I think that’s the first time I’ve not written “Dr. Burling.” I’d known him since my first day of grad school three years ago and he’s had more of an impact on my life than anyone I’ve ever known, short of my wife and daughter. He was my professor, my mentor of sorts, my scholarly and philosophical model…and he died this weekend from cancer.
I actually first met him a few times at the local astronomy club before I enrolled in grad school. He was the guy who first helped my sight my new telescope in to Saturn, and that’s an incredible sight! Imagine my surprise when weeks later on my first night of English 600, I discover he’s my teacher.
And in that class I was introduced to the concept of questioning ideology. I’d been a born-again skeptic for a couple/few years before that. But Dr. Burling taught me to go even deeper and examine and question the very base of all cultural assumptions and the very concept of “common sense” and “natural law.” It was from him that I learned that “Marxism” was not a dirty word. That I learned about critical theory and cultural criticism, of Lacan and Derrida, and Adorno and Jameson. I learned in that class about the politics of academia, the ideological nature of education, and the value of scholarship. That was literally a life-changing class.
And the next two classes I’d have with him continued that incredible education. I learned that science fiction was not embarrassing genre fiction meant for geek entertainment, but had a special place in cultural criticism. I would never read sf, (which I had always loved simply as escapism but knew just subliminally that it spoke something more to me, but I didn’t know what), the same way again.
He inspired me my first year to write a paper for a conference. I did, and presented it. And would the next year thanks to him. He inspired me to write for peer-reviewed scholarly journals. I have. He gave up his time to help me write at a much higher level than I ever realized I could. He spent a collected many, many hours talking with me in office hours, after class, in e-mails, about everything from the origins of sf to underlying ideological assumptions in current politics.
He was going to have Kim Stanley Robinson, who he had been corresponding with for quite some time and had edited a book about him, come talk to the class he was teaching this semester. This would-be 4th class I would have had with him. Now, whatever synergy of Dr. Burling and Kim Robinson’s time together with us could have gifted us, is gone forever.
I learned so much from him, and I was only just beginning. There was so much more I was planning on learning from him, so much more he could have taught me. It’s a selfish loss, I know. But I’m keenly missing the lost opportunity to confer with him in my future writing and scholarship, to seek his advice and counsel, and continue to learn from him. His wit, his audacity, his brilliance, gone. I’m not ready.
He had on a few occasions called me his peer. That was the greatest honor he could have ever given me.
Dr. William Burling was fiercely intelligent, absolutely committed to his students and the subject of his expertise, dedicated to the ideals of critical thinking and learning which surpassed the confines of organized, institutional education. He inspired me, pushed and challenged me, opened my eyes and changed my life. It’s a little darker of a world without him in it.