Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why the Hell Would You Want to do That?

I don't know how else to write about this, so how about I just tell you a story. I'll try to keep it to the good parts.

When I was in college, they had this program they called "the Experimental College" or EXCO for short. EXCO was one of those idealist hippie ideas that my alma mater was (and is) famous for - a school with no rules! Students teaching classes about any subject they wanted! TOWNIES teaching classes! The lion laying down with the lamb! etc., etc. It was dead easy to sign up to teach and your "students" got 1 college credit and I think if you taught you got 1 or 1.5, I can't remember since it's been so long and it doesn't really matter.

EXCO was generally treated as a free credit. Many people took it seriously, many didn't. You could take classes in everything from reflexology and massage to comic books and movies about marijuana.

As a student in a serious (STEM, of course)  major I had little time for bullshit like this until my senior year, by which point I'd wrapped up most of my major and minor, fulfilled my Cultural Diversity requirement (where you had to take classes not about white people, basically), and had settled into my glide path for the last two semesters until graduation. Can I just say I have no idea how the fuck people don't finish college in four years? I mean, not on purpose. So by my senior year I was doing things like taking Table Tennis and Hsing-I "internal" kung fu (both of which were a lot of fun and instructive - wish I could find a place to put a ping pong table in my house). And somehow I came up with the idea of teaching an EXCO course.

I don't remember exactly how I came up with the idea, but anyway, my planned course was "Films of John Carpenter". I'm a big admirer of the man's body of work, and I guess maybe I thought he was underappreciated. Or maybe I just needed 1 more credit to round out my semester, I don't know. Covering all of his released films up to that time, each class would watch the movie and follow it with a moderated discussion led by the "instructor", with a thousand word essay due the next week. I was aiming for something in between a goof-off "class" watching cool movies and an actual academic overview - something like 5 to 9 intelligent people to watch classic movies together and shoot the shit about them. A very 90s type idea now that I think about it.

Now this was "before" the Internet - it existed, but it hadn't really gotten to where it was today. Google was only one of several alternative search engines, Apple was in the toilet and only die-hards liked them, and the only Facebook anyone had heard of was the actual paper "face book" they gave out to freshmen (our school called it "the Fussers" - long story). So the research and time I put into finding the movies (the local video store only had Carpenter's big hits and I had to get the rest from the library) was more than I thought and would've gone a lot faster now. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing but it was fun.

Anyway, sign-up day came. For some reason you had to sign up for EXCO courses in a big cattle call type thing they had in one of the big dining halls on campus. I set up my little table and shitty little sign and prepared to accept students. In retrospect I could've done better but I saw myself more as the type of reclusive kung-fu master who only accepts students who put in the effort to seek him out or have the sagacity to discover his existence. Yeah. Also I'm lazy as hell.

My "competition" was a little ways down from me. But the line to sign up for her class extended all the way down the 700-person capacity dining hall and out onto the sidewalk. I will call her "Eighties Girl" because I don't remember her name. Her class? "THE EIGHTIES ARE AWESOME" - something like that. I had read over EG's syllabus and dismissed her as frivolous. Her bubbly, over-the-top geek-girl style was annoying and the whole point of the class was to just watch stupid 80s movies. It wasn't even comprehensive or interesting - just the same schlock movies we had all seen on TBS a hundred times by that point - BREAKFAST CLUB, FERRIS BUELLER, you can write the list yourself. What was her thesis? What was the point of this bullshit?

Looking back I kind of laugh at myself and at the same time it still pisses me off.  I sat there at my folding table, grinding my teeth as I watched literally hundreds of excited people lining up at EG's table to sign up for her class. GROSSE POINT BLANK had come out recently (another overrated movie) and she had a big poster set up above a huge, colorful and sparkly banner and a CD boom box blasting the overplayed top 40 hits of the 80s.

 Here, BTW, are the only good parts of that movie:

It didn't help that a lot of people signed up for my class thinking I had some kind of connection to EG or as an 80s-themed "safety" course in case they couldn't get into EG's class (she had a fucking waiting list ! bah). These, of course, were immediately rejected. A sure way to get to the top of my list was to tell me how stupid you thought all the people waiting in line to watch PRETTY IN PINK for the millionth time were.

And here are 18 seconds of the only good 2 minutes of THAT movie:

So why am I writing this story? If I come off as sounding like I think I'm smarter and better than other people, well, yeah, it's a little of that. Also because in a way it was the story of my life - punching above my weight figuring it would work out if I tried hard and meant well and finding out that that the underdog usually loses. Just doing a bullshit "exploitational EXCO", I thought, was beneath my abilities and disrespectful to the institution and the students and a waste of my time.

I want to write books that say something, even if I'm writing genre fiction. I think people can sense when there's something beneath the surface and appreciate that even if they may not really care and just want to read a fun book about vampire hunters or werewolf cowboys. But it's the thing that readers talk about when they say whether or not they really got into a book, that vague way they express it, "the characters come to life", that kind of thing.

So in the end, I got my symposium of like-minded students of film and taught the course. It was a cool experience, and in retrospect I wish I had done it sooner - I met some interesting people and might have made some friends out of it if I hadn't been a short-timer and too stupid to realize the opportunity the class presented. My favorite experience was the amazingly well-researched essay on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA that one guy wrote about the symbolism of Jack's truck being named the "Pork Chop Express". My class could only be pass-fail but I wish I could've given that guy a fucking A. I think I still have it somewhere.

I don't know what became of Eighties Girl. I don't bear any ill will toward her or anything like that. Oh, and I finally got to meet John Carpenter, smoking out back of the hotel when I went to FandomFest. And since I knew I only had one shot, I skipped over how much I enjoyed his movies and how I was picking up what he was putting down and just told him that I'd taught a class about his movies in college.

"Why the hell would you want to do that?" he said.

1 comment:

  1. As the original 80's girl, I remain fascinated with the creative genius of John Hughes. He created all those films you deride, but also scripted Billy's favorite Uncle Buck, Stella's favorite Vacation and the top grossing Home Alone. He was the 80's before the 80's knew what they were.