James reminded me that my about page still said that I was in Arkansas. I looked out the window and checked, and it seems that I’m not anymore. So I fixed it. It deserves a more complete update, but I made another major change as well. I added a different research interest, which has just sort of snuck up on me.
I never thought I’d admit that I was interested in the rhetoric of science. Science just displaced composition theory, which was never really my strong suit anyway. I’m still interested in comp theory because I have to confront it each time I enter the classroom; but it isn’t an overriding interest because I can’t stand the idea of “researching” my students. They are people to me, not “subjects.” The admission that I’m a science geek comes much harder—but it has a long history.
When I was a kid, I used to read Popular Science in the bathtub. I tried to talk my father into a chemistry set, a microscope, and all that stuff. But he just kept saying “wait until you get into high school, they have all that stuff.” When I got to high school, I went through all the science stuff like a whirlwind in my first two years. Then I got bored. Music, poetry, photography and girls intervened. I haven’t really looked back until now. I suppose I can blame my high school photography teacher, Chris Burnett.
I tried to get into photography right away, but the class was always full. Photography was taught by a chemistry teacher until the year I got in. He stepped down, and a former chair of the English department, Chris Burnett, took over. This solved several problems for me at once. He was the sort of teacher who really didn’t care exactly what you learned in his class, as long as it was something. My writing scores were so low that it was hard for me to get into literature classes; Chris agreed to do independent studies in William Blake and Milton with me while I was taking his photography classes. He also turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. I learned a lot more than photography in his classes.
The second year in, I became a tutor in his classes. I taught photography while Chris taught several kids in the class such basic things as the alphabet. Photography, since it had a reputation as an easy class, attracted people who were neatly progressing through high school as functional illiterates. He did his best to change things, and as I think about it now, he was going through many changes while he was teaching those years. He was recently divorced, and struggling to find out what he wanted in life. He left teaching the year I graduated. He completed an M.F.A. at Cal State Bakersfield, and the last I heard he never returned to teaching. He made his living building houses instead.
I thought about him when I dropped out of Community College. He showed me just how complicated life really was—and how no matter how hard you tried it wasn’t always possible to change things. I thought about all the people he tried to reach who spent their time in the halls sniffing glue, and thought to myself there had to be something more productive than that. Teaching tore him up, but I suspect he was a little damaged before hand. I think that’s probably why I haven’t tried teaching before now. It can rip your heart out. But he helped me, probably more than he could ever know.
Learning photography from a literature person rather than a scientist forever skewed the way that I look at things, I suppose. But as I research the early history of the medium I find that most of the photographic educators were scientists rather than humanists; their peculiar brand of humanism comes filtered through a different kind of consciousness. They were looking for a different kind of truth from what I am accustomed to. And nobody talks about the scientists much. It is the humanist/art people who have dictated what has gone down in the history books of photography. The scientists only get glancing mention, if they are mentioned at all. It seems a strange omission, but it is understandable that the alchemy of photography be given precedence over the chemistry.
I will never forget what Chris used to say when students asked how photography “worked” as he slipped the paper into the developer under the safelights—“It’s magic,” he would always say.