I seem to be writing a lot about interdisciplinary thinking these days, a good thing considering the work we’re undertaking on the future, and sustainability! The latest article is called “Marvin Mudrick and his Chickens,” and I wrote this one for the UCSB Coastlines magazine. I graduated from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, and Marvin Mudrick was the English professor and iconoclastic critic who founded the College (which we graduates–numbering less than 2,000 in its 40-year history–usually call CCS). Mudrick got me excited about science, even though I was studying literature, and I actually wrote a cover feature for the then-alumni magazine about the newly founded Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB, interviewing Lee Smolin at length. Lee, then a postdoc fellow, is known as one of the most innovative physicists in the world, and author of The Life of the Cosmos.
This article is more autobiographical than the piece I just wrote for Academia and certainly shows the eclectic nature of my education! (Though it leaves out the fact that I dropped out of high school to run away to a commune.) The full text is posted here–just click below.
Marvin Mudrick and his Chickens, UCSB Coastlines magazine, Summer 2006
I chose UCSB over Yale because of Marvin Mudrick, and there were times I thought I’d been crazy to do so. (I know that many other people, then and later, agreed.) But I never truly regretted going to the College of Creative Studies (CCS), a tiny place in the middle of the UC campus, and twenty-five years later, life brought me back to Santa Barbara and to the surprising realization that many of my career choices—and the publishing house I cofounded—were shaped by what happened during my two years at UCSB.
CCS itself began in the 1960s, and many people assume that it was one of those alternative schools focused on women’s rights and community action. In fact, CCS was almost counter countercultural. It was based on the English model of intense undergraduate concentration, small classes, and true collegiality between faculty and students. It’s gone through difficult times, notably in the period after its founder was summarily dismissed. My story is neither a fond retrospective nor an exposé, however. It’s about how a prickly professor’s loathing of falsehood and pretension, combined with a refreshing mixing of the humanities and the sciences, made it possible for me to think freely in my endeavors in later life.
In 1978, my father, an American expat working in the U.K., kicked me out of the house for insubordination and bought me a plane ticket back to the States, which was not where I wanted to be. Going to college was part of my strategy for returning to England. My means of selecting potential colleges was idiosyncratic: I looked at anthologies of literary criticism that I’d read in England and applied to the colleges where people included in the anthologies taught. The names of UCSB professors Marvin Mudrick and Hugh Kenner occurred fairly often, and when I found out that Mudrick was in fact the provost of a small college at UCSB, I flew down from the Silicon Valley for my only college interview (I never visited Yale, and am not sure I even knew what state it was in.)
Mudrick found the fact that I’d been living in England disturbing. In spite of the fact that CCS ran on the Oxford model, he couldn’t stand the English themselves, and thought I was foolish to be taken in by their smooth manners. He was also wildly opinionated and determined to win any debate. This, I’m sure, is why there have been plenty of CCS students who loathed him; he pulled no punches and was quite happy to puncture pretension or use his considerable intellectual abilities to squash a student who annoyed him.
But he wasn’t negative: on the contrary, he could generate enthusiasm for the most unexpected things in his students. He adored Jane Austen, strangely enough, and had written his first book about her novels; he considered James Boswell one of England’s greatest writers (an assessment that has, I think, become more common). He was immensely proud of the work of CCS students in other subjects—math and the sciences and art and music. Nor was his appreciation for the work of other scholars limited to the humanities: he would often praise the magazine Scientific American in class, saying, “I’m a subscriber to SA, and I look through every article that appears in that magazine—and I make about as much sense of it as most of you make out of Hume.” Those attitudes, along with CCS’s small size (when I was there, it had a total of only 140 students)—and the fact that students in physical and life sciences worked and studied cheek to jowl in the same small building as student painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers—encouraged a sense of adventure beyond traditional boundaries.
Having grown up starved for books in a bookless, computer-oriented household, I wanted nothing to do with numbers or machines; I turned to literature for human connections and a sense of meaning. I was determined to study literature, and CCS was a literature-obsessed place. Mudrick would assign us a new novel every couple of days, and we were asked (though perhaps not expected) to get through piles of Shakespeare (whom he called a misogynist), Chaucer (“just pretend it’s horribly misspelled”), and Milton (again, no favorite of Mudrick’s). But for all that, I was also good at math and science; they didn’t scare me, and when two young postdoc scientists from the Institute for Theoretical Physics went to Mudrick and asked if they could teach a course in the college on the history of science, he encouraged me to attend.
He was fascinated by the stories people told and by the ways in which the human experience could be conveyed in prose. Every quarter he taught a seminar on writing fiction—or “narrative prose,” as he called it. The format was unusual. We met for three hours straight once a week. We were supposed to write something for the meeting—that’s all the instruction I remember—and bring it typed to class, where we would drop it (or bury it) on the pile of papers on his desk. He would march in just as the hour struck and settle himself, root through the pile, pluck out a paper, and start reading.
If you were lucky, he’d read a few sentences, maybe even more, before beginning to make observations—wisecracks, really; he came from an East Coast Jewish immigrant family and in his youth had wanted to be a stand-up comedian. But having your delusions of grandeur punctured had its benefits: I was devastated by his comments about the first story I turned in, but the second one not only won his praise but a prize in a story contest.
I suspected that his interest in student fiction was somewhat voyeuristic, but reading some of his writing about fiction recently I can see that it made sense in terms of what he believed about what fiction was, and was for. He said, for example, that the measure of fiction was that it had a human story that would interest anyone, of any age, anywhere. Mudrick believed that students were able to write good stories—really good stories—because, as he said to one class, “you’re at the right age, you’re still about to get in touch with your own language …