Friday, February 5, 2016


In college at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s, I worked for a small publisher whose primary product was lecture notes.  Notetakers, by preference graduate students in the field, were dispatched to lecture courses at the University to take notes and write them up for sale by subscription.  The notes were produced on a tight schedule; if they weren't in the office by 8:00 the next morning, the notetaker lost money for every hour they were late.

In the afternoon, the notetaker would appear for an editorial conference and do penance for every unclear expression, dangling modifier, misplaced comma, misused relative pronoun -- the list went on and on, and was rigorously enforced.  If you could write lecture notes for Tom Winnett you could be a professional writer.  I wish someone had told me that at the time.

The photo offset printing process was much more sophisticated than the purple-ink mimeograph that we of a certain age remember, but it did require a stencil that couldn't be corrected.  The typist explained that she was able to produce error-free copy because she knew she had to.  It takes, as someone has observed, all kinds.  That woman's nervous system was wired differently from mine, that's for sure.

The notes for the six or eight courses covered in a semester were available three days after the lecture; students bought the current notes as the course progressed.

At the beginning of each semester, Tom would send his veteran notetakers to the first meetings of large classes to take notes and count potential enrollees; then he would decide whether or not to continue with the course.  Checking out a class in drama, I sat in the auditorium with my pen and notebook, diligently scribbling and keeping an ear open for topic sentences for the required outline form.

The lecture began straightforwardly enough; but a page or two into the proceedings, I found increasing difficulty snagging possible outline material, or making sense of the lecture at all.  I finally gave up and set my pen down and watched.

Two young women made their way onto the stage and took off the instructor's jacket and tie and, among other antics, roped his arms to his sides at the elbows.  He continued speaking without missing a beat, the lecture deteriorating into utter nonsense.  Finally, one of the girls led him off the stage; the other advised us, in the impassioned accents often heard at the time, to forget all this and "make theater in the streets."

I reported my experience to Tom just as it happened.  "If he's going to do that sort of thing," he stated, "I don't think we'll do this course."  Understandable -- but disappointing.