Super Fan?

I recently got a notification through one of my social media apps that I have been named an Autism Super Fan. My son is on the spectrum. But the “super fan” designation makes me a little uneasy. I am just not sure that’s how I would describe my relationship with autism.

We got pregnant in the mid-80”s. Susan and I made all the appropriate plans, went to birthing classes, decorated the baby’s room and settled on a name. Keaton Grogg (after Buster Keaton, the silent movie comedian) was born in the summer of 1985.

There was nothing profoundly noticeable about Keaton during infancy. Early on we did feel that some of the traditional developmental marks were a bit off. Keaton was speech delayed, he burst into tears at sudden or loud noises, didn’t like the labels in his shirts touching his skin or the feel of the seams in the toes of his socks. Just his quirks, we figured.

Around the age of two, Keaton became fascinated with a Mickey Mouse cartoon where Mickey conducts an orchestra playing the William Tell Overture as a tornado sweeps through town. Keaton waved his arms in perfect sync with Mickey and the music. Right on the beat.

Soon we were buying VHS cassettes of orchestras and Keaton followed along conducting. And his favorite conductor was Maestro Zubin Metha. He loved Metha and would often say “I’m Zubin.”

By the time he was six years old, Keaton was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder and as “mildly retarded.” They still used the “R” word in clinical documentation in the early 90’s. Today his diagnosis is Asperger’s syndrome.

That was when we entered an ad hoc world of parents with kids on the spectrum. A world of word-of-mouth advice with one parent giving a tip about how they cut the labels out of shirts or turned socks inside out to deal with the irritation or another who always carried cotton balls to use as earplugs in noisy environments.

I became very defensive—wanted to protect my child from anything negative—feared bullying from other kids. Had no idea what the future would hold. I just wanted him to be normal—but that notion was fading with every new day.

We moved to Winston Salem in 1993 and found Jefferson Day School, a small school dedicated to children who learned differently. At the time, Jefferson Day was very scarce alternative for families who could not get the knowledge, support and understanding they needed for their kids.

We took Keaton to meet Vea Snyder, the school principal. Vea leaned in to Keaton asking “And what is your name?” “Zubin,” he said emphatically. I immediately jumped in to explain that his real name was Keaton. Vea just continued to look straight at Keaton, “That’s okay. You can be Zubin.”
From that day forward it has been Zubin. Vea Snyder accepted Zubin for who he was, who he said he was, and nothing less.

What’s in a name, right? Well, that change of name made all the difference. Zubin would be of his own identity and would make his own mark. Over the years, Zubin graduated from high school and college. He became a videographer and has friends scattered all over the globe. And he still has his music.

Now we have returned to Winston Salem and have decided that this will be our and Zubin’s home from now on. The landscape here for individuals on the spectrum has changed mightily since the early 90’s. The resources for the individuals with autism have expanded manifold.

My experience with autism doesn’t make me a “fan” of the reality of the struggles of neuro-diverse individuals. Many families are crushed by the weight of autism.

If I am an Autism Super Fan of any kind, it’s of the folks like Vea Snyder and all the dads, moms, teachers, psychologists, therapists, brothers, sisters and friends who accept, support and love those on the spectrum. Who love and accept kids like Zubin for who they are.

Sam Grogg

Making the Connections

I had a tough time with the “These things are different, These things are alike” exercises in elementary school.  I got the fact that oranges and pork chops were different, but they were both food—see the problem.  It became increasingly difficult over the years to segregate my learning experiences into discrete packages of acquired knowledge.  Though that is exactly what the disciplinary culture of higher education most often seeks to do.

Colleges and universities are literally built around the separation of areas of study—there are science buildings (I office in one), business buildings, humanities buildings and so on.  Each structure is devoted to a field of inquiry and learning with a territory to protect.  Breaking those territorial barriers has been tough over the past several decades, but the walls are getting lower and lower.

Interdisciplinary studies and activities are increasing in higher education throughout the curricula of the liberal and professional educational landscape.  Employers when surveyed are in a super majority of agreement that a broad foundational liberal education is essential.  And the ability to collaborate with individuals of varying and different expertise and from a variety of cultural backgrounds and orientations is absolutely critical.

The connective tissue that is represented by the many interdisciplinary programs in higher education and their embrace of diverse subject matter study approaches and techniques provides students with a learning opportunity that just makes sense.  Specialization—a “major”—still has pertinence in developing our future citizens and leaders.  But that specialization, that passionate focus,  truly thrives in a connected context.

The interdisciplinary approach to learning allows a scientist to understand the ethical context of discovery, a future litigator to appreciate the power of story, or a dancer to understand anatomical function.  I have long been a devotee of reading detective fiction and well remember a scene in a Ross Macdonald novel where his detective hero Lew Archer is standing on Mulholland Drive looking at the nighttime Los Angeles landscape.  The millions of twinkling lights stretch out for miles as Lew muses that if he could only connect them all he might finally discover the truth.

Our job as scholars, teachers and students is to always seek the truth.  The path to the answer is often best pursued through a network of connected studies and an attitude that ranges easily from the highly focused to the openly broad and contextual.

The World Is Not Someplace Else

I have been preaching for several years that “The World is not Someplace Else!”  In my first career work developing, producing and distributing motion pictures, there was a clear distinction between the “domestic” and “foreign” markets.  There was a  change in the early nineties, though, when the label “foreign” was removed from contracts and job titles to be replaced by “international.”  The distinction between markets faded as large international conglomerates embraced motion picture production and distribution.

At one point in those days, my bankers were in Dallas, London and Amsterdam, pictures were being produced in Ireland and, then, Yugoslavia.  We were distributing films from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Poland.  Projects were developed in Taiwan and Mainland China, we worked in Japan and in France, and visited markets and festivals in Italy, Cannes, Scotland, and Belgium.

The day to day demands to understand time zones around the world, required that I wear a two-faced watch in order to know what time it was back at the office no matter where the hotel was that was serving as my temporary home, and the collaborative work in those distant places made for an easy flattening of the world for me.   It just made sense to expect that considering the world more than a travel opportunity for students would soon embrace the learning experience in a more integrative manner.

Our world—and if we are to truly claim that it is ours—stretches beyond our campus geographic boundaries and across the barriers of language, cultural, society, economics and technology.  It is a world of faraway lands that are connected like never before.  We hold this world in the palm of our hand on mobile devices that allow us to see and speak with one another in real time.  And our educational institutions are facilitating new and aggressive international collaborations and learning experiences as essential to the learning mission.

The study of the world, its history, cultures, literatures, customs and governments is not new to us at all.  Those pull down maps and spinning earth globes have been fixtures in our classrooms for time immemorial.  But, over the past few decades, the educational landscape has embraced a new global reality.

Our technologically mediated digital environment is alive with 24/7 global input.  We no longer just ask students to memorize maps and learn languages as a complement to their educational pursuits.  Our curricular missions propel faculty and students to dig into learning of international relationships, governmental systems, economic and social issues and the nature and unrelenting resilience of international conflict along with the equally determined quest for peace.

Our challenge is to find ways to use this new global connectedness to tackle the global issues of our collective future.  Climate change, poverty, hunger, health, human rights, immigration, urban infrastructure and agrarian sustainability are challenges to every corner of our earth.  These are the pressures that we face whether here in Long Island, New York or in Mumbai, India; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Darfur, Sudan, Bangkok, Thailand or Kiev, Ukraine.  None of us get a pass on these global game changers.  So, it is through education and informed engagement that we make differences—individual, collectively and, yes, globally.

Undecided. Definitely undecided.

There’s a label used in the college admissions process that ought to be changed.  Students who cannot easily check the box indicating their intended major find themselves scrolling down to a last choice, variously called “Undecided” or “Undeclared.”  This is the “limbo” category for those who have yet to proclaim their educational focus for the upcoming four years, a category that is often seen as a negative, and worrisome to friends and family.  But here’s the secret—it’s really the best box to check.

Across the country, many colleges are developing new programs to embrace this group of applicants. Since it is most probably the largest population of incoming students, the “undecided” can’t be ignored.  They are called, “open” majors, “explorers,” and other variations.

My own college aspirations leaned toward the sciences—in those days we all had been pushed in that direction by the race to catch up with Sputnik and orbiting monkeys.  I held the absolute expectation of becoming a scientist.  So, when it was time to fill out the applications, I checked the biology box without a second’s hesitation.  But that was before I walked into “general education” courses, the “electives” that were meant to complement my studies.  Those other courses that I was forced to take suddenly revealed a myriad of intriguing pursuits.

By the end of the first term, I was second guessing my major decision. Four years later I graduated with a degree in English with minors in philosophy, history and Spanish, and one course shy of that biology major. My graduate studies and my career went in a different direction still; I went on to run companies, work in the motion picture industry (with some Oscar winners) and eventually returned to academia.

Not that having a specific educational destination is bad.  It’s just that the journey ahead may have lots of unexpected twists and turns.  Sometimes, where we are heading actually may not be where we want to go.  Most college students change their major three times and about 80% change their major at least once.  Some find a passionate commitment to a specific subject easily and early.  But for many of us, the condition is not one of being undecided about a major, it’s a process of exploration and discovery with many decisions along the way.

There certainly is a secure feeling in knowing what steps will lead to a predictable and desired future.  And with the challenge of college affordability, the pressure to have a concrete career goal at the beginning of the journey is a compelling expectation.  But with the evolution and, sometimes, revolution of our personal experiences, it may be that the uncertainty of exploration is not as frightening as it can be exhilarating.

I applaud those who have a lock on their future.  As a parent I completely understand the desire for certainty in the future for your children.  But I also know that only they will make that future and hope they will approach it with an open, adaptable and adventurous mind.

The “undecided”—make that, the “deciding”—are in the best position to find their way in a world that is ever changing.  Colleges need to work on continuing to change that “undecided” label and, in the meantime, I suggest we celebrate it as a natural path to educational, professional and life fulfillment.

Students as Customers?

“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 institution, the things I care about, the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and created over the years are offered to students 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 rear view 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.

Arts and Sciences – An Essential Link

Alexander Fleming (1888-1955) the biologist who discovered penicillin harbored an inner passion for the visual arts.  He was responsible for launching the age of antibiotics when he discovered a certain culture of mold actually could kill disease-causing bacteria.  But he just couldn’t shake his artistic impulse.  Fleming found time to develop an odd artistic practice of “painting” with bacteria.  His “germ art” has been publicly exhibited and chronicled in both scientific and historical journals over the years.  Dr. Fleming, though, kept his inner artist well in the shadows of his brilliant scientific career.


(Guardsmen painting by Alexander Fleming with pigment-producing bacteria in culture – source Smithsonian Magazine)

The worlds of science and art are often presented as well, and necessarily, separated.  Most who choose the path of hard science feel that they are not “creative.”  And the art students often steer a course well around science and math even though the University insists that the inhabitants of each arena visit the other now and then through general education requirements.

Scientists and artists are equally driven to discover that which is beyond their immediate or obvious understanding.  They share a reliance on imagination, whether to form a hypothesis or to devise a visual masterpiece.  Their work ethics are equally unrelenting.  And both share an understanding that the intuitive and the objective exist in dynamic harmony.

It makes sense that the arts and sciences are inextricably linked.  It makes even more sense that the connection should eventually grow to an always assumed collaboration.  Every course of study has its specialized requirements, but the adventures that scientists take in their embrace of art and the insight provided to artists who rely on the authenticity of known facts make their endeavors complete.  Though my career eventually grounded itself in literature and the arts, I harbored an inner scientist deep in my own personal shadows as a self-portrait drawn at age 10 demonstrates.


Clearly, visual arts were not going to be my thing either.  But I can’t help but think that the science in me makes my moving image arts and education pursuits all the more satisfying.

The Power of a Teacher

We all remember our favorite teachers, right?

I am still amazed at how easily my kindergarten teacher, Miss Meyers, could draw a detailed landscape with our over-sized crayons. My attempts to imitate were just embarrassing. Mrs. Fowler, second grade, wore all kinds of jangly jewelry so she could never sneak up on you, yet she knew our indiscretions before we made them.  And the third grade teacher, Mrs. McCabe took no mercy with those who couldn’t recite the multiplication tables—never have I forgotten.

They all had their styles and each found a way to move us along in those basics of writing, reading and arithmetic.  Moving to the upper grades and the shifts between classrooms and teachers on an hourly basis, my memory begins to get much more selective.  And in the college years there are fewer standouts. But we all have one great teacher who made a critical difference—sometimes more than one—but one can be just enough.

World literature was the course—a general education elective that I had to finish up in order to graduate.  There was a new assistant professor teaching who found out that I had this thing for movies. Movies had been my parallel education system since I could sit still on grandma’s lap at the local movie theater.  Their stories were the insights in to the values, beliefs, nightmares and dreams that we all shared through and out of the Cold War, into the crazy 60’s and 70’s and beyond.

So, this teacher, when it came to reading Don Quixote called me out in class with a simple request, “Mr. Grogg, maybe you could make a little movie about Cervantes’ story.”  Not so simple—we didn’t have video-taking mobile phones or camcorders.  We were talking 8mm home movie gear, real film, editing with a razor blade.  But I jumped at it.  The result a 10 minute very abbreviated telling of a contemporary Don Quixote who refused to give up his dreams.  There was a screening, there was applause, there was a grade and the film went into a box as I moved out of the dorm the following week.

Twenty years later, I had made a motion picture, The Trip To Bountiful, that was nominated for two Academy Awards winning best actress for Geraldine Page.  That teacher-inspired taste of making a movie led to an unguessed career in motion pictures.  That teacher—Gary Luckert was his name—sparked something that I never had a clue was in me or in my future.

There really is nothing but opportunity in the teacher-student relationship.  And there is, likewise, real danger.  A great teacher can inspire a student to never expected heights.  A poor teacher can push a student out of the game and leave an indelible mark that can have life consequences.

Here’s to your best teacher!

Liberal Education Goes on the Offense

A few weeks ago, I spent four days at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  Several hundred small to mid-size colleges and universities are represented  by about a 1000 presidents,provosts, deans and other academic administrators gathered to discuss the state and future of higher  education.  This  was the 100th annual meeting of the association! The  conference theme was presented as “Liberal Education, Global Flourishing, and the Equity Imperative.”  Sorting through the abstract headlines, session after session grappled with a drumbeat of  concern over the near and long term future of post secondary education.

Over the past several years, the annual confab spent most of its program in arguments defending the values of a liberal education in the face of an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward the purpose of higher education. This year,there seemed to be less defense and more offense–more simple assumption that what young men and women gain through liberal education beyond high school is essential to the future of all human endeavor. Without the graduates of liberal education in all of its forms and no matter how accessed, the future of humanity is in deep trouble. So, let’s just stop all the talk of gloom and doom and get on with engaging our young adults in rich and broad arts and humanities curriculum, for it is this type of learning experience only that will set them on a course to a life well lived.

Several of the presenters pooh poohed the media harangue that higher education has to change or it will soon see its “business” and “purpose” decay to irrelevancy. The point is, the conference embraced, that our society–any evolving society–cannot do without a higher and continuing education resource. The role played by colleges and universities to transition young men and women to adulthood, to provide knowledge and skills to future leaders and professionals, to preserve and curate what we have collectively learned and to generate new knowledge through research and creativity are fundamental to societal health.


Why Do So Many Care about the Preferences of So Few–The Oscars!

Movie awards season is well in swing.  All those films we saw in 2014 (actually most of us only saw a very few if any) are now vying for the status of “award-winning” from all sorts of competitions.  But the ones that we pay most attention to are the early January Golden Globes and the late February Academy Awards.

There are plenty of other prestigious awards—The American Film Institute honors pictures that represent the best in collaboration; the various guilds (Screen Actors, Directors, Writers, etc.) recognize excellence among their peers; the Critics’ Choice Awards are given by broadcast film and television critics; and the Film Independent Spirit Awards recognize films with budgets under $20 million.  It’s the Oscars, though, that have become an annual phenomenon.

The live broadcast of the Oscars attracted more than forty million viewers last year making it the most watched non-sports telecast over the prior ten years.   Since its founding as a modest insider dinner among Hollywood elite in 1929, the awarding of the Oscar statuettes has become one of America’s and the world’s most shared three plus hours of radio, television and now live streaming on a mobile device near you.  Office pools abound as the annual event nears—newspapers and websites provide ballots for marking the choices.  Oscar-watch parties have become yet another popular reason to costume and consume.

What is this all about? I mean how do these few movies, their stars and makers, grab the fascination of millions and millions around the globe for a couple months culminating in a TV show each year?  And how do the votes of about 6000 Academy members make a difference to those millions?  Being one of those 6000 potential voters, I marvel at it all each year.

I became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1993.  After several years financing and producing motion pictures, I was sponsored and then elected to membership.  The Academy requires that two of its existing members sponsor a new member based on significant accomplishments connected to the creation of theatrical motion pictures.  Once a year, the Board reviews the sponsor applications and decides on the invitations it will offer to new members. Oscar nominees automatically receive membership, but not many other folks are given the nod.

No doubt that getting the invitation was a very big deal.   But being honored by membership in the Academy, doesn’t begin to help me understand why the results of voting for the Oscars makes for such a mega-conversation every January and February.

The 6000 +/- Academy members are mostly like me—white, male, in their early 60’s.  According to a best guess survey in a recent LA Times article (the Academy does not provide specifics on the demographics of its membership), 94% of the members are white, 77% are men. Hence, the annual criticism about the lack of diversity in the Academy and, this year, the controversy about the lack of diversity in the actor/actress categories.  The motion picture industry has a reality of demographics among its makers that does not mirror those of our country, but I doubt if it is much worse that so many of our professional communities.  Certainly the industry has work, lots of work, to do, but as Tim Gray points out in VARIETY, but the voting of the Academy may not be the best place to target in strengthening the diversity of our country’s films and filmmakers.

Take a look at how the voting works—each category of Oscars (actors, directors, costume design, screenwriters, etc.) is nominated by its “branch of members.”  Given the number of eligible voters in each branch, the number of votes needed to secure a nomination is pretty small.  Steve Pond in an article in THE WRAP shows how a best actor nomination takes about 190 votes to secure a place on the ballot.  Because of the number of voters in the various branches, a best director nomination can be had for about 45 votes, best cinematography takes 38 votes and so on.  The whole membership votes on best picture nominations making that category the toughest to assemble enough votes to get on the ballot—about 550.  Given such small slices of the overall membership, the numbers get diced pretty thinly and, when spread across a little over 300 eligible films, a lot of excellence is left on the side-lines.

So, I am unsure regarding how much we can deduce from the votes of a few hundred people when making sweeping cultural generalizations about the best of any Oscar categories.  I am reminded that the step-sister awards show to the Oscars, the Golden Globes, which reaches an annual audience of about 20 million (half of the Academy telecast) has results decided by a vote of 90 Hollywood Foreign Press members.  Ninty!  And we pay attention.

Once the results of those 90 reporters turns into a television event and tons of red carpet photos and unrelenting dish about who said what or wore whom, we then march relentlessly to the Oscars.  And the world awaits.  The reason we can’t not pay attention to the Oscars must be that the motion picture has always given us a reminder of what can be bad and what it is to be good—characters in conflict and celebration, adversity and triumph, the predictability and surprise of life and living.  Movies allow us to see our reflected dreams, nightmares, attitudes and beliefs.

The stories motion pictures present are often dully formulaic and not worth our time and money, but others take us on rides to other galaxies, future dimensions, back in time or into the human mind faced with unbelievable challenge.  Those are the kinds of films that catch my vote: INTERSTELLAR, AMERICAN SNIPER, BIRDMAN, SELMA, BOYHOOD, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  Notice that not all these made the official list announced by the Academy.  I expect that all of the members had films left out of the final list that they hoped would get a nomination.  This is why I think the movies mean so much to so many—they do represent the incredible diversity of their audience.  There is always a story, a character, an image that connects.  And the connection makes a difference for that moment in time—enough of a difference for us to spend a couple months every year talking about it, hoping it will be recognized by others and cheering when it wins the Oscar.

It is an honor being a member of the Academy and it is fun to vote each year.  I do take my voting seriously—checking the box for what I think represents the best of those 300 or so films of the past year.  But then I probably only saw about 40 of those eligible—thanks to the screeners they send us—so how comprehensive and well-evidenced can my judgments be?  After all it’s not as though anyone really cares, right?  Only just about everybody.

Written for AU College of Arts and Sciences website January 2014.


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