- Rita Gross as Teacher, Mentor, Friend
I have been asked to speak about the work of Rita Gross from the point of view of someone who was once her student. Not only was I her student, I was one of her very first students. She was my first teacher of religious studies during my first semester of college in the first semester of her first full-time academic position. The year was 1971; the place was New College, a small, alternative liberal arts college in Sarasota, Florida. As the eldest child in the second generation of a working-class immigrant family, I was the first person in my family to pursue higher education. While none of my grandparents had completed high school, both of my parents were high school graduates and my father had risen to a professional level as an engineer through on-the-job training and his own diligence, so my attending college was perhaps the next logical step in achieving the "American dream." However, my choice of college was a bit unusual.
New College, as might be expected by its name (though I later discovered was named after a college at Oxford), was new and relatively unknown, lacking a football team and an engineering school, which my parents, with their limited knowledge of higher education, considered essential. But by this time I was somewhat of an educational radical, having been influenced by Angela Davis and Paolo Freire.1 A local newspaper article of the time described New College students as "rich, radical, and hedonistic" (I can only attest to ever having been one of the above). The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice2 described New College as a place where students taught the classes and where "chicks suffer from underwear famine." While this was somewhat of an overstatement, it was the kind of place where students initiated courses, were largely free from required courses, conducted unusual independent research, came to class barefoot, and sat on the floor. In any case, as the first in my working-class immigrant family to attend college and as an idealist who had chafed against a system that I felt, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, allowed schooling to interfere with education, I was excited to be in any college and especially in one with a reputation for experimental modes of learning.
When I went to meet my assigned faculty advisor to figure out my schedule and negotiate a "contract" of study, I was told that I had been reassigned to a new faculty member who was "young and full of energy." This, of course, was Rita Gross. Asian religious and cultural traditions place a strong significance on the first meeting with [End Page 57] one's teacher. To be honest, I do not remember much about our first meeting, but I can say in retrospect that it was life changing. After meeting with her, I decided to take her course, Indian Religions I, as well as courses in philosophy, literature, and constitutional law. On my first day of college, my initial plan had been to major in philosophy, with a focus on legal philosophy, with the eventual goal of law school and practicing constitutional, civil rights, or public interest law. But my experience in that Indian Religions I course changed that plan forever. I subsequently took Indian Religions II, then Indian Religious III, and by that time I was hooked. I took several other courses with Rita, including East Asian Religions and a tutorial on Primal Religions. In January of my second year, at Rita's encouragement, I went to Sri Lanka on a study program, doing a project under Rita's direction on lay Buddhist practices. By the time I returned to New College for my third and final year, Rita had already left for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but that was not the end of our association. We have stayed in contact for almost forty years now, meeting at the AAR, visiting each other's homes, and talking about each other's work and lives. I have hosted lectures or workshops by Rita at all three institutions where I have taught. I...