On the first day of school this semester, Saint Louis University associate professor Joe Webb walked into class eating an apple. It wasn't just any apple. It was an organic Gala apple, and it prompted Webb to give his students an unrehearsed lesson on the virtues of organic fruit.
"Considering all the alcohol, social cigarettes, late-night Doritos and random body parts that find their way into a college student's mouth, I figured the least I could do was inform them about a healthy snack that might serve as a counterbalance," says Webb.
Later that week, Webb, a 28-year-old doctoral student in the university's English department, wrote down his musings on organic apples and posted it online under the handle "Dr. Wizard." By the end of August, Webb had authored three more advice columns suggesting that his students learn to speak Chinese, recycle and become marginally involved in classroom discussions in order to win the good graces of their teachers.
"Your goal in the small class is to be the person who talks the third most often," wrote Webb in an August 29 blog post he called "Think Bronze Medal." "Because out of the two people who talk more often than you, your professor will hate one of their guts."
Now, three months after first launching "Dr. Wizard's Advice for College Students," Webb's blog has become something of an Internet sensation. Last month the site registered more than 10,000 hits with students from SLU and other campuses logging on to read Webb's ruminations on topics such as wearing cologne to class (never a good idea, according to Dr. Wizard) and how to survive your 21st birthday. For that, Dr. Wizard suggests drinking just 1.5 times your normal limit as opposed to the customary 21 shots.
"Before you go out to the awesome hellhole that is the college dive bar, talk this limit over with your most responsible friend (not the friend that's going to be drunker than you and picking fights with the football team, or your friend that's trying to sleep with the football team)," writes Dr. Wizard. "Let this person know that they can do whatever they have to do in order to cut you off if you want to go deeper than your limit."
In a lesson from September, Webb used a stanza from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland (a poem Dr. Wizard says "no one has a clue what the fuck it is about") to convey to his readers a simple message: Be considerate of others. That same lesson also referenced music from the rock group the Raconteurs and a scene from Woody Allen's flick Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Webb's Dr. Wizard also draws inspiration from the movies of Bruce Willis (particularly the Die Hard series) and pretty much anything from the Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen canons. Webb's favorite television shows — The Office, Entourage and Arrested Development — also appear regularly in the columns. "Those three shows are the cornerstones of my personality. They can also be used as a metaphor to explain just about everything in life," says Webb.
But lest you think Webb is little more than a rube with a remote control, consider that he speaks French, writes rock operas, runs marathons, teaches a GMAT prep course (despite never having applied to business school) and is currently working on his dissertation titled "The Relocation Patterns of North American Free Blacks After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850." Oh yeah, he's also slated to appear on the game show Jeopardy! sometime next year. "I've passed the tests and auditions," says Webb sheepishly. "I'm just waiting for them to schedule me on the show."
Webb's intellect coupled with his college-aged mindset is what makes his Dr. Wizard so irresistible, says Elise Monaco, a twenty-year-old junior at SLU.
"He approaches a lot of cliché topics with a pop-culture context that is relevant to us," states Monaco, who describes herself as something of an "obsessed reader" of the site. "I've sent the link to dozens of my friends in colleges all over the States. I have my mom and dad read Dr. Wizard, too. It makes them feel hip."
Monaco even credits Webb with setting her up with a fellow classmate. "Basically Dr. Wizard was saying that college kids shouldn't just hook up randomly. They should go on dates," says Monaco. "After reading the column one of my friends called me. He was like, 'You know, I've been meaning to ask you out.'"
But it's not just students who've taken note of Dr. Wizard. Last month Webb entered his columns in a contest with the St. Louis Big Read book festival. His entry beat out 49 other applicants and won Webb a sit-down with talent scouts from New York-based literary agency Levine Greenberg, best known for their client Chuck Klosterman and helping to publish The Onion's Our Dumb Century. A book based on the Dr. Wizard columns is now being discussed for release in the fall of 2009.
"I'd say the chances are very good that this book will get done," opines David Henry Sterry, one of the Levine Greenberg reps who selected Webb's work. "His pitch just leaped out at us. He writes in such a fun, imaginative way. Plus he already has the blog in place. That helps immensely with the buzz and marketing surrounding the book."
Webb recently struck another deal to have his columns appear in College Magazine, a student publication distributed along the Eastern seaboard. "It's clear that Dr. Wizard comes to his columns from the mindset of an undergraduate — a very wise undergraduate," says the magazine's publisher, Amanda Nachman. "They're real-life stories that offer the kind of honest advice students just aren't going to get from their parents or the college career center."
So, what makes Webb so uniquely qualified to counsel students ten years his junior? "Because up until the age of 24 my life was a total disaster," says Webb, who dropped out of two different colleges before finally earning his undergraduate degree. "The first time I quit school I was going to write a novel, but pretty much just sat around all day in my boxers doing nothing," he recalls. "The second time I quit to start a rock band and spent most of my time selling used cars."
Webb can also provide readers with first-hand accounts on the perils of drugs and alcohol. "I'm not proud of it, but I've tried it all," he says. He's also something of an expert on failed relationships and heartache. Last year Webb's now ex-wife left him to work with apes at the Jane Goodall Institute in Africa. "I lost out to a chimpanzee," quips Webb. "Who knows? Perhaps he was the better man."
Despite all the recent popularity, Webb has yet to inform his faculty colleagues in the SLU English department of Dr. Wizard. Though they're likely to find out about Webb's alter ego soon enough.
"When I first started the blog, I tried my best to cloak my identity because the language can be edgy and I discuss topics the university might consider controversial," says Webb. "But then, is it really so bad to warn kids about sleeping around too much and drinking themselves to death? I, err, Dr. Wizard, doesn't think so."