Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the day “May 30, 2011”

A Cultural Difference?

I’m keeping a correspondence with a graduate student from Italy who is asking advice on how to apply to grad school in the US. Her emails always go like this:

Dear Clarissa,

first of all, let me reiterate how grateful I am for your advice. If you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you also . . . . and . . . .. I am very sorry to bother you with my questions but I find your help to be invaluable. Please accept my sincere gratitude. Yours, A.

Now compare it with an email I quoted recently:

Clarissa: I need to come to your office to talk about my career goals. When can I do that? Jenny.

If there is an age difference between these two correspondents of mine, it is very insignificant. Is it cultural?


My Ukrainian Relatives and Friends

On July 4, I will celebrate 13 years since, at the age of 22, I left my country forever. Since then, I never went back for a visit. After my grandfather died five years ago, I haven’t made a single call to Ukraine. Today, I read this fascinating and touching post by Spanish prof (false modesty aside, I actually suggested that it be written) and started thinking about why I have no relationship with any of my Ukrainian relatives and friends (except those who also emigrated.)

Back in the Soviet Union, everybody who tried to leave the country was considered a traitor, was persecuted and abused. Those who managed to leave were not allowed to keep in touch with those who remained. As a result, emigrating was pretty much like dying. You go away, and nobody hears from you ever again. The Soviet Union fell apart, but this attitude towards people who emigrate remained. I discovered it when I received my immigrant visa to Canada and came to my university to share the news with my friends and classmates. The second they saw me, they turned away and pretended I wasn’t there. The experience of being ignored like this by people who, for years, were your bosom buddies is not pleasant.

Then, one of those bosom buddies stole my money and said, “Well, you are leaving anyways” in explanation.

A professor – who used to like me the entire time I was at the university and who used to call me “our department’s star” – yelled that I was a traitor and that she would do everything in her power to destroy my life.

The only friend who did come to say good-bye to me and cried and hugged me was the one who was about to emigrate as well. She now lives in Baltimore and we are still in touch. (Hey, Lenchik!) Other close friends told me they were too busy to meet and say good-bye.

So I never went back. My parents, sister and aunt have visited Ukraine since we emigrated.

My mother went to visit her best friend of many decades. She brought gifts that she had chosen with care and love to suit the preferences of each family member. I saw her run from store to store for weeks trying to find the best gifts possible for the friend she loves so much. The best friend looked at the gifts, put them all back in the bag, handed it to my mother and said, “I’d rather you take your gifts back and give me their value in money.” (In case you think these people are starving or anything like that, you couldn’t be more mistaken.)

My aunt went to meet her nephew whom she babysat and adored when he was a kid. The nephew charged her for the gas he “wasted” on coming to meet her. Her niece stole her money to buy gifts for her boyfriend.

One of my aunts who remained in Ukraine stole the jewelry that had been in my father’s family for over 100 years (my father, mind you, is not related to her except by marriage) and destroyed a suitcase filled with photos of his ancestors, their records, and sentimental souvenirs. This is the aunt whom my parents helped out financially (a lot) for decades.

There are other things but they are too painful to write about at this particular moment. Please don’t think that we somehow managed to end up with a particularly vicious group of relatives and friends. The few times I tried participating in Russian-speaking blogs (run by complete strangers) I always was told that nobody had any interest in talking to a person who’d emigrated.

If I were to go to Ukraine right now, it would be like going to Greece or New Zealand, places where I don’t know anybody and would be completely alone. At least, in Greece and New Zealand I can hope to get in touch with people who read my blog and be welcomed by them. In Ukraine, I’d be completely isolated.

This was supposed to be a post on friendships but it somehow ended up being quite depressive. I will write the second part of the post later and I promise that it will be about my positive experiences with friendship.

A Community Of Scholars Online

The colleagues at my department are truly wonderful, intellectual, fascinating people. However, we somehow don’t find the time to discuss our research or our views on politics, the news, society, etc. on a daily basis. When we are at work, there is always something that gets in the way of protracted intellectual debates. Recently, I discovered that the colleague who is also a twentieth-century Peninsularist and with whom I’m the most friendly at our department has very interesting views on. . . Spanish literature. “Hey,” I said, “we need to make a date to talk about literature.” It’s been two years since we started working together and, unfortunately, administrative issues have always occupied most of our discussions. I’m sure that each of the people I work with has some very interesting insights or ideas that come to them daily. However, I have no access to these ideas. Paradoxically, many academics complain about feeling intellectually isolated even as they spend every day in the community of scholars.

This is why blogging is so great. I have discovered several Hispanists who blog and I’m learning a lot from them every single day. It is great to be able to find out what people in my discipline read, watch, and think about. Here is a list of these Hispanists’ blogs in alphabetical order:

¡Bemsha Swing! by Jonathan Mayhew. He also blogs at Stupid Motivational Tricks.

Hispanic Studies Forum by Bécquer Medak-Seguín, a graduate student from my previous school whom I never met in person.

Spanish Teaching Issues by Spanish Prof, a Latin Americanist from Argentina.

Z-Xiuhtecuhtli and Seminario Permanente de Teoría y Crítica by profacero, a Mexicanist whose painful exile from big city atmosphere I relate to

If you know of any other bloggers who are Hispanists or if you are one, please leave the link in the comment section and I’ll add the blog to the list. With all due respect to Hispanists who do not have time to blog, I believe that we, the bloggers, will ultimately manage to make our field relevant and interesting to people outside the discipline. With all the myths about elitist, nasty professors who sip frappuccinos while thinking of inventive ways to get their hands on taxpayers’ money that are circulating nowadays, it is very important that some of us manage to address wide audiences and show to them that we are not all that scary. And some of us have never even had a frappuccino.

Washington Post Continues Its Assault on Higher Ed

It is sad that so many completely unintelligent people attempt to write articles about higher education. See the following exercise in idiocy, for example:

Twenty percent of faculty at the University of Texas-Austin teach 57 percent of the student credit hours, according to a new study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity that attempts to build a case for inefficiency and waste in academia. If the “bottom” 80 percent were as productive as the top 20 percent, the study concludes, the flagship Texas public university could cut its tuition in half. Or, the state could reduce its funding to the university by as much as 75 percent.
You see how this journalist conflates productivity exclusively with teaching? This is a neat trick that allows this rabid conservative to dump on the “lazy professors.” It would take him all of two minutes to discover that productivity for us includes research and service to the academic community which means that saying that those who teach the most are the most productive  or the most valuable employees of a university is ridiculously wrong. But, hey, who needs to do research when you can just rant about how much you hate professors for being more intelligent than you?

More on Apologies

Another thing that annoys me when people apologize is when they ask “What can I do to make it better?” If you hurt a person, don’t saddle them with the work of figuring out how to repair your mess-up. Come up with a few suggestions and let the offended party decide if they can accept them.


I’ve been reading this interesting post on apologies and decided to post my own thoughts on the subject.

I don’t like apologies. Usually, I perceive them as just as offensive as the original act that the person is apologizing for. I’m not talking about small daily mess-ups, of course. If somebody steps on my foot on the bus or shoves me inadvertently in a Starbucks check-out line, it’s perfectly fine for them to say “I’m so sorry” and move on.

However, when we are talking about really serious offenses, about actions that inflict real damage on a person, saying “Oh, I’m so sorry” is cheap and meaningless. It’s all about the offender, too. Notice how the person who has been hurt doesn’t even appear in this sentence. The very idea that I have to let go of my hurt because somebody is “sorry” is preposterous to me. Contrary to what many people believe is right, I consider myself under no obligation to grant forgiveness to anybody, no matter how sorry they are or aren’t. My hurt is about me and my feelings, not about them and theirs. And I will retain it as long as it suits my purposes. Repressing anger is unhealthy, and I would never dream of damaging my health for the sake of somebody who hurt me just because they apologized. There have been situations in my life where the offending individual destroyed any chance for patching things up with me by saying “I’m sorry.”

I especially love it when people say, “I’m sorry it worked out / happened this way.” This immediately makes me wonder about the identity of this mysterious “it” who caused things to work out in a way that hurt me. A variation on this is offering a person you offended a long description of how hurting them made you suffer. “After I did this horrible thing to you,” such people often say, “I suffered / cried / prayed / drank / self-sabotaged / visited a shrink a lot.” I find such things incredibly hard to digest. You hurt me and now you expect me to sit here and feel sorry about your suffering? Seriously? Don’t harm people and you will avoid suffering this way in the future. Now, how about the person who has been hurt because you chose to damage them?

So what should one do to express remorse and make amends for a hurtful action? This is what I do and what I insist that people do in their relationships with me. You come to the person you hurt (or write to them if they are refusing to see you)* and say:

I messed up. I did this horrible thing [make sure you name the horrible thing] to you and I recognize that you have the right to be angry / upset / furious / livid. Please feel free to do or say anything to me that you feel is right. I will take it and accept it because I deserve it. I want to do anything I can to make it up to you. I am willing to do XYZ to repair the damage I have done. If this is insufficient, please let me know what you would like me to do.

Sometimes, people need to express their anger and do it for a long time. You will have to listen to them for as long as it takes. It is disrespectful and wrong to interrupt and say, “Yeah, OK, I get it.” If the offended person needs to repeat it 50 times in a row to feel better, then it’s your duty to listen. It is important to remember that the offended person is not responsible for your feelings. You, as the person who messed up, are the only responsible party here.

* Of course, if the person in question asked you not to contact them in any way, then that’s the only respectful thing to do.

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