The Most Surprising Thing

I asked my students to write about the most surprising thing they learned from our Hispanic Civilization course. Here is what they wrote about:

1. Columbus was not a hero. (37 out of 66 students).

2. Columbus didn’t “establish the US” (8 students).

3. Nationalism is not an ingrained instinct we are born with. (1 student)

4. Christians committed atrocities (12 students).

5. Even before Hitler, Jews were “persecuted and sometimes even killed” (2 students).

6. There was a Spanish Empire (4 students).

7. Even jerks (sic!) like Quevedo could
create beautiful literature (1 student).

8. Don Quijote is more than “just a book about this crazy guy with windmills and what not” (1 student).

Yes, my course is full of surprises.

Atheists and Jews

From a student’s essay: “In the 15th century, Jews suffered a lot of horrible persecution in Spain. But what I was shocked to learn the most was that it wasn’t the atheists who persecuted them for having a religion. It was Christians who tried to force them to convert and then expelled them!”

About Inside Higher Ed

I’m very happy and grateful that Inside Higher Ed promotes some of my posts. It’s really very nice of them to do so. However, I wonder why certain posts get selected when I don’t really even consider them to be any good.

This post, for example, is the one that was linked to most recently on Inside Higher Ed. I wrote it on the bus, in a hurry, and without thinking much about it. If I had known it was going to be featured, I would have made it at least somewhat insightful. I would have also taken greater care with the writing style. Now I feel kind of embarrassed about it. This is not the post I want to be known for throughout the ages. (Joke.)

My Intellectual Journey, Part III

After reading my last post in this series, you must have thought that something really dramatic had happened to jolt me out of my intellectual stupor. But that wasn’t what happened. I simply read a book that made me realize what had been missing from my life.

The book I’m talking about was John Fowles’s The Collector. This book has a very nasty reputation nowadays because two serial killers used it as an inspiration to abduct, rape, torture and kill their female victims. It is needless to say that this could have never been the author’s intention. A sick mind can read any kind of diseased nastiness even into the most wonderful work of fiction in the world. I reread Fowles’s novel recently and, of course, I have a very different response to it today as a scholar of literature and a feminist than I did in 1997 when I first read it.

Then, however, it was a revelation. Miranda, the novel’s protagonist, is a young woman of the same age I was when I read the book. But she was very different from how I was. She read good books, was an artist, was interested in politics, and cared very little about brand-name clothes and expensive hair-brushes. (She was also from a very well-off British family and could afford not to care about such things. That wasn’t something I was equipped to realize when I was 21, though.)

When I read the novel I felt completely stunned. I realized it was possible to care about something bigger than making money to buy stuff. In my diary, I recorded my shocking discovery and vowed to become like Miranda. I decided to find a completely new (to me) venue of intellectual development and excel in it. Hispanic Studies sounded exotic enough to serve as that new venue.

Truth be told, I am not sorry that I had this experience. I feel that it is a great thing to discover so early in life that a beautiful huge condo, a nice country house, an expensive car, the latest gadgets (which at that time were computers and CD-players), brand-name clothes, fur-coats and exotic hair-brushes (I have a little bit of a fixation on hair-brushes, as you might have noticed) do not and cannot make anybody happy. Some people arrive at this insight a lot later in life, or maybe don;t even arrive at it at all.

(To be continued. . .)

Immigration Medical

I’ve had to go to St. Louis twice for my immigration medical this week. I’m actually blogging from the doctor’s office right now.

What I found to be very curious (especially, because it didn’t happen when I emigrated to Canada and had to pass my medical at the Canadian consulate) was that we were asked whether we have any suicidal thoughts.
Are the immigration officials worried that they go through this long bureaucratic process only to have us kill ourselves, or something? And all this effort will be wasted?

Anti-Muslim Hatred in Southern Illinois

My colleague Kola sent me this piece of disturbing news:

A bomb scare inside a mosque north of Centralia, Illinois, yesterday is now being investigated as a hate crime.

Central Illinois’ WJBD radio reports that a church member found a box in the bushes outside the center and brought it inside thinking it was a donation for the food bank. Soon other church members grew suspicious of the package and called authorities who, in turn, called in the bomb squad.

Some 25 nearby residents were evacuated from the scene as the bomb squad used a water cannon to blast open the package. It’s contents? Burned Qurans, anti-Islamic propaganda and newspaper clippings.

The members of the mosque (which newspaper accounts keep referring to as a “church” for some strange reason) had organized a food bank to help needy people in an economically poor area to get through difficult times. And this was what they got in return from some bigots in the community.

This kind of hatred is disgusting and it pains me to live in an area where something like this is possible. Whenever I mention Islam or the Quran in my lectures, I have to answer endless and very ignorant questions from my audience. I’m not any sort of an authority on Islam but some things really need to be addressed.

No, Islam is not a religion of hatred and violence. No, terrorists are not praised in the Quran. No, the Quran is not calling for the destruction of all Christians and Jews. Quran is the word of God as revealed to Prophet Mohammad through Archangel Gabriel, and who’s to say it isn’t? (At this point, people often start scoffing and rolling their eyes, and I have to stare them down.)

I so hate this smug ignorance and stupid sense of superiority towards people of other religions that it makes me want to barf.

The F-Word

A student raises his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “there is this word you keep repeating, and I have no idea what it is. It starts with an “f”.”

“Yes,” other students agree. “You keep saying it but we don’t get it!”

After a protracted struggle, I discover that the word they don’t get is “fascism.”

“Does anybody know what it is?” I ask.

Students stare.

“Or at least what area of life it belongs to?” I inquire, hoping against all hope to hear the word “politics”.

Students stare.

“Is it a flower? A book? A person?” I continue.

Students stare.

This will be a long semester.

My Intellectual Journey, Part II

As I looked at these developments, my teenage brain arrived at a conclusion that everything intellectual was useless crap and that one had to have money and material possessions to avoid feeling completely worthless.

So I worked and made money. It wasn’t easy for a female full-time university student in the mid-nineties to make enough money through intellectual pursuits (that’s the only thing I was good at, no matter what I believed) to feed herself and a dead-beat husband. I worked as a translator and gave language classes. There were no weekends or holidays for me. It was all work, work work.

And I did make good money. When my peers visited my huge apartment and saw my lifestyle, they sighed, “Oh, you are so fortunate! You have everything one can only hope to have by the age of forty, and you are just nineteen.”

I didn’t feel very fortunate, though. I wrote a lot even then. I had a diary where I recorded my feelings about my life that I didn’t share with anybody else. The image that was central to those diaries was that of emptiness. I felt that there was this gaping hole inside of me that no number of material goods I kept accumulating could ever fill.

“What’s wrong with me?” I wrote at the age of 20. (My diary was in English.) “Why do I feel so miserable when I have everything? I must be sick or very perverted.”

And then, one day, something happened that let me realize what had been missing from my life.

(To be continued. . .)

My Intellectual Journey, Part I

When I was 20 years old,  all I did was read CosmoElle and Marie Claire. I also believed that studying was useless and stooooopid and that the only worthy pursuit was to make lots of money to help one become a true Cosmo girl.

I didn’t arrive at this worldview by accident. It was a product of my experiences in the Ukraine of late eighties and early nineties. The years between 1986 and 1990 were a moment of a great intellectual awakening in the Soviet Union. This was the era when intellectuals had their long-awaited opportunity to read, think, debate, and feel very appreciated for doing so.

Every day brought new publications of authors that had been censored before perestroika. My parents subscribed to so many magazines and newspapers that it was weary work to drag them all out of the mailbox every day. Earth-shattering revelations about our history awaited us each morning. People gathered in the streets to discuss a new novel, film, or article. I remember many occasions on which I would be walking down the street with either of my parents only to have them stop and start delivering an impassioned speech on politics, literature, economy, etc. to admiring crowds. The Soviet intellectuals finally felt completely relevant and appreciated. They believed that now they would get an opportunity to have a say in where our country – or, hopefully, our many new independent republics – were heading.

And then all that came to an end. The nineties brought us bandit wars, organized crime, violence, fear, hunger, and insecurity. Most of the intellectuals never managed to find ways to inscribe themselves into the new economic reality. The hunger for material goods that everybody (except the Communist party leaders and their lackeys) had experienced during the Soviet era proved stronger than the need for intellectual nourishment. A veritable orgy of materialism overpowered the FSU countries. You either could inscribe yourself onto this really scary version of out-of-control, wild capitalism or you couldn’t.

For most of the intellectuals, this was a truly tragic moment. The new reality had arrived but there was no place for them in it. They had no tools that would enable them to deal with the demands of the free market. Looking for a job, starting a business, competing with others, being rejected when you apply for positions – these were skills that neither they nor their parents and grandparents ever had to develop. And it’s not an easy task to learn to adapt to this way of being from scratch.

(To be continued. . .)