lies ahead. I feel like a backseat driver, constantly swiveling my head to remind my students of the light they ran or the near miss they didn’t see. And I forget that they are driving—more and more as I get older, I see that they are really driving! They are the future, sitting in our classrooms, working in the labs and studios, online, face to face, they are the future and when we see them in this light, what we do has great meaning and worth. If higher education leaned a bit more in the direction of the future in its curricular and programmatic development, we might not worry about labels for our students, but see them for what we need and hope them to be—the caretakers and makers of their world.