Class turns clock back to 1968

In the process of analyzing with students the destruction and reconstruction of the Hollywood studio system in the late '60s and early '70s, music professor Pablo Ortiz asked his class if they had seen the film Easy Rider. Out of 200 students, only three or four raised their hands.

At first, this surprised Ortiz, but the more he thought about it the more it made sense. "For someone decrepit, like me, it's normal to know the film," he said, laughing. "But, when you're teaching someone who was born in the 1980s, they just don't know about Easy Rider."

Ortiz had long liked the idea of developing a course that focused on a specific year in history. The Easy Rider question helped him hone in on 1968. And as a result of his efforts and those of professors from more than a half-dozen campus departments, this quarter students are learning about what Ortiz considers a turning point in time.

"It's interesting to show people what the 1960s are about," Ortiz said. "1968 is the moment when everything explodes. It wasn't just hippies touring in painted Volkswagen vans."

Ortiz went to his neighbor Blake Stimson, an assistant professor of art history, and asked if Stimson was interested in collaborating on such a class. Indeed he was.

"People routinely say that the world has changed since 9/11," Stimson said. "The same could be said about 1968. Understanding that change and its historical consequence is useful for understanding our society now and its larger political context."

The new course, "A Year in Time 1968," is a Humanities 1 offering - courses designed to raise big questions about human issues, explained class co-collaborator Georges Van Den Abbeele, a professor of French and Italian and director of the Davis Humanities Institute.

Offered every quarter, the course usually focuses on a different text, he said. Past studies include: Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy.

Although Ortiz and Stimson designed the course, there are seven other professors teaching the class. The professors were selected because their focus of study involves the 1960s, Ortiz explained. They are: Marc Blanchard and Neil Larsen of comparative literature, Clarence Walker and Andres Resendez of history, Karen Shimakawa of theatre and dance, Jay Mechling of American studies and Van Den Abbeele.

"It's a fantastic way to give students the exposure to different faculty members, in different fields," Ortiz said. "It allows the students to think about a major."

During the 10-week course, each of the professors will teach one lecture. Ortiz and Stimson verify that the material selected by each professor produces a unified whole, rather than individual lectures.

Topics range from the protests at Columbia and the Sorbonne to Vietnam and the Tet Offensive to The Beatles' White Album. "It was an easy choice," Ortiz said, referring to this selection of the particular album. "It's the perfect instance where popular culture and avant-garde meet, and they very seldom do."

The material Stimson selected, conceptual art, was an easy choice for him as well.

"Conceptual art responded to the political culture of the period by attempting to incorporate the legislative function of art criticism into the art itself and thereby gain greater control over its reception," Stimson said. "Like other developments of 1968, conceptual art was a turning point and it continues to influence artistic developments today."

The course also includes a film series, which will provide a context for the course, explained Ortiz. The selected films include: The Apartment, The Graduate, Blowup, Easy Rider and Medium Cool.

"All of the films - as well as the lecture topics - are related to the idea of explosion and change, and with the disruption of normalcy," Ortiz said. "The films contrast the beginning of the decade with the end of the decade to show the effect of 1968. The society in The Apartment is dramatically different from that in Easy Rider."

Mechling agreed. "The Apartment captures people who were attempting to continue living the life of the American Dream from the 1950s," he said.

Examining Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with students, Mechling will discuss topics of everyday life in 1968. He notes that everyone had a different outlook of the sixties. "It's the age question," Mechling said. "How people experience something depends on their age and generation."

Weeks before the new quarter started, 180 of the 200 seats for the 1968 class were already filled. Provided this first installment is well--received, Ortiz, Stimson and Van Den Abbeele hope to turn out more A Year in Time classes. "The idea would be to study any year in time from a humanities perspective," Van Den Abbeele said.

And, with the collaboration of so many professors, Ortiz and Stimson said they won't have to put in too much time to alter the course work in order to adapt to new years.

"It's an open-ended model for the course and easy to change" Ortiz said. "We don't have to do all the work ourselves - we can call people."

Hilary Wilkoff writes freelance for Dateline.

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