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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Clinton's class | Message in a bottle | That old time religion | "Dr. Lorenzo" | Ross . . . Robyn Ross


When my professor Jim Corder died, I wrote his obituary for the TCU Daily Skiff. I don't think he would have liked it. The personal essay was his genre. So this is what I should have written.

By William Thomas Burdette '99

Jim Corder died this week at age 68 and I'm still counting. He died on Saturday, Aug. 29. I learned about it the following Monday.

I stole that opening from his book, Yonder: Life on the Far Side of Change, only, when he wrote it, he was writing about Bob Coluci, a tobacco store owner, who died 10 years and 13 days ago. Coluci sold Jim Corder the coarse-cut tobacco, unadorned, that he liked to smoke. Dr. Corder sold me several ideas, equally unadorned.

Dr. Corder wrote "We were not close, I guess," so I will borrow that line as well. I saw him at his work, once a week, for a semester, during which he taught me to write. I hesitate to say he changed my life, trite as the phrase may be, but he did. He changed my life like a week on an island that semester changed my life. They are brief windows in time, but they tweaked my perspective, slowed me down.

The name of the class was Rhetoric and Social Interaction, but it was about life on the edge of the great American desert. It was about old baseball gloves. It was about street names, and family names, and names on tombstones. It was about personal history, and how each of us has one. We can't borrow each other's and pretend like it's ours. We can't borrow, but we can take, and integrate, these histories into our own.

He was vague and often cryptic. His assignments were ambiguous and more than open-ended. I wanted to speed up the pace during those first few classes. My subconscious clock wanted Corder's lectures to be faster. I was antsy; having come from Tae Kwon Do class, I just wanted him to give me the point and let me react to it like I had been programmed to do for years.

"Here's the assignment. Here's what I want. Here's when I want it," is what I wanted him to say. I had worked out a pretty good formula for getting As in English classes. You found out the professors paradigm; read some scholarship, possibly his; come up with something original, or during a lull in creative juices, something obscure. Combine all ingredients and serve on 8 1/2 x 11 paper with normal margins and you get an A in most cases.

I had heard that, in Corder's classes, everyone got As. I don't know if that was just hearsay, but when we got our first papers back, I asked around. There could have been several Bs or Cs, but I couldn't find any. I once heard him say he hated to grade papers, but loved to read them. I didn't translate that to "everyone gets an A." To be honest, I was a little mad. If everyone got an A, then my secret was of no use. In a sense, what I wrote was no better, no more insightful or thought-provoking, no more worth reading than anyone else's.

That was Corder's point. We all have our stories to tell and we can only tell our own. I told a colleague about Corder's theory and she said it was, "spoken like a man who put his kids through college on royalties from a rhetoric textbook." Corder did, I think, put his children through college on a rhetoric book he wrote, but maybe that's because he was right.

Is a kid who grows up on the streets, speaking slang, less qualified to tell us his story? Is part of his story the way he tells it? Is his dialect pertinent or should we make him clean it up so that it jives with English convention? Corder said it's the weird and the bad things that make us interesting. I am pretty sure he was right.

It wasn't until after several classes that I understood that Corder's slow pace wasn't from old age. I had assumed that he talked slow and walked slow and paused for several seconds during lectures because he was just old. But in reality, it was deliberate. His wife, Roberta, said of him, "Jim never does anything by accident," and later she said, "When we first got married, he would make the bed 10 minutes before we got into it. Now, I can't leave the house without making the bed."

That was the impact that his deliberate nature had on people. You took notice, wondered why, maybe tried to speed it up, then learned to accept it -- even revel in it -- as a different way in which to view the world.

So, after several classes, I knew the slow pace wasn't from old age, but my overprogrammed inner clock still didn't understand it. I didn't understand why he encouraged us not to take notes, but to sit and listen. I didn't understand why his stories seemed to wander around like a dog on a hot afternoon, just looking for a shady place to stop and lie down. When it got close, it'd circle around the spot for a while then it'd stop.

The same inner clock didn't understand why, for a week I spent in St. Croix, I didn't work, didn't write, didn't watch TV; I ate, drank, slept, swam, napped, drank, ate, slept. I felt like I should be doing something. Like I was wrong to be wasting my time wandering around an island. But I enjoyed every minute of it. Just like Corder's class. It was like being in another dimension in which time moved backward or crept forward or didn't move at all. It was not at all like the "Sesame Street" pace I had grown up believing was normal.

Just when I was getting used to island time, to Corder time -- when I began to understand the pace -- my vacation was over. I went home. He died. The pace sped back up. It may seem strange to compare a college rhetoric class to a vacation in St. Croix. But I still think of the island. I still think of Corder. When I do, my heart beats slower and I long for more time ­ time like that, not just any time, slow time. Meandering time.

He taught me to meander through my writing, my life, not without purpose, but without hurry. I can't write without thinking of him, of his pace, and his meandering stories. I am happy to say that.

He taught students that "they are talking out of a particular history but they are not saying a whole truth." Maybe that was why he hated to grade papers. He felt he could not justifiably tell students that they weren't telling their own stories correctly because he didn't think he knew the whole truth. "Nobody knows that," he used to say. He didn't mind the work; he'd read all the papers and scribble comments in the margins. But he hated the idea of placing a value judgment on someone else's personal history, the way they tell it. No one knows the whole truth because our history changes, and our histories change. We change. People change us.

"Rhetoric is the way we situate ourselves in our lives that determines the way we write and talk," he said. "Situating yourself may also mean learning to re-situate yourself."

Now I have to re-situate myself and get used to the idea that Jim Corder, who some have called the quintessential professor, is gone. I can't go back to his class. I can't go back to the island. My days are moving a little too fast for me now.

Roberta said, "It's contrary to his nature to put himself forward. He'll never blow his own horn but there is a horn there that needs to be heard."

For many of those who took class from Corder or read his books or had a conversation with him, his horn, more like a flute than a trumpet, has been heard and remains fixed in our own personal history.

I can't go back to his class, back to the island, and time is moving a little too fast for me now. Perhaps I should take another page from Jim Corder and slow it down, meander for a while.

William Thomas Burdette held some high position at the TCU Daily Skiff and is from Fort Worth.