Sacramento colleges offer lectures for the curious

Michael Spurgeon was on the lookout for literary inspiration.

The author and American River College professor found it in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, where in 1994 he witnessed the uprising of Zapatista rebels against the government.

Spurgeon, who teaches English, will speak today at ARC about his Chiapas experience and the novel it inspired him to write. He is among a stream of lecturers and other experts whose community college talks are geared toward all Sacramento area residents, not just campus habitués.

The events help campuses raise their community profiles and in some cases entice prospective students to enroll. ARC has been offering its “College Hour” for more than a decade, but many community members don’t know about them.

“The idea is just to get people to have fun with these kinds of things,” said Scott Crow, spokesman for American River College.

“They (lecturers) really do want to encourage folks who are genuinely curious about science (and other topics) so they can listen to top experts,” Crow said.

On Friday night at the Sierra College Natural History Museum in Rocklin, Randy Oliver, a biologist, researcher and beekeeper in Grass Valley, will talk about the “current state of the honeybee.”

On Oct. 24, the author of the book “Diet for a Hot Planet” will lecture at California State University, Sacramento. And at the end of this month, a retired physician will speak at Folsom Lake College’s El Dorado Center in Placerville about his career and the Affordable Care Act.

At ARC, Spurgeon said his talk today is about his creative process. He will read from his new book, “Let the Water Hold Me Down,” published July 1 by ARC’s Ad Lumen Press.

The book is, at its core, about not taking action in the face of problems or evil, he said. It explores issues of race, class, friendship and romance.

Spurgeon writes in a fluid, easy style and draws readers into Chiapas when, in the novel, the lead character loses his wife and young daughter in a canoeing tragedy and, grieving, heads to Mexico to seek out a friend.

In real life, the author moved in 1993 to Chiapas, where he met the woman he would later marry. In January 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army declared war against the Mexican government on behalf of the country’s poor Indians.

“When this army of impoverished Indians came out of the jungle and declared war against the federal government, I had a front-row seat,” Spurgeon said. “It had a profound impression onme.”

The Indians, he said, also were fighting in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and what they saw as the death knell of indigenous life.

He said he devoted himself to research for the novel and started a writing regimen that included penning a daily postcard to his brother outlining his writing goals for the day.

“It clarified, in brief terms, what I would try to accomplish each day,” he said. “It had me thinking about what came next in the narrative.”

Spurgeon spent six months in Mexico to work on the first draft. “There was one moment 250 to 260 pages into the book when I realized I had gone astray in the narrative,” he said. He tore out 50 to 60 pages.

In 2005, he became a full-time faculty member at ARC.

“We do this every semester with any number of these culturally enriching events,” said Kirsten Corbin, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at ARC. “It can be a connection to a certain discipline that is going to actually lead you to take a particular class.”

Oliver, the biologist, said he is accustomed to making public appearances at beekeepers’ conferences around the United States and other countries. Still, he said, there will be plenty to impart to those with a passion for the extraordinary insects.

Oliver said he will talk about how colony collapse has largely run its course. Nonetheless, he said, “Commercial beekeepers are still struggling because of (bee) mortality rates, which are much higher than normal.”

Keely Carroll, biology professor at Sierra College in Rocklin and director of the Natural History Museum, said lectures on the third Friday of most months are free to members and $5 to visitors.

The lectures are not new. But Carroll said it’s tough to get the word out. “We don’t have the funding,” she said. “It’s really mom and pop.”