Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bad News Travels Slow

I don't envy our dean Vicky Ruiz for having to notify people in the School of Humanities over the summer about the death of former faculty member Lindon Barrett. These kinds of missives sent in the form of mass e-mails require both sensitivity and decorum, which are qualities that Dean Ruiz has certainly brought to her tenure. But it is interesting to see how the following electronic notification raised far more questions than it answered.

The School of Humanities is deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic death of our former colleague, Lindon Barrett. A leading literary critic and cultural theorist, Professor Barrett enriched the school as a member of the Critical Theory Institute and as a faculty member in the Departments of Comparative Literature and English. He was among the founding faculty of the Program in African American Studies in 1994 and served as director from 2004-2007. The dynamism that Professor Barrett infused in the program and other departments in the school reflected his scholarship, including his landmark book "Blackness and Value:Seeing Double" and his current project entitled "Racial Blackness and the Discontinuity of Western Modernity." A commemorative event will be planned and details announced at a later date.

As an example of digital rhetoric, this e-mail actually conveys a lot of information. We know that Lindon Barret's death is "shocking" and "tragic," so we know that there is more information than can be conveyed through official channels. And we also know that Professor Barrett was an individual who was important both for his "dynamism" as a public intellectual and that he continues to be considered a colleague by an academic community that would wish to commemorate his contributions to the institution.

Of course, what we don't know from this message is the fact that he died a violent death, although careful readers -- which instructors in literature departments tend to be -- sense that there are a number of disquieting clues. Within minutes, faculty members on department mailing lists were linking to local academic blogs with more details about Barrett's murder, such as this posting on College Life from the Orange County Register, this blog posting from an Asian American Studies librarian on the UCI campus, and a post about the crime and Professor Barrett's career from another library colleague Ned Raggett.

The chair of the department commended bloggers for "undertaking the difficult but necessary task of communicating what they have learned about the tragedy and for making it possible for others to express their grief and offer their tributes." However, soon other e-mail messages were questioning the role that the "public fora of blogs and listervs" were playing in the collective mourning process and asking for more respect for those who wanted to remember Barrett "privately" instead.

Although I may describe this series of distributed electronic communications dispassionately from the detached viewpoint of a media theorist looking at what institutional electronic messages do and do not convey, I should also say that Lindon Barrett was my colleague in the Humanities Core Course, where I still work, and that I too was shaken by this truly terrible news.

I was still a novice teacher when I worked with Lindon a decade ago, when I was little more than a graduate student foot soldier in the trenches of a vast pedagogical enterprise directed at over a thousand undergraduate learners. But he taught me an enormous amount about how to capitalize on particularly teachable moments and how to use limited time at the podium for maximum impact in ways that continue to work for multitasking students in the era of laptops in lecture halls.

Certainly, he loved to shock his audience of freshmen. That's part of what made him so fun to work with and why people at UC Irvine are so awfully saddened by his premature death and the utter waste that it represents. I remember that he would bring a container of what seemed to be malt liquor and would quaff a bit mid-lecture to get students examining both their media-shaped stereotypes about African-Americans and their passivity as spectators witnessing what seemed to be a transgression by their professor. He understood that good teaching was good theater, but he also was a careful close reader who could lead students through lines of text with remarkable rigor. Because of Lindon, I appreciate the carefully crafted prose of Langston Hughes in The Big Sea, the significance of anxieties about masculinity and race expressed in the seeming pulp of Tarzan, and the importance of including Nella Larsen in the canon of world literature.

It appears that his killer has been apprehended, but there is still a lot to be processed for those following the case.

Update: Just as many joyous occasions are now organized by pages on the Internet, there is a funeral page for Lindon Barrett from passages.com with details on commemorations being held. There are also a number of Facebook pages coordinating events and this main Facebook page, which now has over a hundred members.

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Blogger Tingkun55 said...

Hi Liz,
Thanks for posting this. I have been perplexed by what the proper protocols are in responding to this terrible tragedy. On the Facebook group established for Lindon, I raised questions about the police press release and media coverage, and was criticized for promoting speculation and gossip. But I don't think critiquing the discourse surrounding this event in any way dishonors Lindon's memory, do you? Don't you think he would agree that official narratives need to be challenged, especially regarding violence perpetrated upon African American males? Ben Huang

9:40 PM  

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