I lost a mentor & a friend Saturday night. Frank Moretti, a professor at Columbia University and head of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, passed away after a lengthy fight with cancer. On Sunday morning, I posted the tribute below to my Facebook feed. Since Frank deserves to be honored in every venue available, I’m pasting it here, too.
In an essay about his friend & colleague James Carey, Frank Moretti wrote about the way the voice of a good teacher rattles around in your head for years or even decades after you’ve lost them. Frank passed away yesterday, and this morning I can’t get his voice out of my head. I’m sure a lot of you–his students, friends, employees, family–have similar echoes bouncing around your skulls right now.
Frank once theorized that a major project of education as the process of figuring out who you were before you even had a choice in the matter. How have the great churning wheels of history, culture, and institutions made us into that person in the mirror? How have limited us, or given us opportunities? It’s bitterly ironic that on his last day on earth, a brutal miscarriage of justice–the result of a situation caused by those same churning wheels–occurred in a courtroom in Florida. But Frank taught us that it isn’t enough to know you’re history; you must be a living, breathing, laughing, crying, smiling, shouting rebuke to everything sinister in this world. Even–especially–when things seem their most bleak, you have to put your shoulder to the wheel. Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.
Frank didn’t just pontificate. He embodied his ethos. He personified both clear-eyed thought and radical love. And there are people around the world who are missing him right now.
I had the honor of taking his classes, teaching beside him, drinking whiskey with him, knowing his family. He sent me to Egypt, and slipped me a $50 to help with printing costs for a pamphlet I wrote during the height of Occupy. I listened to him rant about what a terrible movie “Prometheus” was, and I sat beside him, knuckles white, as he toted me around Manhattan with driving skills that were less than pristine. (The conversation was always where Frank put his attention.)
We miss you, Frank. And we love you. You, more than most anyone, were unafraid of discussing mortality, the end that we’re all going to face. Knowing that we’re not going to live forever–really knowing it in our bones–helps us to be more alive in the years we have.
So I’ll end with some lines from Frank’s beloved Homer:
“Everything is more beautiful
because we’re doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.”
We will never be here again. Frank knew that, and he lived like it. And through his profound engagement with the now, he changed us all. Now we’re left to do the same. Let’s do Frank proud, guys. I doubt if his voice, still present for so many of us, will give us any peace if we don’t.