Tea, Shortbread, and 3 Things Worth Knowing

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 13, 2011

"Then I saw the crystal poet / Leaning on the old sea-rail; / In his breast lay death, the lover, / In his head, the nightingale."

I cited those lines in an introductory course I taught last year, one that attracts potential Near Eastern-studies majors from the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University and students from other disciplines: pre-meds, engineers, "hotelies," and others searching for a literature class, looking for a break from requirements, seeking an elective, or simply trying to find a way to broaden their knowledge of culture. I didn't wonder that none of the 24 students immediately got the reference, but when I told them the lines were about John Keats (death is his tuberculosis, the nightingale his splendid ode), I was truly surprised that several of them had no idea who he was. Ah, bitter chill it was.

Not just Keats. Octavia Butler. The Sex Pistols. Garrison Keillor. At one point, I said to the students, "I should teach a class on everything Professor Toorawa thinks you should know but you don't." In fact, I said this three or four times over the course of the semester. I wasn't serious, of course—even my megalomania has limits. But then, over the summer, several students—some from class and some to whom I had recounted my experience—e-mailed me inquiring after the title and number of "that class." I mentioned this to Carol Grumbach, who directs Cornell's Carol Tatkon Center, an intellectual and cultural drop-in place for first-year students. Her response was, "Why don't you do it? Teach the course. You can offer it here, at the Tatkon." The twinkle in her eye persuaded me, and so I proposed "The Dr. T. project: a Cornell hiTchhiker's guide To culTure." The capitalized T's became de rigueur when we noticed the confluence of my name—many students call me Dr. T.—the Tatkon's name, Tuesday, and my insistence that we serve English tea.

Now every Tuesday, from 5 to 5:30—just 30 minutes—I speak about three items of cultural interest to anyone who drops by. This is not a course, there's no sign-up, no attend­ance requirement, no homework. And it's not prescriptive; it's simply an opportunity for students to encounter some things they might want to know about and explore further.

Recently, in a Great Works course I'm teaching, I described the punishing landscape of Arabia to contextualize a fifth-century poem. Realizing that the students wouldn't necessarily be able to conjure up that desert, I asked them to think of scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. Blank stares. "Hidalgo, with Viggo Mortensen—Aragorn—you know, about the mustang, with Omar Sharif, who's also in Lawrence of Arabia?" Blank stares. David Lean?

Like last year, my surprise was not that students at a major university did not know certain authors, works, or films; it was that I had known a lot of these things at their age. Were we more cultured in the good old days? I doubt it. Was there less to know? Maybe, in absolute terms, but certainly there are as many dramatis personae in Shakespeare now as there were then. Is there less curiosity now? Surely not: My daughters Google aggressively when they don't know something. Or could it just be that we (schools, colleges, dare I say professors?) are simply not "delivering product" as well as we could or should? And if that is the case, why not remedy it? If I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem, no?

So I pick three "items of cultural interest" every week and present them. I limit myself to one literary item, one musical item, and one general item. One week I chose Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, hero of the Hindu epic Mahabharata and "occasioner" of the Bhagavad-Gita, from which I read a few lines; the Shadows, who created the four-man band format, which the Beatles made (more) famous; and Citroën, the French car, which I pointed out in clips from The Day of the Jackal and Gattaca. Another week I opened by saying, "For the next 30 minutes, we're going to learn a little bit about Stephen Biko, a legendary South African anti-apartheid activist and hero; Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author who writes very, very good books—her novels are not short, but you ought to read at least one or two of them (I suggest starting with The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a film not well worth watching); and lastly ... Romulans, enemies of the good guys, the Federation. From Romulans you will learn what constitutes villainy and treachery, and from the Federation, the stuff of heroism." I played a track of Peter Gabriel singing "Biko," and I mentioned "Black is beautiful" and Ken Saro-Wiwa in passing. I talked about Canadian writers; I played a clip from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Defector."

Just 30 minutes, once a week. Admittedly, there's some prep time, and I linger to talk with anyone who wants to chat. All in all, it is a small time commitment with huge payout for attendees, and for me. I always choose items I know about, but in thinking about how to present them, I inevitably learn. Those wanting to delve further can go to the Cornell bookstore, which has dedicated space to books relating to items I cover. There is now also a Web site,

I urge my colleagues—at Cornell and elsewhere—to host similar events. Some of my local colleagues have even made guest appearances. For instance, Scott MacDonald, a philosophy professor, has spoken about Jackson Pollock's "Full Fathom Five"; Anthony Hay, a microbiology professor, about gut bacteria; Tommy Bruce, a Cornell vice president, about the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum; and Christine Yao, a graduate student in English, about the game The Legend of Zelda.

Drop by the Tatkon next Tuesday to savor some tea and shortbread and to hear about The Epic of Son-Jara, the Travel­ing Wilburys, and the "color maker," Pantone. Better yet, pick three items to cover in your own hitchhiker's guide.

Shawkat M. Toorawa is an associate professor of Arabic literature and Islamic studies at Cornell University.