One of my favorite professors from college passed away this week. While he was without a doubt one of the most influential figures during my time at Vanguard University, it would not be a stretch to say that one of my least favorite professors also passed away a few nights ago. I showed the film ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ to one of my classes this week, and there is a scene towards the end of the film that describes quite precisely how I, and I presume many of my former colleagues, felt about Dr. Craig Rusch. In this scene Royal Tenenbaum is walking with Henry Sherman, the man about to marry his ex-wife. Royal is attempting to make amends with Henry and says something to the effect of “I’ve always been considered kind of an asshole, but it would really eat me up if I knew you wouldn’t forgive me” to which Henry responds, “I don’t think you’re an asshole Royal…you’re just kind of a son-of-a-bitch.” Upon hearing this Royal smiles warmly, as if this is one of the kindest things that could have been said to him.
I could easily imagine Craig Rusch with the same grin on his face while being told by one of the countless students he inspired, challenged and frustrated to no end that he was in fact ‘kind of a son-of-a-bitch’, maybe the most legendary son-of-a-bitch that Vanguard University will ever have on its campus.
Vanguard is a fairly small Christian college in shockingly conservative Orange County, California. It is not the sort of place one expects to find a hot bed of intellectual activity, engaged political thinking, and theologically irreverent debates. But for a period of time this is just the sort of environment created in the small program for Cultural Anthropology at Vanguard University. Besides the many who go on to study at a host of theological seminaries, Vanguard is also not the place where one finds many students planning to go on to graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences, but when I go through the list of the students I know who have graduated from the department of Cultural Anthropology department at Vanguard University, a majority have gone on to carry out graduate work in a number of fields.
Now, I am not saying that without Craig Rusch none of this would have been the case, but I have no doubt that many Anthropology alumni, myself included, may have easily let the thought of graduate school slip away if it was not for the blunt and sometimes aggressive encouragement we received from Craig.
I know that if it was not for an ‘Anthropological Theory’ course taught by Craig, I never would have been exposed to the figures in anthropological, cultural and critical theory which eventually led me to study contemporary European philosophy. While Vanguard did offer a few classes in philosophy, I am quite sure that none of the students who enrolled in them were ever forced to critically engage with the implications of the post-structuralist turn in the European humanities.
Let me be clear, however, that it was not Craig’s intellectual intensity alone that qualifies him for the title of biggest son-of-a-bitch in Vanguard University history. Along with being a harbinger of academic rigor at the University, Craig also embodied the sort of ‘fuck you’ attitude that flew in the face of the somewhat conservative and stifling tendencies of the school. At a place which treats alcohol consumption amongst legal adults with an intensity usually reserved for meth production in middle school science labs, Craig kept a bottle of scotch in his office, and turned his home into a personal micro-brewery. Upon finding out that some friends and I had discovered a fantastic Irish bar that he frequented, he quickly informed me that we were to ‘keep the place to ourselves’ and ‘not tell anyone else’, in fear that we would all be found out by the watchful eyes of Jesus’ prohibition enforcing army.
Craig taught us that we could still exist within the tradition that our University was founded upon while not being afraid to critically re-consider some of the pillars of that tradition. He was not irreverent for the sake of being irreverent, but rather he lived with a freedom and energy that paid tribute to the power that comes with serious thought. While many of us surely did not agree with much of what Craig said, and he made few disciples, he opened us up to a way of thinking that I could not begin to thank him for.
Sadly, that chance to say thank you has come and gone. As I approach the conclusion of my doctoral dissertation, I occasionally think of the professors and mentors from my past that I will be excited to share the news with. I had already imagined the response I may get after an email to Craig informing him that I finished something that I never would have started without his encouragement. The email likely would have arrived days late, bearing a time stamp that would indicate it had been hurriedly written somewhere in between last call and his morning alarm clock, and would contain no more than a couple of lines. I imagine it would read something like this:
“Dr. Burns, you beautiful bastard. Congratulations. Now go get yourself a fucking beer. -Craig.”