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Another Tribute to an Old Teacher, Part Deux
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Dr. Gary Owens was Chair of the History department at Huron College (the founding college of the University of Western Ontario in London, ON, Canada) when I was a student there in the mid-80's.
After graduating in 1984 from Eastern Pentecostal Bible College, I had gotten a job as a youth pastor at a large Pentecostal church in London, only to be "fired"-slashquit after just one year. (Dwight, we think our ministries are going in different directions.) After a summer of discontent working at our denomination's church camp doing maintenance and construction, I made a clean break from the denomination of my youth, and enrolled at Huron as a History major. That's where I met Dr. O.
Gary was a product of the Sixties, and had survived the decade of rebellion, excess, peace marches and great music more or less unscathed--or perhaps better stated: scathed in all the best ways. He looked every inch of it too--all sinewy and disheveled, a bit of George Carlin in his patchwork of grey and white beard, and his eyes always alight and wild with the sense that he was seeing something (usually profoundly funny) that no one else around him could see. Because of that his office was frequently invaded by the most naturally curious of his students, all of them looking to get in on the joke.
Gary was also a child of the sixties in another sense: If Dr. Owens discovered that you were a music fan--especially if you were a fan of 60s-era rock--you were in for a treat. He might sit with you for hours and tell you about how, the week that Sgt. Pepper's was released, he got into the now famous Hendrix shows in London with John, Paul, George and Ringo in the audience--shows where the American guitarist, in a still-unmatched displayed of sock-in-the-pants rock and roll bravado, played the entirety of The Beatle's masterpiece back to, (or possibly at them. Or, Dr. Owens might tell you about seeing Bob Dylan's second electric show, or about Frank Zappa's inordinately smart and funny Mother's shows, and so on and so forth. And if he liked you, and figured that you'd get how cool they were, Gary would tell you about his record collection, including his original (U.S., U.K. and Canadian) pressings of every single Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention LP, some of them signed. But no touching, please.
The guy was a living, breathing documentarian for the greatest music of his generation, and it always felt a bit like an honor to sit in his office, stealing glances at the lava lamp (a real one, too, not one of those stupid fake black light/mall store would-be headshop versions) and listen to his stories.
"Gary O" was also a frequent brewer and occasional purveyor of genuine Irish-style beverages. If we had an evening session, Gary would occasionally bring some of his own product to class (remember, the drinking age in Ontario is 19), or insist that instead of heading out to a campus watering hole like The Elbow Room after class, we head into the city to a "real" pub. (The "Elbow" was UWO's equivalent of dingy but comfortable basement wreckroom, with bad overstuffed couches, leather swivel chairs, nachos on paper plates and about 15 beers on tap--a perfect and unpretentious little joint now replaced with an ugly, TGIF-like restaurant.)
And so after a few hours of Spanish Empire-building or English Imperial pillaging of the monastaries, we'd head to an "off-campus" pub like Chaucer's, or our beloved and exceptional The Poacher's Arms, both of them fantastic, authentic little English pubs in downtown London, filed with actual non-students, many of whom looked and sounded like they hadn't been off the boat from the "old country" for very long. "The Poachers," especially, became a favorite, where I spent many an evening as a undergrad solving the world's problems, deconstructing theology and saying "hegemony" over and over again with "the Boys"--Bob, Mark, Chris and a few others. (In those days of change and re-orientation, the hospitality and celebratory kindness of this little bar taught me yet another way that the punch line of the wheat and the tares was right.) And it was at such a beloved establishment that Dr. Owens became the first to offer me a "stout"--a classic, Guiness draught from the tap at the Poachers.
Dr. Owens was also cool because he was among the 10 or 20 most respected authorities in North America on the various studies and investigations and theories about assignation of JFK. Long before Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner made it cool to be an assasination geek, every three years or so Gary would pull out his first generation Super-8 copy of the Zugruder film (which he owned), and give an evening-long seminar on the Dallas murder, holding an audience of several hundred college kids--and not a few "outsiders" too--spellbound with his own theories of multiple shooters, magic bullets, and close-ups of the Presidentís head coming off like a cheap toupee.
Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.
But don't for a moment think that Gary was beloved simply for his cooler-than-thou musical tastes, conspiracy theories or for facilitating anti-nomianism and a taste for Irish spirits from English pubs in my post-Pentecostal 20's. Nothing could be further from the truth.
No, Dr. Owens was my most consistent and important academic mentor. As a History major in these undergraduate and "post-ministry" years, still anxious to do something relevant and meaningful with my life, I had decided that I would pursue a Ph.D in "Reformation studies" and challenge students to seek something like relevancy in their faith from a perch in the Academy. (I hadn't quite realized that this would require mastering several languages, which, given my limited success with simple high school French, clearly wasn't going to happen. Faced with the reality that I suck at languages, in graduate school I became, instead, an expert in 19th Century American revivalism.) Given this commitment, nearly all of my academic work was focused on the study of "Early Modern Europe," the era in which Dr. O specialized. (He was actually an expert in early modern Ireland, and during my time at Huron bought an actual castle there to live in during the summers and on his sabbaticals doing research.)
History 236 was a survey of E.M. Europe, the "weeder" course for History majors at Huron, and as such was filled with a larger-than-average number of smarter-than-average students (including my good friend Chris MacLeod, who shared a similar spiritual journey and was a Poachers regular, and Jennifer Shepherd, now VP at Random House in Canada who remains to this day one of the very best friends that Sheri and I have in all the world). Unfortunately, it had a greater-than-average number of slightly not-quite-as-smart-as-average students as well. It was quite a mix.
(Thankfully, in those days in Canadian universities, grade inflation and the idolatrous cult of "self-esteem" had yet fully overtake the academy and make grades meaningless. A "C", which represented a numeric grade of 63-67, was actually the "average" grade it was intended to be, meaning that it was the grade that most students received, especially in a "weeder" course. A C+ represented a 68-69, a "B" was a slightly better than average 73-77, a "B+" was 78-79, an "A-" 80-82, and an "A" 83-89. And unlike the U.S. academic system, which inexplicably grades students on three systems--letter grades, percentage numberic grades, and Grade Point Averages--the Canadian University system has a meaningful A+ grade. Numerically it was anything in the 90s, and in those days at Huron we were told that at least in the History and English departments an A+ grade on any paper meant you were working at a Ph.D. or post-doc level. In other words, almost no one ever got an A+.)
As a "weeder" course, 236 was tough, and was graded as such, to make sure that Huron's smaller upper-classman seminar classes remained small and only had students that the History faculty actually liked--or at least could endure.
I remember the first paper I received back from Dr. Owens in History 236. On the back of the last page of the essay was the grade: a solid "A" at 85 with short note saying something about it being a good, solid piece, and then about two long paragraphs telling me all the ways I was mistaken, lazy, short-sighted and just plain wrong.
I remember sitting with my essay in Huron's "Great Hall," nearly shaking with disappointment. Not only was the back page of my essay covered in comments, from the title page to the last page of the endnotes--and even the bibliography--the entire essay was covered in Owens' red ink. Dr. O found every typo (these being pre-computer days when I had to beg girlfriends or pay $2/page to local housewives who advertised on campus to type my essays, the "typos" in my paper were actual typewriter-type mistakes), as well as every grammatical error or spelling mistake, then circled it and corrected it.
I was sure that my academic career was over; that along with formal Pentecostal ministry, the Academy was closing its doors to me as well.
That's when my afore mentioned friend Jennifer sat down with me, saw that I had my 236 paper and asked how I'd done. I handed her the essay, clearly disappointed.
Jen, an exceptionally bright student a year ahead of me, had taken several classes, including 236, with Owens, so knew his rules for marking and grading--and proceeded to take me to school. According to Jen, mine was clearly one of the better papers he had marked.
But what of all that red ink?
Jen carefully pointed out that most of the red ink spilt on my essay was not in the service of grammar. Rather, Dr. Oís ďmarkingĒ of the paper did one of two things: he was either making suggestions on how to make good writing better, or he was having an argument with me. Dr. Owens was taking the time to carry on a dialogue with the paper--to raise an objection to my arguments, to point out an inconsistency, to suggest a better example. And it turned out that a paper with a lot of red ink was the highest compliment he ever paid a student.
Over my time at Huron, no one else had a greater impact on me, as a scholar, certainly. But Gary was, in many ways, my first real editor, challenging my over-use of modifiers (both adjectives and adverbs), teaching me what I came to call the "Damned L-Y Rule."
For your drinking and dancing pleasure, here it is:
Before hitting save on any document, do a search for any word ending in "ly" the ask yourself this simple question:
Could it be replaced by an expletive and have the same emphatic function?
If your answer is yes, get rid of it. It might work rhetorically, in spoken English, but in writing, 99 per cent of the time it's a redundancy--unnecessary.
Thus, if the sentence reads "this book is really good," ask if the sentence would say and mean the same thing with the same emphasis if it read "this book is damned good," or "fucking good"? If yes, let the book be "good" and allow the reader find the emphasis you mean in the sentence's context.
(I remain a grand proponent of this rule, as anyone who contributed to PRISM can tell you. As a practitioner, however, I admit to something less than consistency.)
Finally, Dr. Owens influence reached far beyond his cools musical tastes, academic pursuits, or editorial prowess. No, Dr. O was a great teacher and friend because when push came to shove, he actually believed in me.
While not terribly religious himself, Gary showed genuine interest in my own religious journey (and struggles). In frequent conversations, he always encouraged my preoccupations (some might say obsessions with contemporary (North) American religion and religiosity, challenging me to find ways to integrate my spiritual restlessness into my work as a student and (would-be) scholar. Even when he couldnít understand how I could remain a confessing Christian believer while at the same time being sharply critical and even at times contemptuous of contemporary religious hierarchy and media "gatekeepers." (This was, after all, the mid-80s, when I was in my mid-20s and at full-stride as a quasi-Marxist,anti-establishment, liberation theology-quoting, Campolo-inspired, Nouwen, Manning, Neruda and Gramsci-fueled rebellious radical Christian phase, all accompanied be the Bakker and Swaggart empires crumbling before our eyes.)
And when I was applying to grad schools/seminaries, Gary dragged me into his office one late-winter afternoon and asked why I hadnít applied to Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Harvard, Princeton, Union and a few other schools like them, insisting that the work I was doing for him was worthy of any number of these ďA-listĒ English and American universities.
As if to prove to me that he was serious, just a year after I being a student in History 236, Dr. O hired me as his T.A., having me grade papers and sometimes lead seminars for a class full of my contemporaries.
He was, indeed, a brave, brave man.
Iíll never forget the first batch of essays I graded. As he predicted, it took between 45-75 minutes to mark each paper, and I had about 25 of them--half of what for Huron was a huge class of 50 students. After reading five or six, I grabbed the entire pile and marched--nay, stormed--into Dr.Owens' office and demanded to know why he had purposefully given me the "shitty pile."
Trying to teach me a lesson?
Gary looked at me, puzzled, and insisted that, no, he had divided the papers in two equal piles and given me the first 25. It turned out that I just didnít realize that most students--even at a slightly better than average institution like Huron--wrote abysmally.
That first exercise showed me how much work it was to be a teacher like Dr. Owens, committed as he was to not only make good scholars, communicators and writers of his students, but better people as well. It was a terribly important lesson, and one I took with me when I was to later work as a TA in the same department, and as a guest professor at Eastern Seminary nearly a decade later.
Dr. Owens retired this Spring, and I would have done nearly anything to have been there to see him box up his office or teach his final classes. Did he bring a few bottles of his own creation and pop them one last time? Would any students take him into Chaucers after class, and buy him one last Guiness? What would become of the political cartoons and kitschy 60s peace posters he had outside and within his nearly primevally dark office? What would become of his mementoís--the souvenirs of his travels around the world and through the years--that gave hisoffice such exceptional,glorious clutter? And where would the lava lamp go?
On second thought, Iím glad I wasnít there. I donít think I could bare the sight of his door without his posted office hours next to it. Where would you go to talk music, politics, history or beer?
Enjoy Ireland, Gary. Youíll be missed.