By Linda Shapiro
Professor Robin Brown asks, “What questions aren’t you asking?"
Robin Brown analyzes culture with the tenacity of a mountain climber, the methodology of a scientist, and the experiential immersion of an anthropologist. A polymath with a degree in English linguistics and a deep background in science, cultural ethnography, and pedagogy, Brown keeps his fingers on the pulse of contemporary culture while he’s parsing the historical, linguistic, and social forces that have formed it.
Even his extracurricular passions are informed by his multidimensional approach to teaching and research, whether he’s taking people on wilderness adventures (he’s a mountaineer and guide who both theorizes about and plays in the wilderness), crafting Renaissance and baroque instruments (he’s a master of the International Guild of Luthiers), or building furniture. “Literally anything can be the site for understanding culture. Any cultural text or practice can be read," insists Brown, who firmly believes that we are what we eat—and read, play, watch, and drive.
Brown sees cultural studies as a place where disparate subjects and disciplines, activities, and points of view can intersect in surprising ways to spark eureka moments. “I’m interested in language/cultural relationships and questions of linguistic relativity," he says. “How you think determines not only who you are and how you use language, but also how you use music and art and food." In his popular and innovative course Introduction to Cultural Studies: Rhetoric, Power, Desire, Brown’s goal is to help students develop these intersections into a fuller understanding of their world and their place in it. “I want students to be aware that what forms them is everything from their dialects and MySpace pages to their Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts and the movies they watch."
“We are trying to make students into active, informed readers of culture by teaching them that culture can be understood systematically and criticized," says Brown. “Cultural studies tests your faith and makes you look at how you are thinking." As one “testing" exercise, he assigns the Academy Award–winning film Crash in his rhetoric unit. “My students love it and say things like ‘this has changed how I see the issue of Robin Brown race,’" he says. “But I ask them to look at how the film enables us to continue being racist by arguing that we’re all racists, in a way that sort of erases political action."
From English to Cultural StudiesBrown came to CSCL with a reputation for innovative teaching, especially in composition. Hired by the English department in 1972 to “do something about the composition program," he joined forces with Professor Donald Ross to develop a comprehensive, theoretically grounded, research-based training program for the composition staff that became a model for many universities across the country.
In 1980 Brown and Ross founded the pioneering Program in Composition and Communication, which addressed the writing needs of students in the arts, sciences, social sciences, business, and technology and included research-based teacher training. “The training introduced the teaching assistants to new research going on about student writing. The TAs got to actually model pedagogy by practicing what they were teaching," says Ross, who is now affiliated with the new program in writing studies.
While Brown remains committed to teaching students how to write analytically about a broad range of subjects, he was feeling constrained by disciplinary boundaries. In 1997 he moved to CSCL. “Cultural studies is a new way of structuring knowledge and of looking at how knowledge is organized," he says. “In this department we ask first: What questions aren’t you asking? Those questions will be profoundly political and economic. They’ll be questions about power, class, race, and gender."
By nudging students out of their comfort zones, those questions also provoke students into rethinking their assumptions about the world. In a unit called “Body and Politics of Representation," Brown’s class looks at how views of the female nude have evolved through time in different cultures. “The vanitas tradition in art associates women’s bodies with sex, sin, and death," he says. “I connect that tradition to sex education classes in high school that associate a woman’s body with herpes, genital warts, and syphilis." That forces students to reexamine their own thinking about bodies, gender, and sexuality.
Take the history of Zonite, an under-the-counter contraceptive that became a feminine hygiene product after World War II. Because contraceptives became more acceptable after the war and the market was flooded with them, “Zonite was left with no market share, so they rebranded it and placed it in the vanitas tradition by inventing a new condition: vaginal odor," says Brown. To understand the forces at work in making this happen, the class studied Hans Baldung’s 16th-century portrait Eve, the Serpent and Adam as Death—which associates female sexuality with sin, death, and putrefaction—and “pulled together church history, art history, medical practices, marketing practices, trademark law, and WorldWar II. Take your pick."
Brown has always been driven by his passion for teaching. Back in 1980 he was named Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education, and in 1996 he received the Arthur “Red" Motley Exemplary Teaching Award. “He is an extraordinarily talented teacher, whether in one-on-one tutorials or large lecture classes," says CSCL Professor Richard Leppert. “His teaching is theoretically sophisticated but also very concrete; he uses examples from everyday life that students connect with. Teaching is a lifelong commitment for Robin."
Cultural ScienceBrown’s current research delves into the often thorny relationship between science and culture. He is particularly interested in the “construction" of diseases and in the complex interconnections between drug companies, patent law, marketing, and delivery systems. He cites the antidepressant drug Zoloft, which rebranded itself as a cure for something called premenstrual dysphoric disorder. “Until we had Zoloft and its cousins, we did not have PMDD," says Brown. “When Zoloft was about to go off patent, they put their guys together to see of they could discover a new disease so that they can have seven more years of patent."
Brown is also exploring the fascinating affinities between two “epidemics" of the late 1980s and early 1990s: multiple personality disorder and demonic possession. These disorders have identical symptoms and manifestations, he says, but while MPD is recognized and taken seriously as a psychological disorder by the therapeutic community, “satanic panic" is considered simply aberrant or bizarre. Brown sees this disparity as primarily a class issue: “Pentecostal religions generally attract poorer segments of the population than those who will go to a therapist," he says. Class privilege, in other words, confers upon disordered behavior a kind of legitimacy that is denied to people of a lower class.
If issues of class and power distribution are never far from his mind, they also inform his heartfelt commitment to public higher education—for reasons that are deeply personal. “My heart is with people like me," Brown says. “I was raised working class and the public university system saved me. I’m dedicated to public universities as places where kids can come from any background and discover they are smart."