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A Sort of Strange Interlude

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This  is going to be a shortish, odd kind of post.

I finished my book today, really finished it, sent copies off to a bunch of people who can help do things like tell me if it makes any sense, so my first inclination was to go running around the house yelling “whee!” and indulging in things like America’s Next Top Model marathons–the  Oxygen network has them on  Sundays. They’re very convenient.

I had a list of things I meant to cover today, because we’re in the middle of one of those cycles where I’ve got something I want to get to, but there are things that need to be cleaned up.

For instance:  Lee seems to have gotten the impression that I got my undergraduate degree from the University of  Michigan.  I didn’t.  I went to  Vassar, then went out to  Michigan for grad work.  I got my undergraduate degree from  Vassar.

And my class and the one ahead of it had something of an advantage, because those were the years that the law and  med schools dropped their uotas for women admits and the businesses were all looking to hire women to prove they weren’t discriminating on the basis of sex, just in case the  ERA  passed.  Being the most famous women’s college in the US–even if we were in the middle of going co-ed–made us a magnet for everybody looking for “qualified” women.

But yes, of course, the economy makes a difference.  It always does.

And there were other things, too, for instance Robert’s comment that reading French novels is just “a bonus” from studying French–if you major in a language at the university level, reading the novels (and poetry and drama) isn’t the bonus, it’s the entire point of the major.  Learning the language is what your department will consider a side issue.

A degree in French or German–or  Farsi, or Chinese, or Arabic–is first and foremost a literature degree. 

And for reasons that make sense, if you think about it–a “culture” is by and large the product of its canon.  That’s why its canon IS its canon.   This is what a culture things of as the best that has been thought and said among its people.

What’s more, that canon of imaginative literature is also the repository of the narrative of that culture.  And a culture’s narrative is that culture’s identity. 

I don’t understand why this is such a difficult concept for some people to accept, or why so many people out there seem to think that it makes perfect sense to simply ignore large segments of the human experience–most of it, in fact–because those segments cannot be investigated with the same tools, or in the same way, we pursue the nature of the atom or the sixe of the solar system.

But, like I said, I’m having a hard time keeping my mind on this today.

I don’t know why I respond to finishing the writing of a book the way I do, because when I finish  a book I’m reading, I tend to be disappointed.  At least,  I am if the book is one  I’ve enjoyed, and I enjoy writing.  I enjoy writing so much that I do it even when I’m not being paid for it.  When  I finish writing a book, though,  I tend to feel that I’ve just gotten over a cold, or something–whee!  I’m free!

Go figure.

But today, I kept walking around waiting to feel “whee!” and mostly feeling just odd, and then  I figured it out.

It’s June 14th.

If my brother was still alive, he’d be 55 years old today.

Written by janeh

June 14th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'A Sort of Strange Interlude'

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  1. Congratulations, Jane. I’d be going ‘Whee!’ too!

    I realized you went to Vassar for undergrad. It’s just that if both Vassar & Michigan are top tier schools, you’d think the experience would be somewhat similar, not the dramatic contrast it apparently was.

    I hope your memories of your brother are good ones.

    Lee B

    14 Jun 09 at 5:49 pm

  2. Lee, as Jane says, the economy always makes a difference. But I had a hard time finding work after my BS and grad school. I put it down to having a severe hearing loss and not being able to follow group conversations or use a phone.

    Jane’s having a “whee” day. I’m the opposite today. Had to reboot because my keyboard stopped working, my DVD recorder died a week after getting it and now my TV reception is dying. Stop the world, I want to get off!

    Jane, I’m still confused by what you mean by “culture”. I tend to take it as a combination of books, movies, TV, music, sports and general attitiude toward govenrnment and society. The culture of a corporate lawyer in Manhatten is not the same as a plumber in small town Iowa.

    That ought to start a fight!


    14 Jun 09 at 6:14 pm

  3. Jane, perhaps you could clear up some confusion about communuty colleges.

    You say they do not offer university level courses but I’ve been told students can take their first two years of course at a community college and then transfer to a university.


    14 Jun 09 at 9:01 pm

  4. I tend to not remember significant personal dates to an extent that makes me think that it’s not merely absentmindedness. But as a good friend pointed out once, sometimes something in me – and her – remembers the dates anyway, as you did, through feeling wrong, different, odd.

    My brother died on New Year’s Day 2008. He would have been 42 in a few weeks’ time. Even I remember that death date. It’s so hard when a sibling dies. My belated sympathies.

    Back on topic – I hesitated to reply to your last post because I’m sure my experiences in Canada and yours in the US are different. We did follow the US educational example of setting up community colleges (We almost always follow the example of the US in educational matters, lamentably, sometimes at about the point that people in the US have discovered the faults of the new approach and are ready to move on). In my part of the country they were a great benefit to people going into the trades and similar jobs, because almost no high schools offered shop or business programs. That’s changes to some extent with the introduction of computers; even the smallest school now offers the basics of popular word processing, spreadsheets and databases, although a remarkable number of students still come out of school barely able to find the ‘on’ button. But I digress.

    It is possible to take some courses in some branches of the colleges (=community college) system here that can be transferred to university, but it isn’t all that popular or common an option as far as I can make out. I’m sure the provincial government has stats on the matter, but everything has been crazy lately so I don’t have time to check. So what I’m saying is that we still seem to have variations in what people do in post-secondary – they aren’t all ‘undergraduates’ (a term never used of post-secondary students) and they don’t all do the same courses. And the courses they do do aren’t useless because there is and always was a lack of basic job training in K-12, and checking the job listings from my employer for clerical workers, for example, reveals wording like ‘graduation from high school supplemented by courses in business administration (or secretarial science)’, meaning HS grad is not enough, not unless there are very few applicants and the candidate has lots of relevant experience.

    So since our system is so different, I don’t see what I can say about yours. (Not that that usually stops me!) Except, maybe, it seems like US post-secondary institutions seem to have a confused sense of what it is they are trying to do.


    15 Jun 09 at 6:48 am

  5. Robert, the reason you torture yourself learning irregular verb conjugations and complicated case endings in Russian is precisely so that you can read The Brothers Karamazov or Evgeny Onegin in the original. A few people learn it to study history or political science. Very few people learn a foreign language “just” to be a translator or interpreter. As JH says, learning the language is just the basic skill you need to be able to enter into the culture.

    When I graduated from one of those Ivy League schools in the 70s, my Russian lang and lit major was “useless” unless I wanted to get a graduate degree and teach or join the CIA and analyze Pravda. But, life is odd, and my Russian was the key skill that opened doors to other professions.

    I think you’re right that employers care about the college. But in my case people have cared much more about my skills and abilities. The fancy degree was noted — usually later — as a kind of final (not first) seal of approval. I think it meant: ah, so she was smart enough to get through her college. I’m right to want to hire her.


    15 Jun 09 at 2:27 pm

  6. The university tends to have a different perspective on a number of matters. For one, they don’t care whether or not I starve to death after graduation, so long as they’re not on the hook for student loans. I mentioned foreign languages as one of a number of fields in which the university or college graduate couild acquire a “marketable” skill. I could name people by the fistful who started their present career by bilingual fluency. Many of them started with Defense Language Institute, which cares greatly about the language and culture, but not a whit about the literature as such.

    But we keep circling back to literature and purpose. Literature is the best of each type. It’s books and poems of historical importance. It’s the key to understanding the culture.

    These are not the same things, which is why I’m so deeply suspicious when three different purposes keep ending up with the same book list. We can talk “objective” literary merit all we want. I can think of half a dozen ways to fudge that test. But if we’re talking books which shaped how Americans think or thought, GONE WITH THE WIND and ATLAS SHRUGGED would have to be taken seriously. If by “historical importance” we’re talking how they influenced subsequent literature, FRANKENSTEIN–and, for that matter, DRACULA–move up the scale, as do the early HG Wells SF.
    But reading to understand American civilization and culture would be a different list again. As an example, THAT list would include James Warner Bellah. Yes, I know you never heard of him. He was a short story writer, often for the SATURDAY EVENING POST, and when you pay attention to the credits on old John Ford/John Wayne westerns, he shows up under “based on a story by.” When some irate Frenchman or German denounces Americans as “cowboys” he generally doesn’t mean we’re herding or rustling cattle. He means we’re behaving like one of Bellah’s cavalry officers–protecting the women and children, and dealing with the savages.

    If the university is privately owned and operated, the language departments may operate on any principle they can get past their superiors. If it is to be taxpayer supported, some attention to the needs of the students and the taxpayers would be in order. But that would be another question. I merely observe that the three purposes given are not the same, and will not generate the same readings.

    I suspect the same is true elsewhere. I don’t know what readings most influenced French character, and which best explain it, but I doubt very much they’re the ones the Academie Francais would cite as the best examples of the language.

    The English-speaking world, of course, has no equivalent institution. We should work at keeping it so. One way is not to take our literary guardians as seriously as they take themselves.


    15 Jun 09 at 4:46 pm

  7. I get a email list primarily of Slavic professors and scholars. Over the last 18 months there have been at least 5 frantic queries from professors of Russian whose departments are about to be abolished, asking what other departments have done to save themselves. The reason their depts are getting the axe is always the same: funding is catastrophically low and something has to go. The universities save the “important” — ie “practical” — courses like premed and psychology, but axe “non-essential” courses and departments, which include most foreign languages (save Spanish and Arabic). Ancient languages are also being eliminated.

    In the first place, Russian is a “practical” need; the country is going to be a pain in the butt for a long time, and specialists conversant with the language, culture and history are really needed to help shape policy. (In my experience, the poli sci kids who don’t know Russian are useless in policy.) But more importantly, Russian is worth knowing because it’s worth knowing. The literature and arts influenced the arts in the west, psychology, neurology, and a dozen other fields. It’s part of the world culture. It has shaped who we are and how we understand the world. Maybe that sounds grand, but it really isn’t.

    Besides, it’s fascinating. That’s the other part of all this. There is a lot that I learn and long to learn just because it’s interesting. I think that’s what’s missing from the way kids are taught (gathering from what has been written here). There always seems to be a reason why you need to learn something. Why not just because it’s interesting? Because you’re curious? Because it’s a pleasure to find out how ancient Slavs built their churches and houses, how they made jam, how they built city streets of logs and the sound horses’ hoofs made when they walked along them.


    16 Jun 09 at 5:57 am

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