Consider the mentor. Influential. Competent. Giving. The mentors that mark the moments and missteps of our lives can sometimes be the glue that holds us together. In a world that moves quickly, provides little time for reflection, and is filled with the hustle of day-to-day life, mentors provide a needed sounding boarding that snap us back to the reality of our inner lives and passions.
I had just such a mentor, and he recently died from leukemia. Jim Farrell, someone probably unfamiliar to you, was a man who contained multitudes. In his own words, he was an interdisciplinary clone. He taught in American Studies, History, and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College; he had a weekly radio program called "Dr. America," which took listeners on a 5 minute tour of the American Studies Museum, where he explored topics such as the Nike swoosh, coffee, mall kiosks, and roadkill. These essays, what he called "dense-facting," would take a seemingly small topic or idea, crack it open, and examine it from the many angles it contained.
In a world that encourages students to specialize, Jim encouraged large and far-reaching interdisciplinary study; he loved the essay, and was a master of its form. Jim could take a topic, such as the bumper sticker that says S@!% Happens, and break it down to talk not only about our ideas of branding and labeling our cars, but also explore what the phrase that pushes us to think about "excrement occurring" might mean in all its connotations.
Jim's multifaceted research interests landed in his insightful, thought-provoking, and essential books--The Nature of College, which David W. Orr said, "should be the first book every college student reads," One Nation Under Goods, which explores malls in America, and Inventing the American Way of Death. These books, written in a casual academic style, send the reader reeling into a new way of thinking.
But Jim was more than his scholarship, he was a thoughtful, caring man. Jim listened to students, having over 18,000 in his teaching career, and he gently encouraged them in their pursuits. Jim's own pursuits included writing, listening, publishing, lecturing, and seeking public forums, like Chautauqua talks, speaking at Holden Village, Bjorklunden, and Elderhostels.
In an essay of Jim's, "Some Thoughts I Have In Mind When I am Professing," he shares this insight about his writing process: "Most of the time, writing is a way of discovering what I think. At this point, for example, which is a few pages into a first draft of this essay, I'm still not sure where I'm going. Writing is, for me, a form of play, a way of 'serendipping' between words and my experience to see if I can make some sense of them. Writing is where I don't come out to play; I go in to play. In an essay, especially in an exploratory essay, play is what we pay to see. The word 'essay' means 'to try out,' and an essay is where we try out different voices and ideas. Sometimes, we try on other people's ideas, dressing in what we might call intellectual drag."
Jim stood in stark contrast to academe's demands of professors to publish or perish, as if a professor's primary task should be anything but modeling a life of intellectual inquiry to students. And that is what I loved about Jim: he went to graduate school to study in the impractical area of American Intellect and Culture, what many of the pragmatists of today promise would never get you a job. Jim had six one-year teaching contracts at St. Olaf College before being brought on as a tenured faculty member--it is perhaps the single smartest move St. Olaf ever did.
Jim's intellectual gift resided in the ability to think at right angles, to poke and prod received wisdom, and to place ideas into lived reality. Jim, along with a student, developed a course known as Campus Ecology, which examined the environmental footprint of St. Olaf College: studying the amount of stuff students bring to college, the amount of food campus dining uses each week, and the type of lightbulbs illuminating pathways and study nooks. Jim gave numerous chapel talks that urged students to think about creating an Air Force One that studied the quality of our air rather than shuttling the president around the globe.
My last time seeing Jim was at my graduate thesis defense, where he was my Outside Reader. Sitting there, calm, relaxed, and thin from the cancer and chemotherapy that was destroying his body, I was reminded of how much I loved Jim--how much I loved his thinking, his silence which yielded to a brilliant question, and his encouragement that scholarship should be brought out of the ivory tower and into the public to help us all play with ideas that matter.
I share my love with Jim because he so desperately loved this country and how confusing and confounding Americans can be. He helped me poke and prod received wisdom, he crushed me when discussing my chapter on The Great Gatsby and consumerism and he asked this question: "Taylor, what did it take to maintain a lawn in the 1920s?" That was the essence of Jim: he had a way of bringing you back to questions you forgot to even ask.
Here, is a link to Jim's website on The Nature of College. I encourage you to follow it, read Jim's writing--especially his essays--and I encourage you to play with his ideas because, for Jim, play was what we needed more of in America. In a country where education can be suspicious, Jim Farrell was a beacon that illuminated just how important and fun learning can be. This is a teacher who deserves to be known; this is a man whose thinking changed lives; this is a man who altered the course of my life forever.