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Weekly 'Hitchhiker's Guide' offers education in pop culture

This week at the drop-in session of "The Dr. T. Project: A Cornell Hitchhiker's Guide to Culture," students learned about three things that Near Eastern Studies professor Shawkat Toorawa thought they should know: Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's "Omeros," what constitutes an autarky and French singer Claude François's song "Comme d'habitude," of which Sinatra's "My Way" is an English rendition.

Sept. 28 marked the fifth meeting of the casual class in the Carol Tatkon Center.

The project has its roots in Toorawa's class Introduction to Near Eastern Civilization last spring. "As we were reading things," he says, "much of which was unfamiliar, I would try to make it more familiar by mentioning works that I thought they might know."

However, Toorawa found that many of the references he used were also unfamiliar to the students. He tried to rectify this by, for example, bringing in a John Keats poem when he learned that several students had never heard of the poet.

Finding that his students did not know many things that he thought were significant, he jokingly told them, "I should teach a class called 'Everything Professor T. Thinks You Should Know but You Don't.'"

After several students e-mailed him to ask how to sign up for such a class, Carol Grumbach, director of the Carol Tatkon Center, suggested he run the session as a program at the center. It began Aug. 24 during Orientation.

"Something like 50 or 60 people showed up," Toorawa says. "And we thought, 'This might work.'"

Since then, the program has been weekly, and Toorawa has presented three topics that he considers important every session. These have included: music from the British rock group The Clash, Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes and Tejana singer Lydia Mendoza; clips from West African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene and "Star Trek"; and literary references, including African-American science fiction author Octavia Butler, 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta and Asterix.

Meetings are but 30 minutes long, as Toorawa hopes short meetings will be more appealing to busy students. "It's a no-pressure, no-commitment exposure to three items quickly discussed," he says. "You don't have to speak, you don't have to sign up, you don't get a grade, you don't have to do anything except attend."

The program meets Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in Room 3330, Carol Tatkon Center. Tea and shortbread are served.

Toorawa said he'd like the program to expand, ideally, with professors in other departments hosting sessions on different days. "No two people could possibly have the same set of things ... because it's based on our individual experiences," he says. In the meantime, he plans to have guest colleagues in coming sessions offer three items of personal interest to them.

And, in case you were wondering, autarky is a national policy of economic self-sufficiency.

Jenny Proctor '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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John Carberry