>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part I

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The reader Angie Harms. asked me how I learned to speak Spanish. Thank you, Angie, because I love sharing this story. First of all, I have to tell you that my Spanish is really fantastic. Learning this language is my proudest achievement, and I don’t feel that I need to be modest about it. It always takes me a while to convince native speakers that I’m not one of them. And that I never lived in a Spansih-speaking country. And that my parents are not Spanish-speakers.
So it all started back in Ukraine when I was in my late teens. Suddenly, there were all those Latin American soap operas on television all the time. (Yes, it started with watching soap operas in Ukraine and culminated in a PhD in Hispanic Studies in the US.) When I watched them, I always thought, “Here is this entire civilization that I know absolutely nothing about. And nobody I know has any knowledge of it. How strange is that?” I was a university student majoring in English literature then but I decided that I didn’t want to continue with that program any more. I tried learning Spanish on my own, with a textbook, but that was useless. There was not a single Spanish-speaking person in my Ukrainian town. Spanish wasn’t taught at my university (even though it is the oldest university in the country.) There was no scholarship in Hispanic Studies in my country at all. And there still isn’t, unfortunately.
In Canada, however, there was. (The only place to do research of the kind I like in Hispanic literature is North America. That’s just how it is for now.) After we emigrated to Canada, I applied to the Department of Hispanic Studies of the country’s most famous university. As soon as I was accepted, I made a visit to the wonderful person who was then the Chair of the department.
“I want to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Eventually,” I said. “And it would be great to teach at this university. I really like these offices and would be glad to occupy one of them.”
“So you like Spanish literature?” the kind Chair asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I never read a word of it, not even in translation.”
“But you speak Spanish, right?” she said.
“No, not a word,” I responded brightly. “But I will do a PhD in Hispanic Studies and learn.” (Remember that video on the robotic prospective PhD student? As I said, that was me.)
The Chair is a very polite and proper British lady but at that point she laughed so hard, I was afraid she would hurt herself. And if you now want to tell me I made an idiot of myself during that conversation, I will let you know that exactly two and a half years after that conversation I started teaching Spanish at that very department. And one of the pretty offices I liked so much was mine (shared with some other people, of course.) And four and a half years later, I left the department to do a PhD in Spanish after receiving every single award that was ever offered by our program. (As I said, I’m very proud of this and don’t see why I shouldn’t be. I invested a truly Herculean amount of effort into this.)
(To be continued. . .)
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>New Year’s Preparations

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As I mentioned before, New Year’s is the most important festivity in my culture. It is the day when people exchange really magnificent gifts. It also requires several days of full-scale preparations. I’ve been cooking all day long, and this tiramisu with strawberries, raspberries and red currants is just one of the things I made.

P.S. Now I look at the picture, it seems like it looks a lot better in real life.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

>An Irresponsible Journalist at The Economist Spreads Lies About Graduate Studies

Dumping on academia has become one of the favorite pursuits of print journalists everywhere. As the higher education system in this country suffers one blow after another, journalists are happy to serve their corporate masters and promote the idea that education is bad, useless, and harmful. In their efforts to talk people out of pursuing higher education, such journalists stoop to half-truths and even outright lies.

Take, for example, a piece titled “The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time” that appeared a few days ago in The Economist. The author of this article demonstrates how partial truth easily becomes a full-blown lie. In order to prove that graduate students are often overworked and exploited, this irresponsible journalist says the following about Yale: “A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching.” As somebody who graduated from the doctoral program at Yale, let me tell you how things really are.

A graduate student’s stipend at Yale is, indeed, in the vicinity of $20,000 per year. A graduate student at Yale also gets a tuition waiver and medical insurance, which put the value of the entire package somewhere around $50,000 per year. You are guaranteed to get this funding for 5 years. Out of these 5 years, the first two are spent taking courses (not teaching, mind you) and preparing for the comprehensive exams. The next two years a graduate student does teach, but never more than one course per semester. For people who have the hardest teaching workload (those who teach language courses) this means working for 50 minutes a day five days a week. For the rest, it’s less than that. The fifth year of the doctoral program is dedicated to writing the dissertation. You get the same funding as in the previous years but do not have to teach or, actually, be on campus at all. I, for one, moved back to Canada in my fifth year to spend time with my family and my Montreal friends. A simple calculation shows that a graduate student at Yale ends up receiving a total of $250,000, in exchange for which amount s/he is required to teach a total of 4 courses. Not too shabby at all, in my opinion.
The article’s barrage of lies gets completely out of hand when the author states that “In the humanities . . . most students pay for their own PhDs.” When I apllied (and was accepted) into several of the best graduate programs in the US, nobody asked me to pay for anything. Some universities had a worse package, some offered a better one, but there was never any talk of me paying tuition anywhere. The Economist‘s article goes out of its way to prove that “too many” people go to graduate school. Anybody with an ounce of grey matter would ask themselves where all these grad students are supposed to get the huge amounts of money to pay for this education. This quasi-journalist, though, is happy to spread unchecked falsehoods just to prove the point that more education is worse than less.
The article’s author uses the favorite trcik of irresponsible journalists as Fox News, which consists of introducing unsupported, ridiculous lies as something that “some people say”: “Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.” It would be nice to get a couple of quotes here from these “fiercest critics” and “business leaders”, or at least to be given their names, but The Economist‘s authors feel no need to burden themselves with looking for proof for their outlandish suggestions. Only a complete idiot would think that a PhD is about “teaching skills.” It’s not like the information is top-secret, so there is no justification for this quasi-journalist’s strange criticisms of academia.
Another egregious statement provided by the article’s author is “Research at one American university found that those who finish [with a PhD] are no cleverer than those who do not.” Of course, the university in question is never named and no link to this mysterious study is provided. I, for one, would be really interested in finding out how you measure “cleverness” and what kind of scientists conduct such idiotic studies. As a blogger, I can afford to write pretty much anything I want in my posts. Still, I challenge anybody to find a single instance when I talked about “a study at a university” and failed to link to the information I referenced.
The main argument this article provides about why graduate studies are useless is that not everybody with a PhD ends up becoming a Full Professor and making the average professorial salary of $109,000. Obviously, that’s true. It is just as true for any other profession where becoming one of the top earners in your field is never a guarantee, no matter what your area of specialization is. Still, graduate school provides grad students with one undeniable benefit: five or more years that can be dedicated to bettering oneself intellectually, hanging out with friends, travelling, reading, thinking, writing, partying, etc. Grad school is the best way to delay one’s entrance into the hamster race of the corporate world. Who else but the graduate students have the luxury of sleeping in until noon on a regular basis or staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties? No matter how much one will end up making after graduation, having this experience is priceless.
By the end of the article, the author reveals the real reason behind her dislike of grad school: “Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology.” It is no surprise to me that someone who writes so clumsily and puts out such an unconvincing, badly researched and dishonest piece of rubbish didn’t thrive either in or out of grad school. Sadly, there are ignoramuses and under-achievers everywhere. Even the best system in the world couldn’t guarantee a complete absence of unintelligent, uninspired plodders who are incapable of benefitting from it.
I have cancelled all of my subscriptions to print media (except one to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.) I’m so frustrated with this irresponsible journalism that charges good money to provide me with material based on what “some people say” or “a study has discovered” that I now get all of my information from bloggers I trust. They, at least, never forget to offer proof for their statements and do responsible research before writing.

What’s Communism?: My Grandfather’s Wisdom

>My maternal grandfather was a veteran of World War II. He went to fight in the war when he was barely 18 years old. He finished the war in Berlin and wrote his (and now mine) last name on the wall of Reichstag. Of course, my grandfather was a member of the Communist Party because what options were there?

Once, one of his daughters asked him: “Daddy, what’s communism?”

“Let’s go outside,” he said to his six daughters. “I’ll show you communism.”

They went outside and looked into the beautiful sunset. “Isn’t the horizon beautiful in the setting sun?” my grandfather asked his small daughters.

“Yes, Daddy, it looks perfect!” the girls responded.

“So why don’t you try to grab it?” he said. “Go ahead, grab it if you find it so beautiful!”

“But, Daddy, you can’t grab the horizon no matter how pretty it looks,” the eldest daughter said.

“Well, that’s communism for you,” my grandfather said.

>DailyKos Recognizes That Wikileaks Info Is "Nothing Special"

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Finally, among all the voices that keep gushing about how much the super-duper-crucial revelations coming from Wikileaks changed the world, honest achnowledgements are starting to appear of the very obvious fact that these so-called earth-shattering revelations didn’t really reveal anything at all. On this blog, I have asked both the admirers and the detractors of Julian Assange to give me some information about what was so new in these leaks. As of now, nobody has been able to offer anything in response.
tell us nothing we didn’t already know about way the United States shoves around other players at the world table, [. . .] the documents themselves are nothing special.
The article then goes to argue that even though the information “revealed” by Wikileaks was old news, it was still important for it to come out of yet another source. You can follow that argument on the DailyKos website, if you are interested. What interests me, though, is that the this entire hullabaloo over Wikileaks is at last getting to the point where we stop gushing and start analzying. DailyKos has acnowledged the basic uselessness of the Wikileaks documents and is trying to salvage the whole project through some inventive verbal acrobatics. For now, the only argument in defense of Wikileaks’ abiding importance is that if the US government doesn’t like it, it must be good and helpful to the liberal cause (or bad and unhelpful to the conservative cause.)
I will let my readers ponder the fallacies of this kind of logic on their own.

>Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids

Life is hard for us, American-based fans of the incomparable mystery author Ruth Rendell. Every time her new book comes out, we either have to sit around waiting for over 18 months for an American edition to come out, or hunt around for a copy someone might have brought from Great Britain and might be willing to sell. Some people, of course, are lucky enough to have close friends in Great Britain and can pester them for a copy of Rendell’s new book. I have not been blessed in this department, so I have to cast my lot with used books sites.

Ruth Rendell is admirable on several accounts. As an auto-didact, she has a range of vocabulary and the breadth of erudition that many of her Oxford-educated peers do not possess. She is 80 years old, but this prolific writer keeps releasing new books on a regular basis. The great changes that have taken place in our Western societies over the last 50 years and the incapacity of many people to adapt to said changes form one of Rendell’s favorite topics. Still, this writer who was born in 1930 has an astonishing understanding of today’s realities. In my favorite novel by Rendell ever, 13 Steps Down, she created a memorable character of Gwendolen Chawcer, an elderly bookish spinster who is terrified of “new-fangled” (her favorite word) devices such as computers and microwaves. Even though Rendell understands how terrifying modern reality can be to older people, she seems to have a perfect grasp of today’s modes of existence.

Her most recent novel* Tigerlily’s Orchids (Import Edition) Hardback is not Ruth Rendell’s best work but it’s still a joy to read. The book is light on mystery. You pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen, and there is little (if any) suspense. The strength of Tigerlily’s Orchids (as well as of this writer’s entire corpus of work) lies in Rendell’s gift of creating delightfully quirky characters who are weird in most endearing ways. I am usually horrible with characters’ names (which, believe me, is a huge problem for a literary critic.) You can see me engrossed in a book and ask me what the names of the protagonists are, and more often than not I will not be able to say. Ruth Rendell, however, is so good at creating memorable characters that even my unreliable memory always retains their names.

What I like the most about Rendell’s books is her skill in taking any minor quirk in a character’s personality and demonstrate how this touch of strangeness can gradually develop into full blown insanity, taking this character along some very dangerous paths. I might be projecting here, but I believe that everybody has this little place within them that houses some uncanny oddity, some little spot of the bizarre, some minor obsession. We keep it under control – for the most part – but it’s very pleasurable to imagine it unleashed, they way it is in Rendell’s books. I have read interviews with Ruth Rendell and I have no idea where this proper and quite sheltered older lady** found her deep knowledge of the darker side of human psyche. Still, nobody writing today describes a gradual slippage into insanity better than Rendell.

If there is a Rendell fan among my readers, please make yourself known. I have tried foisting Rendell’s books on everybody around me but, somehow, I can’t find a true lover of Rendell’s books among people I know.

* Rendell’s The Vault is scheduled to appear in 2011 to the delight of her fans all over the world.

** Rendell is also a very kind human being. When I was a teenager in Ukraine, I wrote her a letter to express my admiration of her novels, and she responded with a long letter and a gift of books. It was next to impossible to find new Enlgish-language books in my country at that time, so this gift was priceless to me.