UCLA biology professor Richard Siegel thought that a course about AIDS would be popular among undergraduates. So he reserved Moore Hall's 474-seat auditorium, the largest lecture hall on campus.
However, even that big room proved wildly inadequate. More than 2,000 students tried to enroll in the class, and 550 were finally admitted, he said. Scores of students sat on the floor in the aisles at the first session Tuesday night, and many others crowded around Siegel, unsuccessfully begging or demanding that they be added to the roll.
"This is unlike anything else I've ever taught," said Siegel, a geneticist who has been on the UCLA faculty for 33 years. "The students really want to hear about this."
Why such interest in Biology 40, a course grimly titled "AIDS: The Modern Plague?" Why are students pursuing Siegel down hallways with the fervor they might otherwise reserve for a rock star, rather than for a 62-year-old, jocular academic whose conversations are sprinkled with quotations from "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moby Dick?"
Some students, in interviews, cited the topic's timeliness and relevance to daily life, qualities they complained are missing from much of their other studies. Some also said they wanted to protect themselves from acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"This is a great opportunity to learn about it," said Marie DeMello, a senior political science major.
Will Reinhart, a freshman majoring in motion picture and television production, agreed, saying, "Everyone has to know about AIDS these days."
However, many students admitted that the course appears to be a painless way to fulfill a natural science requirement for non-science majors. It is a pass-fail lecture series with just two tests, a short reading list, no term papers and no laboratory work.
"How hard can it be?" quipped one young man, a senior majoring in economics.
Whatever the motivations of his students, Siegel pronounced himself "delighted" with the enrollment.
"To me, learning this kind of thing is more significant than learning how plants grow and how earthworms do it," he said, the New York accent of his childhood still strong.
At Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, Siegel's college-age children chided him that biology curricula mainly avoided the biggest medical crisis of this generation. Siegel agreed. He had heard of a course about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases at Stanford University but nowhere else. Last year, he held a seminar on the topic for 14 students and decided to go for a full-sized lecture series this quarter.
He has another reason--personal motivation. Three UCLA faculty members and 18 students he knew have died of AIDS, he said.
On Tuesday, the lecture hall was stilled and somber as he dedicated the course to those friends and acquaintances: "For me, this course is a chant, a song, telling these people that they are not quite alone. The course is my personal requiem; it is my service for them."
Siegel said he will discuss AIDS in the context of American culture and politics, even though some colleagues told him that they would prefer a more traditional biology course.
His goals are "to get the kids involved in the idea that education is the one tool we have to prevent the spread of AIDS and to gear them up so they can be responsible citizens in the ongoing, democratic dialogue about what we do about AIDS."
"One of my of my favorite expressions," he added, "is that the response a society makes to the threat of AIDS may be a measure of the right of that society to call itself civilized."
The course will touch on medicine, economics, ethics, psychology, literature, government and personal behavior. Siegel decided that he could not do the job alone. Seventeen guest lecturers are scheduled, including public health experts, AIDS researchers, medical economists, gay activists and the deputy city attorney who is responsible for making sure that bath houses are not violating so-called "safe-sex" regulations.
Promising to be especially lively is a discussion among a woman who was a prostitute, a gay male scientist, a heterosexual bachelor and a married woman who is so fearful about AIDS that she told Siegel she may wear a surgical mask during the class, despite medical evidence that the AIDS virus cannot be transmitted through the air.
Siegel decided not to have a person with AIDS address the class.
"It would be too upsetting," he explained. "These young people are not prepared to look at a kid who is dying."
At Tuesday's lecture, Siegel discussed why he considers AIDS to be a modern plague. By his definition, a plague must be contagious, common, fatal and cause social change.
He talked about how the Biblical plague suffered by the Egyptians led to the Exodus of the Israelites and how the Black Death ruptured feudal society in Medieval Europe.