Friday, March 19, 2004

on the passing of one of my former professors

Today's Georgetown Voice mentioned that one of my English professors and my former advisor, Joel Siegel, passed away last week. (The Washington Post obituary is also available. Along with one of my high school English teachers, Professor Siegel was responsible for my desire to become an English major at Georgetown. I only had one class with him, and it wasn't his popular "Elements of Film" class; it was his section of the writing workshop that was an option for the freshman English requirement but that most students avoided. (From that last sentence, you can tell that his writing lessons didn't sink in. That's my fault, not his. Students avoided the writing workshop sections for the workload. They didn't avoid his section in particular.)

His class used the cultural resources of Washington, DC, as the basis for the papers we wrote every week. We wrote about paintings in an art gallery, a dim sum brunch in Chinatown, reviews of a play, a movie, and a concert (I was the class expert on the concert, which was a solo violist with piano accompaniment), and even a little fiction based on an Edward Hopper painting. While I was familiar with some of the museums and cultural opportunities in DC, it was his class that showed me the variety of options that students had at their disposal. Writing two-page papers every week wasn't hard for me, and it allowed me to work on my writing skills and apply them to papers for other classes. Throughout everything we did as a class, Professor Siegel was a knowledgeable, entertaining host and educator. He offered his opinions about our experiences and led engaging class discussions of our excursions. I was so impressed with his style, wit, and approachability, along with his writing talents, that I asked him to be my advisor when I decided to major in English. He was perhaps not the best choice (he said so himself when I asked him), since he was on sabbatical for my junior year and I had to ask another professor to substitute for him, but when I was able to see him for advice about my schedule, he was helpful and tried to provide what insight he could into other classes and professors. I wish I'd gotten more of a chance to know him while I was there. Given my current interest in films, I'm sure I would have liked his film class. One of the films he showed us was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Todd Haynes' infamous movie about the life and death of the singing star, told with Barbie dolls. It's extremely hard to find, since Haynes had to withdraw it from release after the Carpenter family refused to grant him the rights to the songs. It's disturbing and grotesque, yet oddly compelling, and it's just the sort of film that Professor Siegel liked for its effect on his class.

After graduation I continued to enjoy his movie reviews each week in the Washington City Paper. He was always entertaining, whether or not he liked the film he was reviewing. He won a Grammy in 1993 for liner notes he wrote for a jazz album, and I was sometimes proud that I could say I knew a Grammy winner personally. I thought of him occasionally but didn't think I knew him well enough to contact him. I regret not making any effort to stay in touch, and hearing that he's gone saddens me. It's so easy to write a letter to an old friend, and clearly writing is something that I enjoy, so I must make more of an effort to stay in touch with former educators like Professor Siegel while I have the chance.

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