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UNM Lecturer Loves Stirring Up Students

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — James Burbank, a member of the University of New Mexico faculty, suggested in a recent letter to the Daily Lobo that the solution to the pesky (un)Occupy Albuquerque protests would be to grind the protesters into hamburger, form them into patties and serve them as 99 percent burgers at the Student Union “as an object lesson to the survivors.”

Response to the letter was swift and outraged. A graduate student took the newspaper to task for allowing a letter writer to propose “the systematic murder of protesters.”

Then another letter appeared, citing Burbank’s long history of crackpot letters, including ones that have suggested male professors be eliminated by firing squad, that Osama bin Laden be hired as university president and that everyone come to campus armed in order to keep it safe.

“He’s a Nazi, this Burbank,” the letter writer opined. “He disturbs and irritates me and he almost makes me think, and I don’t want to think. I find it painful and ugly. … I think he should be strung up, flayed alive, or at the very least he should be silenced.”

That letter was signed, of course, “James Burbank, UNM faculty.”

Burbank, in his frequent letters to the editor, is crass, outrageous, juvenile and annoying. What’s not to like? Burbank in person is thoughtful and dedicated to the idea that college is a place to learn how to think and that learning how to think is sometimes painful.

Burbank has been a full-time lecturer in the UNM English department for a decade. There’s been some controversy about calling such a needling wag as he a professor, because he is not on a tenure track and he is anything but professorial. But Burbank also holds the position of vice president of UNM’s American Association of University Professors chapter, so let’s accept that it is a distinguished UNM professor who has in his deftly penned letters:

n Encouraged guns on campus, especially as a way to rid the university of rude skateboarders and unpopular professors.

n Proposed a national ban on breathing.

n Suggested both Mike Locksley and Osama bin Laden for university president.

n Defended the rights of glue-sniffers and paint-huffers and suggested a designated campus huffing area.

n Called for voluntary euthanasia for male professors and for executing professors who get bad student ratings and replacing them with more entertaining game show hosts.

When I sat down with Burbank last week in his little office at the end of a corridor in the Humanities Building, he told me that his job as a writing instructor is to encourage students to put the subjects, verbs and nouns into the right order, but that his mission as a university professor is to challenge students and provoke them into critical thinking.

Satire – taking a dumb idea to the extreme to show how dumb it is – seems the perfect vehicle to both ends.

So, for the record, he doesn’t really want to eat protesters or stand before a firing squad or have to say, “Welcome, President Locksley” at faculty meetings. He’s kidding. Kidding with a sharp point.

Burbank was a journalist before he pursued a master’s degree at UNM and eventually became a professor. He likes to write and his letters to the Lobo have become one of his creative outlets. (He’s also a poet.)

“Satire has the power to disturb and to upset and throw things around and turn them upside down,” Burbank told me. “What strikes one person funny can be terribly upsetting and insulting to other people.”

Think of it as tough love. “I love this place. I love the students. I love our mission,” Burbank says. But, “I’m not here to make people feel good.”

So I had to ask, “How is it that you haven’t been fired?”

In fact, Burbank said, no one in the university administration has ever asked him to even tone down his satirical bite.

A university is one of those rare institutions where one can say outrageous things and be rewarded for it. That’s a good thing. College is where children grow from unsophisticated parrots into grown-ups armed with the powers of analysis and reason.

Sometimes it takes an annoying crackpot to get them there.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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