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Marvin Mudrick and his Chickens

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.

[This essay was published in Coastline magazine in 2006.]

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 … [but] you can’t write expository prose. You can’t write professional prose of any kind, you’re not skilled enough yet.” When he published Nobody Here But Us Chickens, I imagined that he must have thought of us as his chickens.

He was also a champion of one of the most controversial innovations at CCS: the student-conducted seminar. It’s an outrageous idea: letting those students get credit for classes taught by their undergraduate peers (who also get credit). But I think by and large it worked. I know I worked hard at the courses I taught. In steering me toward teaching certain classes, Mudrick showed remarkable perspicacity. He asked me to teach a class in expository prose, which he thought my greatest strength, and also a class in letters (something he liked to teach, and that I’d been enthusiastic about). Was it coincidence or destiny that a few years later, when I had achieved my goal of returning to England, I landed a job working on the letters of T. S. Eliot—and became a professional writer and then publisher? Whichever it was, my experience at CCS—and Mudrick’s direction—stood me in good stead.

How glad I am in retrospect not to have gone to Yale. I was a bit priggish in my pre-college days, and perhaps one thing that drew me to UCSB was a subconscious desire to correct that trait. I had no idea, though, how antiestablishment Mudrick actually was. The day after I arrived on campus I went to a reception for Regents scholars and met someone from the English department. His lip curled with distaste when he heard I was going to CCS, “Well, perhaps you’ll help to civilize those people,” he remarked. I’m not sure about how much civilizing I did, but Mudrick certainly let fresh air into my life.

Mudrick was the antithesis of many things I expected from an English professor. He was always Mr. Mudrick, not Professor, and he spent several hours each day in his office, open to visits from students. For quite a few of us, it was common to drop by a couple of times a week. I sometimes went just to see what was going on. I remember one time arriving just as another student was stopping in. Mudrick asked the student how his Christmas break had been. The student told us both, quite straight-faced, that his mother had been murdered. That was the only time I saw Mudrick nonplussed.

Even some of his minor habits left their mark on me. For instance, he provided us with scrap paper (and oh what scraps! his article proofs were on the reverse side, along with his copious tiny corrections) to type our essays on, a frugality that I appreciated. Who knows—perhaps it contributed to my environmentalist leanings some years later, when I stumbled into the Green movement. and became an author and Britain’s “green mum.” I’d been worrying about pesticides in the food I prepared for my new baby at just the time a former colleague, from my pre-UCSB summer job working at Blackwell Scientific Publications, told me she was now commissioning books and asked if there was anything I wanted to write. When I proudly announced that I had signed a contract for an ecology book, my better-informed friends were terrified for me. “But Karen,” one said gently, “you don’t know anything about it.” But thanks in part to Mudrick’s catholic tastes in writing, I took writing about scientific things seriously, and I set about doing thorough research. After struggling to understand an array of environmental issues and cover them all in a friendly introductory volume, I was gratified to have someone ask how many people had been on my research team—those months of toiling through Mudrick’s vast reading assignments probably helped raise my reading endurance to the level necessary for my solo research effort. (And the book became a minor bestseller, at least until I got caught up in the lawsuit now known as the “McLibel,” the subject of a recent documentary.)

After some years of freelance writing and developing major reference works, I started a new publishing venture, Berkshire Publishing Group, with my husband, a cultural anthropologist. Oddly enough, Mudrick considered anthropology and other social sciences “false sciences,” and that’s why they were never part of CCS. Much of my work today is with social scientists, and though I can easily imagine the kind of sociological writing that would have drawn his scorn, I see that this was one area he simply didn’t know enough about. If he had, he would certainly have appreciated the best work of social scientists and historians, which I know consider an essential counterpoint to the study of literature.

In our publishing, we decided to focus on global topics, and we soon saw that one thing that set our work apart from the work of other publishers was its increasingly interdisciplinary nature. Our first independent publication was the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. As we got to know computer scientists as well as social scientists, I felt that I had come full circle. I remembered how, back at CCS, the physics students had been interested in music and in books outside their field; now I saw how important it is for nonscientists to pay attention to the consequences of what science and technology do. I became a proponent both of reading old books (Chaucer and Austen, naturally) and of scientific literacy.

That, for me, is Mudrick’s legacy, or at least something he helped to strengthen in me: fascination with the whole of life and a fearlessness about digging into a new bank of knowledge. What greater gift can a professor give than to wake students up to the world?

Of course any university education should foster a lifelong sense of curiosity and wonder, but CCS is unique in its quirky approach. As CCS celebrates its fortieth birthday in its little barrack in the midst of the UCSB campus, we CCS/UCSB graduates can be thankful for the chance to have had the best small-college education a big university can provide.

Karen Christensen (’81) wrote many articles for the Alumnus during her first year at UCSB, including one in which she quoted Mudrick as saying, “I’m not interested in thoughts, I’m interested in thinking.”

© Karen Christensen 2006

Note: Berkshire Publishing now produces mugs and bags with a quotation from Marvin Mudrick that was chosen by editor Mary Bagg for use in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (2nd edition): “Books are not life, but then what is?” Mary did not know of my connection with Mudrick when she selected it to go with the article on printing.

By | 2010-10-07T09:07:56+00:00 October 7th, 2010|Uncategorized|3 Comments

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  1. Mike Morris 29 October 2015 at 13:15

    Hi. I’m interested, as a former UCSB student and admirer of Mr. Mudrick, in purchasing a few mugs or bags with his quotes on them for my friends from that era.

    I didn’t see them in the catalog so perhaps you could steer me in the right direction.


    M. Morris

  2. Karen Christensen 30 October 2015 at 5:20

    This is a great idea and we’ll get on it!

  3. Karen Christensen 12 November 2015 at 11:15

    Mike, how about this as an idea? See this sample image for a mug: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CTn7FCAWcAIQyXT.jpg.

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