Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hark, Hear the Bells

I don’t know how to talk about the beauty of Bergen at night. Every evening, as dusk sets, fairies tiptoe up the mountains leaving their glitter along the creases in the slopes. The hills are strung with lights and the fjords and lakes in the valleys shimmer with their reflection. Walking through a wild Norwegian night, the wind billowing out my hood and the rain gusting strong against my face, those lights signal cheer and home steadfastness and rosy golden safety. Bergen, where it gets dark by 3 pm, is always a city of jeweled lights on the water.

So, Saturday night, when friends told me about the Bergen Lysfest, or annual Christmas light festival, I was happy to walk up to town and experience some more of the magic. We made it to the Byparken just as they lit the Christmas tree floating out on the lake in the middle of the city. It was simple, a large pine decked with strings of lights and a star at the top, swaying in the wind out on the water. The trees around the fountain had also been festooned with white lights. A huge stage was erected in the plass, and a youth choir soared carols out over the heads of the crowd. Every child had snap-lights and every few adults clustered around a torch that blazed into the rain. In the high-rise buildings around the lake, we could see people on the top floors looking down the same way Americans do for Thanksgiving day parades and the Fourth of July. It felt… like Christmas. Not perfect Christmas, exactly, not Christmas with my family where we go to the zoo and watch the lights along the lake change in time to “Carol of the Bells,” but it was close. Then, the fireworks started. Great, glorious, elegant fireworks that had a shimmering fairy dust sprinkling along the lower edge and exploding pinwheels of color up above. And there were happy face fireworks, which neither Nina nor I had ever seen before. Not to mention it was fireworks in the rain, a feat that I’d believed only the Weasley brothers could pull off. And yet, somehow, it didn’t feel very different from normal Bergen. This city blossoms into a radiant Christmas splendor in the dark every night. Winter night lasts from October to February, and the brilliant glimmer of Bergen’s lights keeps it illuminated, keeps the dark a mere accessory to sheen and shine.

Great news: I just bought my tickets, and I will be in Oslo for the Weekend of Peace. Doesn’t it just thrill you to read those words? I’ve been grading my high schoolers’ latest essays on “their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy,” and I’m all tingly with hope for the future.
Ohio in a nutshell

I gave my guest lectures at Katten today. The Ohio presentation, to Norwegian immigrant high school students, went very well—I had them singing “hang on Sloopy” and shouting “O-H!” “I-O!” at me. The teacher was boggled. She’d never seen them speak that much before, let alone sing and chant Ohioan propaganda. I love my job.

I also gave a lecture on “A (brief) History of Judaism: the Past 4,000 years squeezed into 40 minutes,” to the oldest high school religion class. At one hundred years a minute, I think I got all the major events in. You know, the discovery of monotheism, the beit hamikdash, the Haskalah, and of course the fact that I’m descended from the Alexander rebbe and that Gloria Steinem is Jewish. I left out the names of all the Hasidic dynasties that I memorized in 7th grade. They'll have to learn those somewhere else.

I was particularly nervous about the last slide: the creation of the State of Israel. I wanted to do a number of things: To leave them with a history of modern Israel that would give them an image of something besides the war-torn Middle East, to help them understand that Jewish is not the same as Israeli (a concept a lot of Norwegians have problems understanding), and to be unapologetic about Israel’s right to exist without presenting an entire argument about politics in the middle of my Jewish history presentation. So, this is what I did: I put a gorgeous picture of the Israeli flag billowing in the wind up on the screen, along with the date 1948. I told them that in 1948, the UN voted on the partition plan which created a state of Israel. Then I said that obviously modern Israeli history is not the exact same thing as modern Jewish history, so I’m going to focus on the part that most affects world Judaism. Which was: the Right of Return. I explained that every Jew has a right to citizenship in Israel. Then I gave them a list. I told them about Operation Flying Carpet which rescued 45,000 Yemenite Jews in 1950. I told them about Jews who fled or were expelled from Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Kurdistan, and Tunisia in the years between 1949 and now. I told them about Operation Moses and the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews. And the Soviet Jewish immigration. And the recent immigration of French Jews who are fleeing recent anti-Semitic attacks. In short, without discussing a single Middle Eastern war or concentrating on one ethnicity, I made a compelling argument for the existence of the state of Israel that was in no way politically charged. I felt pretty proud of myself. And you know what? The kids were fascinated. They leaned forward in their seats. They laughed at all the right times. They asked questions afterwards about my personal observance of Judaism. And I knew I’d pulled off quite a good deal. Guess what? I love my job.

I had a meeting afterwards with the professor in charge of the Britlit survey course at UiB next semester. He’s a slouchy, personable Englishman who I like because every so often he pauses and lets me throw in a clever off-the-cuff comment. I’m not sure how the topic was raised, but we went through the basic difficulties of the Norwegian education system. Stuart spoke pretty hopelessly about how profs aren’t allowed to demand student attendance in class—it impinges on students’ rights— and about how there’s not enough resources to create a desperately-needed freshman writing class, and about how little power he as a professor has to teach effectively.

How about a mutual partnership?
Nah, just kidding, I know that's naive.
Now, all this nonsense about students’ rights is really adorable, but the truth is that Norwegian university students, while all have the right to government-funded college education, lack the basic right that American students pay thousands of dollars for: the right to have a professor kick their butts into high gear and challenge the hell out of them. Professors go on and on in the States about how American students treat college as a consumer product and expect to get exactly what they want because they’ve paid for it, but that is nothing to the Norwegian system, where Norwegian students expect, as their legal right, that professors not inconvenience them by demanding too much from them. After teaching a literature survey course which was really more of a methodology course, I’m aching from having passed so many of those students on their papers when I know they’re going to fail the exam. If I could have demanded that they come to class, that they write and rewrite and rewrite their papers and attend special seminars on citation, I could perhaps have brought them up to scratch. But the Norwegian system won’t let. 

I love my job, but sometimes, it gets complicated. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Versions of Virgins

Ever stand in front of a group of people, all of whom are listening intently to you, and say the wrong thing? Today while teaching my high school class about how to evaluate internet sources, I responded to one of them by saying, “yes, exactly, sometimes you need to check a different virgin.” They laughed, and I closed my eyes for a second, grinned, and repeated, “version. A different version.” As I searched for the thread of my thoughts, my mind stumbled a moment, and I realized this is the exact kind of moment where it’s so easy to get sucked into a whirlwind of recriminations about Freudian slips instead of just continuing on. I wanted to sit down on my teacher’s dais and laugh and laugh. But instead I kept going, and either they all forgot about it or they’re telling their parents about it over dinner right now.

To test their ability to properly evaluate sources, I had them google “September 11th Conspiracy theories” and check different websites for facts. Then I made em all line up at the blackboard, ranging themselves along the spectrum of “utterly convinced that 9/11 was actually an alien invasion” to “the US government told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to the American people. They had to explain what websites they visited and why they gave them credibility. Then sat back down for a long discussion, jumpstarted by my use of Abraham Lincoln’s quote that “most of what is written on the internet today is misquoted.” Actually, it was kind of hard to get them off the topic of conspiracy theories, but I managed. One girl mentioned the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, made by “you know, that famous fat man, I can’t remember his name.” That’s what I call Michael Moore, too.

Once again, Islamophobia came up—I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how often American prejudice towards Muslims has made its way into the conversation. Norway has a large Muslim recent immigrant population and is grappling with difference for the first time (probably ever), and so the sensitivities that an American feels are echoed here, without the practice at political correctness that Americans have down pat. But I think part of my discomfort is an uncertainty with how I feel. One part of me wants to make it incredibly clear that Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are very different from the Muslim Americans who are just as much citizens of the US, just as patriotic, just as much people, as anyone. The other part of me wants to fight with all my strength against the incredibly anti-Israel, dismissing-terrorism-as-political-flummoxery that Norway seems to engage in so gleefully. I have to sort it out before I figure out how to talk to the class about it, but while I stumble through words about how “Muslims were also killed in 9/11,” there’s a Somalian girl who sits on the left side of the classroom and shrinks into her hijab when we mention Muslim terrorism or American Islamophobia.

I gave them a pep talk at the end. They’d been worried about a recent journal assignment based on a film we’d watched to talk about their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy. “We’re just high schoolers,” they said. “Yeah,” I told them, “but you are some of the smartest high schoolers in Norway. People will listen to you. If not now, later. So start thinking about this stuff.” Hopefully it made a dent.

We talked turkey in my adult class today. I made them write essays from the perspective of the Native Americans upon first meeting Europeans, which I think may have been useful since the textbook didn’t get beyond the preschool version of “and then Squanto gave us food and we all sat down for a cheery meal wearing stupid hats.” No smallpox blankets in that storyline.

I’m going to be a guest lecturer at another Katten class on Tuesday. Apparently the oldest high schoolers are doing presentations on different states, and I was asked to come in and model it for them using Ohio. I’ve decided I’m going to wear a plaid shirt and braids. If I could find a cowboy hat, I’d do that too. Now’s when my pictures of incredibly fat people at the Ohio State Fair, in front of signs saying “deep-friend kool-aid,” will come in handy. I've been saving them up for just this moment.

The teacher I’m lecturing for told me how stressed she was with her class before the English one. It’s religion, and apparently they’re starting monotheism next week, but Judaism was taken out of the course plan and she doesn’t know how to teach about Christianity and Islam without it. So now I’m going to be a guest lecturer there, too. I’m going to have to change out of my plaid shirt and braids, and into a tilboshet and cute blue hat. Touting my many personalities, sorry, no, I meant identities.

Speaking of, today in the masters’ thesis workshop we read a guy’s work on the masculinity and Jewishness of Robert Cohn (which all the Norwegians pronounced Norwegishly “Cune,” instead of the “Cone” that anyone who knows a few Cohens would automatically move towards) in Hemingway’s Sun Also. I was pretty well distracted by the delicious language the guy had used in writing it up—can we introduce “smudgeoned” and “indignated” into the regular vernacular? Then I spent the next five minutes wondering why in hell the guy down the table from me was talking about countertops. Took me that long to decipher his British accent into “counter types” and understand his ideas about the text.

It was a bit of a disturbing session, as somehow I’d always just given Hemingway dramatic immunity from scrutinizing the anti-Semitism in his book too closely. He’s such a good writer, my brain clicked off at the bit about Judaism. I’ve examined his gender ideas many a time, but somehow this has never been allowed into my consciousness. The writer of the thesis had the usual Norwegian diffidence. I want to stand up at that table sometimes and shout “just say it! To hell with the critics, what’s in your brain?” I have only two shots left; two more sessions and the semester's over.

I now have a reflector band to put around my arm when I go on walks at night. It’s pretty dangerous; I feel automatically safer with it on, and am sure I’m more careless as I cross roads (I think my mind thinks my reflector band repels cars). Also, whenever I see someone else with one, which is all the time because let’s face it this is Norway and they take the dark pretty seriously here, I want to hold my arm up and bump fists or something in a gesture of solidarity. Which makes me think—let’s get some human rights insignia on there, or mothers against drunken war, or something— and make some political use out of these things rather than just advertising for Aker Solutions. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reading List

New plan: instead of taking out library books, I’m just gonna list what I haven’t read here on my blog and assume they’ll magically show up on my desk in the graduate reading room. Thanks for the Hemingway, Jonas. I also haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera, Germinal, or Appointment in Samarra. I’ll be expecting them shortly.

For the past week I’ve been running review sessions for my Amlit students. It’s been exhausting and nerve-wracking to be expected to know every single thing about American literature and history, but also exhilarating fun to be tested on my knowledge (“that’s free indirect discourse, too easy, c’mon, ask me another”). I mapped out fake questions for them and then we worked through the answers together. Sometimes they challenged each other, leading to better discussions than they ever had in the seminars. It’s amazing what fear of an exam will do for class participation.

My favorite CMA painting:
The Confused Process of Becoming (Portrait of Roman Johnson)
I also gave a presentation on Rita Dove in my masters seminar on ekphrasis in poetry. I managed to pull from four different Ohio artistic sources—that’s right, we kind of rock (we boast Paul Lawrence Dunbar, William Dean Howell, and Toni Morrison, too!). It was fun to once again give a presentation without worrying about keeping class attention—I could just rocket through the stuff without caring whether anyone was listening or not.

I have a new mailbox in town. The Dead Sea lotion booth on the second floor of the Bergen storsenter is now my drop-box; if you’d like to leave me a message, find the tall guy with spiked hair and an Israeli accent. It’s funny how I keep finding the Israelis, and how weirded out they are by my nationality. Today the series of questions went: “Israeli?” “Oh, then Norwegian?” “Then what?” American?! So how do you speak Hebrew?” Um, did you not notice my accent, dumbbutt? At least they have an extremely accurate grasp on what day school educations can be expected to produce in the way of language skills.

Tomorrow I will experience government bureaucratic idiocy at its finest: both the US and the Norwegian governments will pay me for teaching the same class. Anita’s going to a conference for teachers of Uttøya survivors, so I have the school to myself for the day, and apparently if she passes the keys off to me then I count as a substitute and not a Fulbright ETA, so I get a salary from the Norwegian government in addition to my Fulbright stipend. Viva la Norsk government.

Finally, finally getting homesick as Thanksgiving approaches. I want to be on that plane home stuffed with everyone returning to their families where we clap for the marines as they disembark first. I want hugs and a silly place setting and jokes in bad taste about celebrating American ethnic cleansing and to not watch football and the joy of yams and stuffing and apple pie and cranberry-chocolate tart. So eat a bit of turkey for me, please. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance...

In my final semester of college, a professor teaching one of my honors literature seminars asked myself and one of the top students in the class to stand up and hold a discussion in front of the class on King Lear. We ranged from comparisons with Shakespeare’s other works, to psycho-analyzing the parent-child relationship in literature and analysis of madness, to connections between Lear and the contemporary royalty that Shakespeare was writing for. We sounded quite intelligent. Only, neither of us had read it. The prof was proving a point about literature as cultural capital and the degree to which literature scholars BS their way through conversations about Ulysses just because they’re ashamed to admit they haven’t read it.

Chilling by a lake atop Ulriken
As I stood in front of my American literature class, running a review session for them before their exam, I remembered that moment. The night before, I’d pored over the syllabus and filled in all the gaps in my education. Since I’ve read most of the classics that show up on a survey course of American literature, it wasn’t too difficult to fit in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and re-read Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California.” There was only one book I hadn’t read and didn’t plan to; Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t find it online or in my anthology, and as I’d been sidetracked into Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night (the dangers of reading in an anthology are quite real), I figured I could call it a day.

Standing in front of the terrified students looking to grasp anything that would help them in their exam, I congratulated myself on the thoroughness with which I righted their conception of double consciousness and explicated Plath’s metaphors. Then, inevitably, came the question: what do the italics in Hemingway have to do with modernism? As I cobbled together an answer from my knowledge of Hemingway's style and modernist tricks, explaining how the flashbacks in the book show a fluid time stream that is very modernist, and the italics are part of Hemingway’s method for distinguishing mental thought from the present-day action (lucky guess? no, educated response ;-), I thought back to the moment my prof revealed to the honors class that neither Chris nor I had ever read King Lear. They were startled, and impressed, and looked at us like literary wiz kids for the rest of the semester. But fun as it was, I don’t think I’ll repeat the exposure of my talent this time; nobody guessed that I hadn’t read The Snows of Kilimanjaro on Friday, and I’d like to keep them in blissful ignorance of the fact.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. 

Sunday morning I gave myself a break from the mountain of work I’ve had lately, and traded it for a walk up Ulriken, Bergen’s tallest mountain. Ulriken is good for me; I always feel so woefully out of shape after hiking up the steep rocky trail that goes straight up, that I spend the rest of the week waking for a jog before sunrise. You know, around nine o’clock or so. Watching the sun drift slowly over the side of the mountain and suddenly dazzle Bergen into brilliance below me, I had a sudden piercing sense of possession over the city and its mountains sloping greyly into the distance.

View from the peak of Ulriken

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Big Plans: A Writing Center in Bergen

Extras from Dublin

While talking to a group of my high schoolers today, I discovered the fact that I was the first American they’d ever met. Apparently, the Americans shown on tv are either fat, gun-toting farmers or rich, snobby, city celebrities. I was relieved to be told that I’m neither. But I think I’m going to have recruit all my American friends here in Bergen to stand up in front of the class and represent the diversity of America. Walking out of the class, I felt the first wave of homesickness I’ve felt surge over me. Suddenly I wanted to be home with the awesome friends whose regional quirks I’d been describing.

Dazed with awe: Felicia Hemans!
I met with Lene yesterday to discuss plans for next semester. Apparently there’s some small print somewhere that states I must do something connected with America, so moving on to the Britlit class that all my American lit students from this semester will be taking isn’t going to work. Too bad; I love the Victorians. I’ll still run a writing workshop for that class, though. Lene asked if I’d be interested in TAing her masters seminar on American travel narratives. I said “hellz yeah!” (you actually can, to Lene) and am so excited to work with her. She seems the best teacher of the profs I’ve worked with here at UiB and, like Auchard back at UMD, I think I can learn tons just by following her around like a puppy dog and listening to all she says. We spoke about the class a bit, and then I made my pitch.

There's no handle on this door!
I want to start a writing center at UiB. A cross-departmental English (and perhaps later Norwegian) writing lab, where students can take their papers for help on any subject. It wouldn’t take much, just a room and some tutors and a good online program to sign up. Why not use the Fulbright ETA to organize and run the center, since the US government is paying them anyhow? No skin off the uni’s nose. The biggest issue, I think, will be finding grad students to tutor. In the States they’re all dirt poor and eager to tutor for a measly ten bucks an hour, but here in Norway, on their student loans and with free education and health care and all, that’s less of an incentive. So I’m going to draw it up from the resume angle and fight it through thus. Lene said she’ll help me set up a meeting with the head of the department, to pitch it. Then I’ll try to build up the center over the course of the semester, and just let the Norway-US Fulbright foundation know that whoever gets placed in Bergen from now on needs to have serious writing capabilities. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oscar Wilde looked pretty scary
At the student center this evening, all the lit masters students ordered what is apparently traditional Thursday dinner in Norway. It’s potato balls that look eerily akin to matzah balls minus the soup, some kind of carroty mush, and strips of meat. They gobbled it down happily, but I did not feel at all bad that I could not join in this particular Norwegian custom. Later that night, the UiB profs complained about the UiB administration, and my favorite American prof told me that he was fed up with his mac because it didn’t work now that he’d spilled tea on it, and he was going to get another computer soon. Careful to keep my expression neutral, I asked whether PCs react better to liquids. Luckily, we were interrupted by Zeljka exclaiming about dialect differences in Norway. Interesting conversation since, in America, having a particular dialect quirk often indicates a class difference—those without a clear dialect are generally of the upper echelons of class. In Norway it’s much more to do with region, though the slopes of Fløyen apparently do boast a socialect different from the regular Norsk.

I’m utterly exhausted. I have not had much time for sleep since Dublin—what with grading my high schoolers’ big project and learning their online educational system, prepping my review sessions for my lit students’ final exam, creating a presentation on ekphrasis and Rita Dove, and trying to figure out the orthodontia system in Norway, plus organizing various cheider-related complexities and returning to contact with all the friends who felt neglected while I was in Dublin, I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment. Looking forward to shabbat. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dublin: A Room of One's Own (With a View)

 Living in Bergen, one is apt to forget how ugly the rest of the world is. So Dublin, with its gritty river Liffey and swarms of scruffy Irishmen, was quite a shock. A shock quickly superseded by the near-death experience of thinking our bus was about to smash into another, which was calmed by my remembering that, though our bus driver could not speak a word of recognizable English, he seemed fairly capable of driving on the wrong side of the road without mishap.

Ruth, Amanda and I arrived in Dublin on Thursday morning, and the startlingly sunny walk over the tarmac already made our trip. We put up at the Four Courts Hostel right on the Liffey, near Temple Bar, booking all four beds in one room for the sake of privacy. We picnicked in a church park and walked around the city, orienting ourselves.

We returned from our reconnaissance of Dublin cheerful and wiped. In our room, we all stopped short. A definite odor had settled while we were gone. Not liking to say anything to my roommates, I went to the window and struggled to open it.
“What’s that smell?” asked Ruth, blunter than myself.
“Whose coat is that?” asked Amanda.
“Who’s that?” I turned to see who they were speaking about, and a tousled figure sat up in the top bunk right near my head. Letting the window fall with a whack, I shrieked. The guy looked at me.
Checking out our view
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” We backed out of the room, and promptly doubled over laughing. Finally, we made it down to the reception desk, where I played every tool in my arsenal to get us switched to a different room. I was a damsel in distress (“we smelled him before we saw him!”), I was a young American woman appealing to the guy behind the desk (did you notice I have boobs?), I was funny –“just how bad is the smell?” “pungent”—, I was a reasonable adult willing to compromise (of course we'll stay in the room Friday night, when the hostel's full-- um, yeah, I'll be at chabad for shabbat). It made me think about how easy it is for young women like us to work the system, and how much of a loss we’d be at in a different culture. Anyhow, we laughed at the guys clowning around behind the desk, and we listened to them joke about how “some people’s hygiene is just disgraceful” with suitably attentive expressions, and finally were moved to a front room that looked out on the river Liffey, without any undesirable odoriferous additions, and the charge to “have fun yourselves.” I woke up early for walks along the Liffey, out-striding the leisurely floating swans (how do they keep so pristine in such a grungy river?).

The next morning, Ruth and I went down to breakfast before Amanda. I went back up alone, and felt miffed when my keycard didn’t work. I began to bang on the door. “Amanda!” I shouted. And again. Thump, thump, thump. "AMANDA!"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Government Big Enough

Today the last of my students presented their candidates for their American Election Projects. The prodigy of the class actually gave a speech as Jon Huntsman, complete with that tough drawly accent I’ve come to identify as Republican. The Norwegian bits lingering around her voice made it entertaining, but you could really see Huntsman shining through. She doesn’t often speak in class, but what she does say is thought-out, and her work keeps thrilling me with its creative spins. I’m trying to remember how I always knew that I was my teachers’ favorite—I’d like to slip her some sort of hint that her work is really astounding and that I can see she’s both working hard and brilliant. Something more professional than gushing approval and more expansive than curt messages in the margins of her journals. Or perhaps she just knows.

After the last students had presented their candidates, we had a discussion about the issues they’d researched. At least, we tried to. We ended up in an analysis of the Norwegian system as compared to the American one. You see, these kids were born and raised in a welfare state. It’s exceedingly difficult for them to get their minds around the idea that not only does government not necessarily have a responsibility to solve all its citizens’ problems, but that the citizens might not want it to. As I strove to present a libertarian perspective, I dragged through all the quotes in my arsenal, starting with the noble Thomas Jefferson’s “a government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything,” and ending with the inglorious V for Vendetta line, “people should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” And yet still, at the end of it, when Western responsibility to 3rd world countries was being discussed and I suggested the need to treat the countries not as victims but as actors in their own right, A agreed by saying that yes, they need to create governments that can take care of their people. I don’t know how to make these kids see the upside of a market economy, or understand the tremendous waste that comes with having such a huge government with no market incentive to efficiency, or the advantage that local, volunteer-based organizations can have over a federal government in understanding the need of the locals and fulfilling it efficiently. I’m a staunch Democrat, but as I teach I’m realizing that’s mostly a result of my position on social issues like abortion and gay rights (and the current insanity of the Republican party) instead of an indicator of the way I see ideal government.

In my Amlit class, we’re reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, so I labored to put together a politically correct presentation on American and Asian-American culture clashes in the book. I ended up with a chart that looks like this:

The American Dream
Disney rebel child
Individual success
Work Ethic: Work Smart
Model Minority
The Asian-American Dream: Beat the Americans (Tiger Mom)
Dutiful child
Family Success
Work Ethic: Work Hard (Asian F)

Who knows what kind of new prejudices my Norwegian students left the class with. I just wish there had been an American in the room to appreciate my humor.

Tomorrow, Ruth (the other Fulbrighter at Fantoft), Amanda (ETA in Ås near Oslo), and I are going to Dublin! We found $50 tickets, so we decided to schedule an impromptu Fulbrighter vacation. I’ll keep you posted on the city of Yeats, Beckett, and leprechauns when I get back (Joyce must be mentioned but I WILL NOT include him with the other two, so instead he gets shunted to this parenthesis. Yes, it’s personal). Expect pictures, and an answer for Elizabeth Bishop.

Questions of Travel

What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

--Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 7, 2011

Botched Teaching

At the Friday writing workshop I run at the university, one of my students sat for a minute after we’d finished going over his paper. “Do you have any more questions?” I asked, thinking he’d forgotten some point he wanted to check.

“No, it’s just, in my last paper, well, you graded it.” (Shoot, I thought to myself, there is no way this is going to end with thanks for insightful comments, not with his hesitation). “And, well, when Ingrid handed them back, she said that everything she wrote, she wrote to be positive, and to help us, and we should take the criticism in a good light, and, well, there wasn’t really anything positive in your comments.”

Grade my exams for me? Anyone?
I shot a look at his notebook, and faintly recognized his name. It was one of the papers that I’d put at the bottom of the pile to check with Ingrid whether it passed. By the time I reached his, I’d developed an unhealthy anger, a kind of rage that anybody could write this poorly and be in a university literature class. I’m sure he must be one of those to whom I wrote catty notes in the margins about the necessity of mentioning the text in a literature paper. Uggg. And here he is, a nice guy looking up at me, after he’s come in for help on his next paper, giving me the sharp slap on the wrist that I utterly deserve for being such a horrid teacher and grader. I’ve felt pangs of regret all through the weekend, each time I remember another snarky comment about the necessity of learning the English language before attempting to communicate about a poem written in it. I never actually wrote that anywhere, but at this point my brain is diligently manufacturing the things it thinks I could have written and sliding them in with the real ones. I apologized to him, and excused myself a bit with the exhaustion of grading, but I felt terrible. 

Impatience in a teacher is a venal fault. No amount of breast-beating and hair-pulling can atone for the punctures in confidence that my barbed pen must have inflicted on students who trusted me to guide them into improvement without taking their failings personally. Oh, I can tell myself any number of things: at least I have been scrupulously careful to stay positive with my high schoolers (it’s easier! They write in proper English, forgossakes! And are meant to be learning to write, whereas these guys ought to already have the rudiments of basic grammar down), or perhaps this is just a cultural clash: Norwegian gentleness against American tough love (no pain, no gain), or I had to grade a tremendous amount of papers so no wonder I got sloppy with sugarcoating the criticism. But at the end of the day, I’ve outraged my own sense of responsibility.

I’m going to have to work on this.

I think I am going to be able to float being in Oslo during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. There’s a shabbaton in Oslo that weekend, and I have cajoled my boys’ parents, in various languages, to send their children so that they can actually meet and be aware that there exist other Jewish children in this country. Which means I get a free flight to Oslo as chaperone. And can meet up with the Fulbrighters in the center of town late Friday night to watch the three winners come out and greet the crowd. Yeeees!

I'm so glad it was three women the year I'm in Norway
The past few nights the moon has been enormous, luminous, and riding high above in the horizon. The thought that passed through my head was actually, “wow, that’s worth writing home about.” So I am. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Professorial Smackdown

This blog post is dedicated to the Masters lit students at UiB, who have just discovered my blog

Scene—early afternoon. A seminar room at UiB filled with Masters literature students and the UiB lit profs. A student has just finished presenting the beginning of her thesis, and another student has offered criticism. Below is the inner monologue that played in my head during the class:

Wow. She’s so extremely diplomatic. What an amazing gift. How nicely she phrases her criticism. Okay, now she’s beginning to sound diffident. Come on, girl! Don’t be cowed by the other woman’s age, you’ve got heaps more brains. I wish that woman would just sit quiet and take it. Otherwise this is going to be more like a ping-pong match than an academic discussion. Now, is anyone going to say the much-needed and obvious fact: that this thesis lacks any idea of its own? Oh, good, you can always trust Randi to articulate the unpleasant. It’s her professorial prerogative. Walt Whitman as eco-poet... or not. If you stretch his "I contain multitudes" that far, lady, you'll be left with "Walt Whitman: Poet." Gosh, Jakob may have just saved her thesis with that idea. I wonder if she’ll be smart enough to take it. Oh Jesus, no, why is the American prof speaking? Maybe if I just duck my head down like this I can pretend I’m in a different room. Or country. Why does he always start out with, “If I were writing this…” Dude, why must everything be twisted around until it reflects you? He’s Charles Tansley from To The Lighthouse, only neither marriage nor tenure can cure him. [American Prof: If I were writing this, and I know I’m coming from a different cultural background, I’m an American—] No, don’t say that! Don’t bring attention to it! You want her to read Milton? What part of her-thesis-already-lacks-a-focus did you not understand? Okay, yes, good, mention that book. And that one. I know, we all know, you’ve read everything. I hate academics—Jesus! Did you just tell her to learn French? Oh, shit. Oh, shit, did I just moan “oh, shit” out loud? Oh good, the British professor’s jumping in. He should clear things up for her. Thank you, yes, she doesn’t have to learn French. And needn’t read Milton. NO! American prof, DO NOT respond! You are at a decided disadvantage here. Oh my gosh, this is horrible. They sound so polite and so irate. WASPs in a scuffle. My left hand neighbor wrote, “clash of the Titans” on a paper and passed it to me. More like clash of the lanky grizzled pedants who both need haircuts. What utter agony it is not to burst out laughing right now. The student to my right is chuckling. He has written “intellectual mud fight” on his computer and angled it at me. How on earth do people find academia boring?

*There is a prequel to this scene, from last night’s professors’ dinner at which my limbo half-student half-teacher status gave me the privilege of presence so that I could once more imagine bashing my head against the table. I’ll share it in a later post when I have more time to do it justice.
** My dad is going to want me to take this post down in case the prof sees it and I get in trouble, but Abba, do you really think that a guy like that is going to spend time surfing the blogosphere?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Post-Post-9/11 World

One of my favorite spots in Bergen. In the field across
from Fantoft, there's a fountain with markers reaching
out from it showing the direction and distance from
different cities across the world.

Congratulations. We’re officially in the post-post-9/11 world.

At a Halloween party this week, my mind jumped out of my head and did a quick lap around the room before returning, completely blown. I had just seen a couple dressed up as the World Trade Center. They each wore cardboard boxes with windows drawn on, and had half a plane coming out of their fronts.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good bit of irreverence as much as the next person. I chuckled over the shoe-attack on Bush, and can cock my head to stare at Piss Christ with plenty of aesthetic curiosity. From the time I could write, parodies and lampoons poured out of my pen. But this touched the raw. And surprised me by doing so.

In recent years, I think of September 11th less as a tragedy, and more as a paradigm shift. When it happened, it was horrible. I remember my seventh grade brain performing the following contortion: oh good, now America will understand the unbelievable fear and sorrow that Israel has been living with for years. Since then, I’ve been exposed to so much discussion of 9/11’s use as an excuse for oil-greedy grabs in Iraq and government surveillance and fuel of Islamaphobia, that it seems more a political event than an anniversary of death. Yet the Norwegian couple who thought it would be a good idea to dress up as this murder of thousands shocked me back into feeling.

I understand that ten years is a long time to some people (it’s true that my sense of historic time is so distorted that every summer I fast for the destruction of the temple 2000 years ago). But it is not so long that people are not still mourning their friends and family. I wanted nothing more than to walk up to the couple and sock them one with, “I didn’t dress up like Uttøya. You keep your hands off 9/11.” Which would have been at least as tasteless and horrid as their costumes. So instead I walked home, and opened the door to a pair of adorable trick-or-treaters with an enormous bucket of candy and change. I added a couple of quarters to their loot and shooed them back out into the scary world.

In my masters literature class the other day, the prof inadvertently raised a fascinating question. He was talking about American literature departments’ inability to cope with “The Man Who Lived Underground” properly, and include it as often as they did sentimental favorites with much less political punch. I mused a bit out loud on the humor of accusing lit departments of failing to be properly liberal and leftist, and then realized I’d hit a poser. In America, the liberals gather in the literature departments. But it’s not so here. Where do the liberal Norwegians hang out? Then I realized it was an incredibly dumb question—they aren’t enough of a minority to need their own cozy haven. In fact, whereas in the States identity and race and class are constantly clashed over in classes and pretty much every student of the Humanities walks around with a little conscience on their shoulder telling them to rethink their words and labels 24/7, the Norwegian literature department seems curiously absent of class anger or gender anxiety or inquiries of sexual definition. Though I’m certain these students have all read about identity and can speak intelligently on it when required, it seems less immediate. Perhaps its simply their European reticence and manners against American bluster. Or perhaps it really is less relevant here. Americans are so worried about defining themselves, and Europeans may be more comfortable remaining in the pack. Plus, they all look kinda the same to an American ;-)
Jonas, what do you think?