by Con Chapman
URBANA, Illinois. Tillie Peterson’s college days were cut short forty-five years ago when, at the age of 20, she decided to get married. “I’ve never regretted that decision,” says Tillie, “but I’ve always wondered how my life would have turned out if I’d gotten my degree.”
Like many senior citizens with time on their hands and a desire to keep their minds active, Tillie is considering a return to college in her golden years, a development that concerns her husband Lowell. “I’m an old-timer,” he says. “I can’t be learning how to make coffee or a baloney sandwich at my age. I need Tillie around the house.”
So Lowell contacted the Not-So-Great-Course Company, which produces video and cassette tapes of boring or just plain bad college lectures that can be used to discourage those who are eager to learn. “We have just about every flavor you can think of,” says President Mark Adamle. “The professor who lectures to his shoestrings, the war-story maven who never gets around to the course material, you name it.”
The Not-So-Great-Course Company has attracted criticism and a threat of legal action from the Great Course Company, which tapes lectures by outstanding college professors in a variety of fields and promotes them through ads in high-brow publications such as The New York Times Book Review and Weed Wacker Monthly. “They’re trading on our name and undermining our message,” says the Great Course Company’s Greg Mayo, “which is that you’re never too old to learn but you may be too old to drive to your local community college.”
Lowell hasn’t completely discouraged Tillie from going back to school, but she has agreed for the time being to limit her commitment to a single offering–Macaroni Art of the Italian Renaissance–an introductory course favored by athletic scholarship students at the University of Illinois who take it to fulfill a first-year humanities requirement. As Tillie takes her seat in the middle section of the lecture hall, she is unaware that the jocks are using her as a square on their “Nerd Bingo” cards. If three students on a card speak in class and the player successfully works the word “Bingo” into a subsequent answer, he wins the day’s pot, which can sometimes exceed $10.
“I think macaroni art is a symbol of man’s yearning to use the foods of the Middle Ages as the inspiration for the more refined aesthetic products of the Renaissance,” Tillie says, and Jason Girardin, a 240-pound offensive lineman in the back row, pounces.
“I don’t know, professor,” he says with a smirk. “If you get hungry and eat the art, then bingo–you’re right back in the Dark Ages.”