Tuesday, June 23, 2009

IU Mini University, Day 3

Let's start with a quote from T.H. White's The Once and Future King:

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then -- to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."

One of my instructors shared that quote yesterday, and there certainly are "a lot of things" to learn here at Mini University.

I started the day with "Biological Indicators of our Future Condition on Earth," with professor Albert Ruesink. This was a fairly elementary introduction to the concept of sustainability, with a focus on population growth and food, water and energy supplies. If you've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, you already know much of what we discussed today. Still, it was a good reminder that the choices we make -- individually and as a society -- have far-reaching consequences.

My next class was "The Literary Hoax," with professor Alyce Miller. She shared many examples of memoirs that were later revealed to be fiction -- James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree and scores of fake Holocaust narratives (such as Fragments and Angel at the Fence).

The point of the class, however, was to consider this question: Where does an author cross the line and break faith with his or her readers? Does it still count as a "hoax" if the author tells the truth but embellishes some key details? What if the author "inhabits" the false persona as a kind of artistic expression? What if the author really comes to believe what he or she has written? What if an author writes a work of fiction, which the publisher then markets as memoir?

Those are difficult questions to answer, and the class didn't reach a consensus. It's always a pleasure to take a class that sparks thought and discussion in that way.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you know I had a third class on the schedule for this afternoon. Well, here's the confession: I played hooky. I needed a nap. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. Sometimes even the most dedicated students need a break.

But I promise to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for tomorrow's classes: puzzles in American history, the impact of race and gender on political coverage, and the archaeology of piracy.

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