Matt Dillon Is Dead: Why We Need Videos on the Academe Blog


Marty, a man whose writing I very much admire and whom I hope to meet in person one day (I really wish his office was just down the hall from mine so we could go get coffee), wrote in his postscript addressing my post, which in turn had addressed a post on the Chronicle page (yes, I know this has the sound and look of a giant car pileup), something very important that tugged at my heart strings and would have exercised my tear ducts if I had been a little younger:

“P.S. Matt Dillon–or at least James Arness (for those too young to remember, the actor who played the sheriff for two-plus decades on TV)–is dead, literally and figuratively, albeit by natural causes–and he was always a fictional character.”

The truth of this postscript makes me sad because I really enjoyed watching Gunsmoke, especially the earlier, black-and-white, half-hour episodes. No, I am not old enough to have watched those live in prime time. I have the DVDs, and one year, when I caught influenza, I feverishly watched at least 100 episodes. I should here add also that I have watched Gunsmoke episodes while not having a fever.

Let me explain what makes me sad about the P.S. Though James Arness lived a long life, he died at the age of 88, I hated for him to die, because he brought me much joy and more than joy through his work as an actor portraying Matt Dillon. I even have an autographed photo by James Arness of Matt Dillon, which Arness signed shortly before his death. He had bad arthritis and the signature shows it, and he suffered throughout life from pain due to injuries sustained during World War II. This is probably more than some want to know about James Arness and Matt Dillon, but I will also add that I have the photograph framed in a rustic way and it sits on bookshelf behind me when I write. I am aware also, now that I analyze the positioning of myself and the signed photo of Matt Dillon, that he has my back.

A few months ago I started to write a piece on why Marshal Matt Dillon would make a great college president and why John Wayne would not. I didn’t finish the piece, or more than likely I would have subjected my Academe friends to my musings on the subject. What I admire about Matt Dillon is that he did not shoot first and then ask questions. He was a man who killed people as a last resort, and then it was to protect innocent, hardworking people. I am aware of course that this took place within the universe of a television western (and yes, there were TV movies made later on also) and I am not suggesting that this kind of justice take place off-screen. But I admire Matt Dillon because he seemed like the kind of man who would be a referee, someone who could moderate disputes, and unlike John Wayne as cowboy, did not engage in macho bullshit. Matt Dillon stood tall for integrity (I won’t bore you with how tall he was). Things were in good hands with the Marshal.

Okay. So what does all of this have to do with the piece I wrote on concealed carry, death threats, and academic freedom?

When I saw the Chronicle posting, I felt, for lack of a better word, angry. I was angry because no matter how-well intentioned the piece likely was, it was so loud that I did not perceive that it would contribute to establishing a dialogue. That’s when I decided, I am going to write a piece that is just as loud and completely “opposite.”

I must admit sometime during the writing of the piece I felt not necessarily mischievous, but I told myself, this is good, this is really going to piss people off. I wanted my piece to piss people off because I hoped it would show just how outrageous some of “academic” communication is–a shout fest. I was smiling at some of the touches I applied, and then decided, no, I better take this and that out because it will sound too over the top, as when I added the word “liberals” in my original draft.

I thought I had succeeded when I was done with my piece, thinking, this piece will really set the Academe Blog on fire (of course not literally, because I want the blog to be alive, just as I want Matt Dillon to be alive). And here is where Matt Dillon comes in again.

We need a moderator, a self-moderator, if such can exist, when we engage in the discussion of issues. We need a peace-maker (no, I am not referring to the Colt). Too often, and by necessity, we write our pieces taking a stand (that is the terminology) as if we are gun slingers. We need a Matt Dillon to break up and prevent some of the fights. Nothing good comes out of those fights.

As I mourn the absence of Matt Dillon, perfectly aware that he is dead and was a fictitious character, I am wondering how we can improve communication which is mostly asynchronous and also, to a certain extent, written for our “ideal” audience. I can pick out, for example, a piece by Aaron or Marty, if someone were to leave the name off the blog posting. And sometimes, call it mischief or satire or parody, it is necessary to get out of the comfort zone, turn it up even one more notch (not Emeril or what some characters in westerns do with their butts, guns’ that is) and really write something that will make us think even more and, after having brought attention to an important issue, to discuss in a peaceful way. I don’t see, for example, the Chronicle post and my post in response as constructive dialogue.  But it was mighty fun to compose the post.  Attention is brought to an issue, but then it is time for people to settle down and come up with solutions together.

And now we finally get to the video part of header of this post. We are all aware how easy it is to communicate badly via email. Tone is lost, even those annoying icons (though I somehow like the smiley face as long as it’s made by the writer using colon, parenthesis, and dash), cannot convey what face-to-face achieves. I thought, even though I do not like to watch videos, unless they are Gunsmoke and other fare, could we improve communication by posting videos on the Academe Blog of our opinions, so that at least some tone and some facial expressions might be interpreted better than text. I should say also that I do not like to speak to a camera, that I prefer to be “right there” in the room, with whomever I am talking, but some comprises still have to be made unless we all can have coffee, or tea, together.

It is my hope that while Matt Dillon is dead his spirit to solve issues without a gunfight lives on. I also challenge (no, not to a duel) others to write some pieces that will wake us up in our discourse community (yes, an overused buzz word). Because the goal, however corny it sounds to some, but likely not in our group, is to help students learn and make this world a better place, especially now that Matt Dillon is gone :-), and I hope the smiley emoticon I just made will be preserved as I post.

2 thoughts on “Matt Dillon Is Dead: Why We Need Videos on the Academe Blog

  1. Ulf, you are no doubt aware of this, but many of our younger colleagues and readers may not know it.

    Gunsmoke originated as a radio program, and Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, who went on to star in the television series Cannon, in which he played a burly private detective (when he was chasing someone, he looked as if he was about to gasp his last breath before he crashed into him), and Jake and the Fatman, in which he played a cantankerous and kind of sloppy fat district attorney. As a side note, I can’t help but add that Conrad also was the narrator for The Fugitive television series and for the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series.

    In any case, despite the great popularity of Gunsmoke as a radio program, the television show’s producers decided that William Conrad was physically too far outside the “type” of the Western marshal. It was probably a wise choice. James Arness was a big man, but one never imagined the horse groaning as he mounted it. (I always thought that the horse than Dan Blocker rode on Bonanza must have been saying to the other horses in the corral, “How come I never get one of the skinny guys?”)

    Lastly, James Arness and Peter Graves were brothers, a fact that astounded me when I learned it because Peter Graves always played more cerebral characters–not just as the lead in the Mission Impossible television series but in several films in which he played Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, an introspective literary descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. (Paul Newman played Archer in several films, but for some reason they renamed the character Lew Harper.)

    P.S. The video posts are an interesting idea, and I agree that they would allow for more nuance. The downside might be that it’s one thing to read a writer regularly, when you get to imagine how he or she sounds, but it might be quite another thing to actually have to listen to that writer. (I am thinking, I guess, that I may “sound” better in someone’s head than in person.)

  2. I hope this blog doesn’t go the video route. I can read a post in 1/5 the time it takes to watch a video of the same words (and without needing a high-bandwidth connection). I generally skip any videos in blogs I read, and if a blogger starts doing a high ratio of videos, I unsubscribe, knowing that they aren’t talking to me or people like me anyway.

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