Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I Love Writing in Spanish

I'm writing my talk that I will deliver at a conference in Chicago on Friday. While I publish my articles both in English and in Spanish, I only present conference talks in Spanish. Mostly, I do it because in English I still have an accent which has a tendency to get stronger at the most inopportune moments. (Whenever I try to say the word "focus", it always comes out sounding like "fuck us" or even "fuck ass." Of course, it always manages to wake up the audience, but it's also kind of embarrassing.) In Spanish, though, my pronunciation is very Argentinean with pretty much no trace of an extraneous accent.

Writing in Spanish is very liberating for me. I can be as wordy as I like and create endlessly convoluted sentences. While writing in English presupposes editing down anything even marginally superfluous, in Spanish creating beautiful verbal flourishes is considered a mark of a good writing style.

So if you notice that my posts have become even wordier that usual, bear with me. I'll be done with the conference soon and will go back to trying to control my wordiness.

My Students And the Upcoming Elections

Since in my Advanced Spanish Conversation class we are supposed to cover the vocabulary relating to politics, I decided to use this opportunity to remind the students of the upcoming elections. "So," I said to open up a discussion, "I guess everybody here is going to vote on Tuesday, right?" The students looked perplexed and said nothing. "Do they suddenly not understand what I'm saying?" I thought. "That's weird, because at this point in the course their listening comprehension skills are very advanced. So I tried again, speaking very slowly. "You know that there will be elections on Tuesday, right? Elections? Voting? Congress? Senate?" All these words sound almost the same in Spanish and in English, but the students still looked very confused.

Finally, the students gave me some feedback.

"Elections?" drawled one of them. "Huh. . ."
"Hmm," said another student.
"Ahh. . ." added two more students.

So I abandoned the failed conversation about politics and talked about the difference between English and Spanish interjections instead.

I hear that the Dems' only hope is a good voter turnout. Well, all I can say to that is "Hmm. . ."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween Costumes

When I first moved from a big Canadian city (Montreal) to a small American town (New Haven), I realized that unless I learned to dress down, my life would be too complicated. It was way too boring to have to explain every single day that no, it isn't my birthday and no, I'm not going to the Dean's reception, I'm just on my way to the store to buy a sack of potatoes. So I shelved my big-city outfits and learned to fit in. At least, to some extent. (I even went as far as buying a pair of jeans, which is still too traumatic for me to remember.) When my first American Halloween party came up, I was too overwhelmed and depressed by life in New Haven to think of a costume to wear. I decided to go to the party in my regular Montreal clothes.

The biggest and the most fun Halloween party at Yale was celebrated at the graduate students' club. People who came wearing a Halloween costume had to pay $5 for the ticket, and people who came dressed in regular clothes paid $10. When I approached the cashiers, they looked at my Montreal attire and unanimously exclaimed: "That's a great costume! Five bucks from you, ma'am."

During the party, people kept saying, "What a great costume! What are you dressed like?" And I would respond, "Me! I'm dressed like me!"

Advice to Academics: How to Select a Conference?

Choosing a conference where one will give a talk has become more fraught than ever. Nowadays, we are lucky if our university pays for one or two conferences per academic year. Often, academics have to shoulder out-of-pocket expenses to attend conferences. This is why I believe that the choice of where you will give your talk should be approached carefully.

Many young academics choose to speak at conferences that are dedicated to their research interests. I think this is a mistake. You don't want to end up with a CV showing that you kept doing the same thing for years. Nowadays, only a very broad range of research interests and teaching experiences will guarantee a comfortable career path for an academic in the Humanities.

When I choose a conference, I always select a panel that will discuss something I have never addressed, studied, or even considered before. In May, I gave a talk on the Spanish mystery novel. Next week, I will be speaking about the horror genre. It was weary work to get myself knowledgeable enough about these subjects since they lie so far away from my regular research interests (identity, ideology, female Bildungsroman, XIXth century Realism.) However, once I got over my initial resistance to these topics, I have discovered a very interesting tendency that the mystery novels and the horror novels share in contemporary Spanish literature. As a result, I will be able to combine the two conference talks into an article ready for publication with very little extra work.

Sometimes, you get so comfortable with your primary area of interest that it's hard to push yourself to explore other research interests. There are people who keep giving talks on the subject of their doctoral dissertation years after they got their PhD. I never wanted to turn into this sad staple of academic life, whose appearance at a conference is greeted by a fatigued sigh of "Here she goes again with her Bildungsroman obsession." Yesterday, I talked with an older colleague who is a very respected and productive scholar, and he told me that choosing a subject he has never worked on before for a conference talk has been his life-long - and very successful! - strategy.

I understand that this advice will not be useful to people in the sciences because the purpose of going to conferences is different from what it is for people in the Humanities. For my colleagues in the Humanities, though, this should be something to think about.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Husband Doesn't Help Me Around the House

One of the things that annoys me the most is to hear women say that their husband or partner helps them around the house or with the baby. This way of framing the issue presupposes that housework and child-rearing are a woman's responsibility and she should be grateful if a man condescends to participate in these activities.

My partner doesn't help me around the house. He takes care of his responsibilities, as the adult that he is, and I take care of mine.

It might seem like a small thing, but the language we use to discuss certain aspects of our lives ends up shaping the reality we create for ourselves.

Enforcing Uniformity

Our university bureaucrats keep looking for ways to justify their existence and make the lives of the teaching faculty more difficult. Their most recent exercise in futility is an attempt to create a university-wide form for student evaluations. The simple idea that all departments are different and have some very specific characteristics is unaccessible to these people. Now they have sent out a questionnaire that spells out different kinds of question that will be placed on the uniform evaluation tool. It is needless to say that this attempt to enforce uniformity will be a complete and utter failure.

To give just one example, the uniform questionnaire will ask students to evaluate how "clear and understandable" the instructor's presentations were. The geniuses who came up with this idiotic question obviously don't realize that some professors (like me and my colleagues) teach their courses in foreign languages. I teach in Spanish. I almost never use English in class, not even in Spanish 101 and 102. Students have to make a significant effort to understand what I'm saying. Which is kind of the point of the entire course. Evidently, when asked how clear and understandable my teaching was compared to other profs, the students will rate me a lot lower. How much sense does it make to penalize me for doing my job right, which of necessity means speaking in a language students find hard to understand?

Another idiotic question on the evaluation form asks students to evaluate how "organized" the class was and how "prepared" the teacher was. Language classes do not take place in a lecture format. A language class is most effective precisely when it looks disorganized. Students need to move around, speak all at the same time, interrupt each other, etc. An "organized" language class where everybody sits quietly in their seat and listens to the lecture while taking copious notes is a travesty. The kind of preparation that goes into planning a language class is not something that a person who has no understanding of the methodology of language teaching can possibly understand or evaluate.

Every time the stupid bureaucrats who don't know their ass from their elbow and a language class from a lecture in physics start messing with the teaching process, both the students and the teachers suffer. I understand that these ignoramuses need to justify their high salaries but can't they just sit quietly in their offices, drink tea, gossip, and leave us the hell alone to do our jobs???

Activism Make Sense

In case you thought that it made no sense to struggle to preserve the Humanities from complete destruction because it isn't going to work anyways, here is some really good news. The Comparative Literature program at the University of Toronto has been saved from being disbanded:
The renowned Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto has been pulled back from the brink after an outcry from scholars around the world and the determined protests of students and faculty. The director of the centre said he has been assured that the school, which was slated to close at the end of this academic year, will survive. “Comp. Lit. is saved. The centre will stay open and we’re taking students for next year,” said director Neil ten Kortenaar. “I think it was the outcry from around the world. We had a lot of support from a lot of big-name people in academic circles.”
Everybody who took the time to sign the petition to save UofT's Centre for Comparative Literature should realize that our actions do matter. I know that it's easy to get discouraged in the face of constant and concerted efforts to destroy the academia, but we still have a lot of power to prevent such things from happening.

This is an encouragement for all of us to fight harder against the raging anti-intellectualism.

Weather in Southern Illinois. . .

. . . is beyond insane. Just three days ago we had the air conditioner on all day long because it was very hot. Then today I had to turn on the heating for the first time this Fall. The temperature will fall below freezing point tonight.

I've heard some colleagues mention that they accepted the job at our university because of the great climate in the area. This makes me wonder where they lived before coming here because of all the places I ever lived Southern Illinois has the nastiest climate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pedagogy and Methodology of Teaching

A huge problem with college-level teaching in North America is that most professors get absolutely no training in pedagogy and methodology of teaching. We, the teachers in foreign languages and literature, are lucky in this respect because normally you can't get the PhD in this kind of discipline without extensive training in methodology. In many other disciplines, though, it is somehow assumed that if you are knowledgeable in your subject, you will automatically be a good teacher. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Whenever I have a chance to observe my colleagues from other departments interact with students, I always realize how crucial it is for college profs to have at least some knowledge of pedagogy and methodology. If you can't communicate with the students on a non-verbal level, if you don't know how to create a psychologically safe space in the classroom or how to inscribe yourself into the group dynamics of the class (which is different every single time), if you have never been trained to deal with the class clown, the depressed student, the romantic couple, the loud-mouth, the defiant student, the compulsive liar, the ADHD student, etc., if you have no idea how to tune into the emotional wavelength of the students, if when you plan your classes you never think about the pedagogic rationale behind the activities you assign, you will not be as effective as you could be.

I know how to make any group of students feel immediately comfortable in my presence. This is why I always get such high student evaluations, even though I'm a very tough grader and assign insane loads of homework. In spite of autism, it feels like I can flip a switch inside my head every time I enter the classroom and turn on my teaching persona, which is extremely different from my real life personality. This is why I always freak out so badly at the end of the long summer holidays: I'm always terrified that I've lost the skills and the teaching persona will fail to turn on at the start of the Fall semester.

Who the Hell Is Enrico Manicardi??

In the last couple of weeks, I've had about a dozen people come to my blog through the search that says "Enrico Manicardi." And then the same people come again with the same search. I never mentioned any Enrico Manicardi on this blog (or anywhere else for that matter) and I have no idea who he is. Can anybody explain to me why they are looking for Enrico Manicardi here? And what can I do to assist you in the search?

The funny thing is that most of the queries for the mysterious Enrico Manicardi come from differents part of Russia.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Education and Barbarity: George Washington University

Do you know what a university's job is? According to George Washington U, it's to satisfy people religiously, whatever that means. The university will now have a certain hour in its swimming pool, during which the male students will be banned from using the facilities based on their gender. This will be done to accommodate religious preferences of some students:
Last week, the Muslim Students' Association and the University opened up "Sisters' Splash," a female-only hour at the pool. Every week, GW plans to close the HelWell pool to men and will cover the glass door with a dark tarp, giving female Muslim students the chance to swim at their leisure. The University also hired a female lifeguard to be on duty for each week's event. . . Rahiba Noor, a junior who serves as the community service chair of the MSA, said that prior to attending GW, swimming laps at a private pool was an important part of her health regimen. At school, however, Noor said she's resigned herself to staying away from the water and using a treadmill. "Religious values always define us," Noor said. "Although I wouldn't really mind, it would be satisfying to me religiously to swim only with girls."
I imagine that the next step will be to create male-only classes to satisfy religiously those students who don't want to be offended by female presence in the classroom. This kind of insanity is always unleashed whenever we allow people's personal religious preferences to dominate public spaces.

And then people come here asking me why I'm in favor of niqabs, burqas and Co being outlawed in public spaces in this country. Unless this pandering to any kind of religious fanaticism stops, I can envision the day when I will be required to put on a burqa to teach my classes because my Western clothes might be found offensive by some pseudo-religios fool.

Video About Applying to Grad School in the Humanities

I had this exact same conversation with an adviser when I was an undergrad hoping to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Just like the vile, burnt-out prof in the video, she tried to ridicule my plans and make me give up on my professional plans. I met this same person the year after I got my PhD. She knew about my impressive record of publications and tried sucking up to me like crazy.

It's scary to me that this kind of envious, failed academics keep discouraging bright young students from pursuing an academic career simply because they are terrified of the competition.

I discovered this video here. The accompanying post qualifies the aspiring grad student (who even looks like me in the video) as "a dumb, naive, and stupidly idealistic idiot." This, in my experience, is unfair and wrong. It is precisely this kind of steely determination where you know what you want and go for it, irrespective of how much discouragement and insults senior faculty members heap on you, that gets one into a great tenure-track position where one can do exactly what the woman in the video is hoping to do. Learning to say "Thank you, professor, you have been most helpful" in response to all kinds of offensive statements is also an important skill for a grad student to have.

P.S. You know what I just realized? I think the young woman in the video is autistic. What some of the people who viewed the video saw as robotic, mechanical and repetitive looks like an autistic's tendency to concentrate on their goal to the exclusion of everything else. That's why I identify with this character so much. I'm sure whe will be a great academic.

Suggestions for Fat People and Pregnant Women

We just did an activity with the students in my Advanced Spanish Conversation class where they had to offer suggestions to the President on how to improve life in this country. A group of male students suggested that "fat people" should pay a fine for each extra pound of weight they have. At first, I thought they were trying to be facetious but then, to my horror, I realized they were dead serious. So I told them that Hitler would have appreciated this kind of advice for sure.

A group of female students suggested that there should be a law forcing pregnant women to "take care of their unborn babies."

It's scary how many people are passionately invested into policing other people's bodies.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ken Follett's Fall of Giants: A Review, Part I

If you were one of those people who eagerly awaited the release of Ken Follett's Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy), you are in for a nasty surprise. This book (which is supposed to be the first in a trilogy) is nothing whatsoever like The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Even though those books could teach you absolutely nothing about Medieval history, they were highly entertaining. I read both of them in a couple of days and enjoyed myself immensely.

The annoying aspects of Fall of Giants are many. I have already written about Follett's complete disregard for facts in his depictions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the history of Russia. He also bases his book on the most tired and silly prejudices about the nations he discusses. All Germans are "orderly", "well-organized", punctual, and prissy. All Russians are "surly", "primitive", "barbaric", "corrupt", violent, alcoholic criminals. All Russian women are, of course, drunken whores. The only marginally acceptable Russian is the character who is obsessed with moving to the US. All Austrians are effete, perverted, weak, hysterically aggressive, unreasonable idiots. The French are weepy and useless fools. The French women are also all whores, but at least they whore around while sober. And, of course, all Jews know and help each other, forming a sort of an international Jewish mafia. All British people are insanely promiscuous (don't ask.) The culmination of the British promiscuity is reflected in a scene where the sister of an English earl (sic!) gives a hand-job to a German attache in the opera-house behind the backs (literally) of her brother the earl, Lloyd George, and foreign dignitaries. To top it all, there are the saintly Americans who, after torturing themselves over it for hours, decide to send invading troops to Mexico in order to bring peace and democracy to the wayward Mexicans. To the Americans' huge surprise, Mexicans are not overjoyed about the invasion and fail to be grateful to their caring neighbors to the North.

The way Follett panders to his American readers is so obsequious that it borders on disgusting. Unlike those nasty Europeans and tyrannical Mexicans, America (meaning, of course, the US) is "rich, busy, exciting, and free." There is no anti-semitism (once again, this is taking place in 1914), workers have amazing working conditions, are rich, and enjoy running water and electricity at home. Of course, each worker has at least two rooms all to himself. (I guess, Upton Sinclair is not to be trusted in his accounts of the horrible living conditions of immigrant workers in the US at the turn of the century.) American women are not subjected. They are all independent, "free", and have exciting careers. I wonder what happened since 1914 to change all that. Possibly, an explanation will be forthcoming in the next two books in the trilogy. The only problems that exist in the godly America are caused by the surly, criminal, promiscuous immigrants who keep trying to take advantage of the saintly Americans.

If you think that the above-mentioned things are enough to put you off the book for good, just wait for the second part of the review where I will tell you why the book is even worse than what you might have imagined based on the first part of the review.

Ob-Gyns and Beauty

As if visits to an ob-gyn weren't traumatic enough, the doctors seem to go out of their way to make them even more unpleasant. Today, for example, I discovered that before a woman can be admitted to see the gynecologist, she has to fill out the following questionnaire:

"1. Are you trying to lose weight? Are you interested in taking weight-loss medication prescribed by this office?
2. Would you like to be given Botox injections to improve your appearance?
3. Are you interested in Latisse, a lash-growing prescription medication? **
4. Would you be interested in laser treatments that will remove your wrinkles and crow's feet?"

It seems that some doctors first want to make you sick by filling you up with all this junk and then treat you for the ensuing problems with your health. Of course, I refused and betook my fat, wrinkly self with inadequate lashes to the doctor's office for the annual check-up. When the doctor evinced surprise at how healthy I was, I had half a mind to tell her that I was healthy precisely because I never allowed anybody to convince me to try any of this prescription rubbish, but it didn't seem worth the trouble.

**How anybody can respect a doctor willing to prescribe this junk to people is beyond me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just Imagine What Life Would Be Like Without Technology

You know this eerie feeling that you get when it seems like inanimate objects are listening to you? Today in class, I was discussing the profound shift people experienced in their way of relating to the world and to themselves as a result of the technological advances of the early XXth century.

"And just imagine," I announced dramatically, "how different every single aspect of our lives would be if those technological advances did not exist." At which point the projector I use for my PowerPoint presentations died. Probably, it was trying to help me make my point about the importance of technology.

Eventually, I managed to turn the projector back on and continued my lecture. "Of course," I said, "people soon realized that aside from the obvious benefits of technology, there were many negative consequences of these technological advances." Right at that moment, the projector went dead once again. Next Monday, this class will be observed (at my request) by our Assistant Dean. I just hope that the projector decides to make itself part of the conversation on that day as well. It will go a long way towards helping me make it clear to the administration that I really need to be given a different classroon for this course. I have already had to teach a class on the ideological ramifications of the tango in a classroom where the sound system refused to work.

Dealing With Academic Rejection

I have written about the hardships of academic rejection before. All of us come up with our own ways of dealing with yet another article or grant proposal being rejected in painfully offensive terms. So I came up with a way to provide myself with a psychological safety net for dealing with academic rejection, which is backfiring in a very curious way.

Now, when I submit an article for publication to a prestigious journal (especially, if the article deals with a controversial issue such as, for example, collective identity), I immediately follow it up by submitting another article to a much less prestigious journal. The idea here is to have something to fall back on psychologically when the article gets rejected by the more prestigious publication. Weird, I know, but how much rejection can a person take and not lose all faith in themselves?

Strangely, however, this system has been producing the opposite results. I would get an article accepted by the prestigious journal and have a similar article refused by the non-prestigious one. The most recent pair of articles dealt with collective identity in the contemporary Spanish novel. One of them was accepted by a very respectable journal, which only requested some minor changes. The other article was rejected by a place that (as I learned to my horror after submitting the article to them) has published some people who are complete and utter ignoramuses and quacks. The reason for the rejection was (and I quote) that "the theme of the novel is clear and does not warrant an extensive analysis." This third-grade level terminology in a discussion of literary criticism makes it painfully obvious how low the journal's standards are.

It looks like the time has come for me to revise my publication strategies.

Are You Planning to Vote on November 2?

I'm a citizen of Canada, so obviously I won't be voting in these elections. If I could vote, though, I would drag myself to the voting booth and vote for the Democrats with the patient resignation of somebody who is voting for the lesser of two huge evils. The actual differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are, at best, cosmetic at this point. If it weren't for the imminent threat of the completely insane Tea Partiers usurping the Congress (they don't seem to have much chance in the Senate, I believe), I don't think anybody should care about these elections at all.

Whenever elections approach, I always keep reminding my students not to forget to vote. (I never suggest who they should vote for, in case you are wondering.) On the day of the elections, I jokingly tell the students that they can't stay in class unless they have voted or have made specific plans to go to the voting booths. This time, though, I can't muster the energy to care or to exhort my students to do so. Both political parties are lying cozily in the pockets of the same bunch of lobbyists. At this point, even my youngest students have realized this.

If anybody has any suggestions on why I (and everybody else) should be more enthusiastic about these elections, feel free to share your point of view.

Even More on Anonymous Blogging by Academics

There is another aspect to anonymous blogging by autistic academics that non-autistics will never understand. Even for somebody who loves teaching as much as I do, the constant visibility that one experiences as a result of being in front of students for a large part of the day can be daunting. A student's gaze is both attentive and unforgiving. Every little detail of the favorite professor's appearance, clothing and demeanor gets noticed, analyzed, and discussed. For an autistic, it is hard enough to deal with this scrutiny at work. Having the students intrude into the personal space of one's blog would be crippling.

Of course, there is also the issue of an academic's personal politics. I go to great lengths to keep the students' exposure to my political views to a minimum. Letting them know in detail what I think about the political issues we discuss in class through allowing easy access to my blog would limit their freedom in arguing the points they want to make based on their own political views. Lat year, for instance, a student wrote a passionate essay in my Hispanic Civilization course, defending the constant interference by the US into the policies of Latin American countries. Had the student known how passionately I hate those policies, he might have been afraid of stating his views.

There is no doubt that none of these arguments will be deemed convincing by those who are paid to criticize academics en masse. In the eyes of some people, we can do nothing right and any excuse is good enough to attack us.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

When Was the First Time You Used the Internet and the Cell Phone?

The very first time I accessed the Internet was in 1995. Obviously, I used a dial-up connection, which was excruciatingly slow. It never took less than 15 minutes to get connected and the connection had a tendency to get interrupted whenever somebody tried to make a phone call to my phone number. Or even the neighbors' phone number. (The way telephones in Ukraine worked was by connecting neighbors' phones with each other. Whenever you picked up the receiver, your neighbors' phone got disconnected and they couldn't make or receive phone calls.) The web offered very little content at that time. Still, I was really impressed that, while sitting in my apartment in Ukraine, I could have a conversation with people across the world. It felt like something magical. Every time when I was waiting for the dial-up to connect me, I kept wondering what it would feel like if the connections were faster and only took about 5 minutes or so. I also liked imagining what the web would look if anybody could place any kind of information they wanted there.

As for the cell phones, I resisted them for a very long time. The idea that people would be able to locate me at any given moment made me feel extremely uncomfortable. It also felt like such an incredible drag to have to figure out what all the buttons meant and how all the cell phone's functions worked. Finally, in 2000 I let my sister give me the most basic cell phone in existence as a gift. Today, if somebody were to deprive me of my Internet access and my BlackBerry for three days, I would start experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.

What are you first memories of using the Internet and the cell phone?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Preaching to Academics

I wonder why there are so many people nowadays who are falling all over themselves in their efforts to tell academics how to do our job. A while ago, there was a profoundly silly article in The New York Times by Dr. Pippin of Chicago U who decided to educate scholars of literature about the many things we supposedly do wrong. Still, Pippin is at least an academic, albeit one who is completely ignorant of how literary criticism works. Recently, I discovered that failed academics who have had to drop out of academia also often like to preach to their more successful colleagues about what we do wrong.

Last week, I stumbled on a blog post suggesting that academics who blog anonymously betray the interests of our educational institutions and of the general public. The author of the blog kept insisting that it's my obligation to post under my own name. Of course, I find it ridiculous that people I don't even know would tell me what my obligations are to my employer and my readers. And especially to "the general public," since I don't know what that even is. Figuring out what my real name is from this blog is a matter of two minutes at most. However, whether to mention it or not and when is nobody's business but mine.

Obviously, I wanted to find out what kind of a name this blogger (who knows what all academics should be doing and is pretty vocal about it) has been able to make for themselves. What I discovered was that this person is so passionately opposed to other people's blogging anonymity simply because they have never managed to make their own name mean anything in academia. This individual hasn't been able to make it in the academic world (which is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as it doesn't transform into annoying preachiness), so now their job is to write online and for all kinds of conservative foundations about how the academics are the devil. In short, a case of sour grapes of humongous proportions.

The problem with this tendency to dump on academics is that we have to go back into the classroom on Monday and we need our students to trust us and respect us. We need to be empowered in our fight with the administrators. What we don't need is to read yet another contemptuous and condescending article or blog post telling us how we have no idea what we are doing and how we are wrong about pretty much everything.


By nature, I'm a very happy person. I remember when I was 18-20 years old, people used to ask me all the time why whenever they looked at me I kept smiling to myself. I don't know why that happened, really. I was raised to believe that the world is a wonderful place and I am a wonderful person. :-) Then, I moved to Canada and became even happier. I discovered the field of Hispanic Studies, which I loved to the point where I would walk down the street and look at passers-by and think: "Gosh, this person isn't specializing in Hispanic Studies, what a loss for them." I loved my life, my friends, my daily reality. I still knew that a world was an amazing place where anything was possible and you could do absolutely anything you wanted. And there was hardship, don't get me wrong. I went through emigration, divorce, loss of social status, cheap, nasty apartments, crappy part-time jobs, money trouble, trying to fit into a college system that I didn't even understand. There was a constant battle with Asperger's, which at that time I didn't know how to deal with at all. But still, I was deliriously happy.

Then, I graduated with all possible awards and accolades from an MA program at McGill University (and what an amazing school, people!). I had no doubt that the only way for me was to do a PhD in my field of knowledge. Since McGill is the best school in my field in Canada, the consensus between all my professors was that I had to go to the US. So I applied to all the Ivy League schools for the doctoral program. I was offered he best conditions of all by Yale. And, of course, I accepted. I didn't get a chance to go for a preliminary visit but I thought I knew what to expect. I was prepared to encounter this beautiful, orchard-like refuge for scholars who pass the time talking about Derrida and Baudrillard. I'd never been to the US before. All I knew was Montreal, which, believe me, is not very typical of North America.

The day I arrived in New Haven, CT, I immediately realized that things were not going according to plan. I come from a thirld-world country with a completely failed economy but even there I never got a chance to see the kind of dilapidation and poverty I saw in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, etc. The poverty of the people who live there, the gutted buildings, the piles of garbage, the homeless mentally sick people looked even sadder when contrasted with the diamond-clad, overdressed and incredibly vulgar parents of Yalies. And then I discovered the racism that I'd only read about in books.

As sad as my first impressions of the place were, reality was a lot more desperate. My imaginary community of scholars was substituted by a crowd of spoiled Daddy's boys and girls who had no interest in discussing anything but their trust funds, wedding planners, plasma screen TVs, European cruises, and their plans to "marry well." (If you are reading this, Oli, you know I don't mean you, right? You and R. were the only people there who helped me to get through this and preserve my sanity, at least partially.) My students were great kids, but it was very hard to relate to them. They had no idea (and what's even worse, didn't care to find out) what it means to work for a living and what life is like in less sheltered kinds of reality. Academically, I was permanently underchallenged there. Back at McGill, I had started a productive research agenda. I had gotten used to being treated as an esteemed colleague by senior faculty members and to be expected to produce accordingly. But now, suddenly, I found myself in a situation where getting published in a very prestigious, peer-reviewed journal had to be concealed. I had to walk around in terror of this great transgression being discovered.

And the things I had to listen to, and smile, and say "Thank you, professor, this really helps." I was told that every single word I ever published was shit and garbage. And my writing was gobbledygook. And I was schizoid. And a lot more. It wasn't just me, of course. Other grad students and junior faclty members heard even worse stuff. Those of us who didn't end up in the psych ward or heavily medicated for clinical depression dropped out. Except the trust fund babies, of course. Those were always valued and appreciated. And given the chance to teach courses to undergrads that they were completely unprepared to teach.

That was when I stopped being happy. I realize that this must be some huge personal failing of mine, but I really went off the deep end. From the day I was born, I knew one thing with a complete certainty: I was talented, smart, and strong. And then suddenly I wasn't. As somebody who specializes in identity formation, I can tell you that getting a person to doubt the foundations of their identity is hugely traumatic. I couldn't deal with being insulted, humiliated and ridiculed just because I wasn't born rich.

I was in a very bad place for a very long time. All I knew was that I had to graduate from that place as soon as possible and just escape. I completed my doctoral program in 5 years, which is extremely rare. Since I was forced to write two doctoral dissertations instead of one, it was even more difficult. Then, I found a fantastic Visiting Professor position but I was still hugely traumatized. For almost a year after I graduated from my doctoral program at Yale, I kept acting as a PTSD victim. I don't want to encroach on anybody's suffering here. Of course, it wasn't actual PTSD but it surely felt like it. I'm sure my former colleagues at my very first professorial job still think of me as this eminently weird individual who shirked any kind of human contact and tried to make herself as unnoticeable as she could. It took all I had to drag myself (mostly, very unsuccessfully) through yet another round of job interviews for a permanent position and deliver my almost dead body to this job.

The job I now have turned out to be a blessing. I feel almost completely recovered now. My usual happiness is back. Once again, I feel so happy that I have to make an effort not to start dancing right in the street. After years of being terrified of doing any research, I'm back to publishing on a regular basis and speaking at conferences in a way that attracts listeners. I don't feel the need to dress in black and lie on the floor for three days. I don't feel like breaking into tears the second I go out the door.

The reason why I'm writing this post - definitely the most personal post I have ever written - is this very talented student I have. October is the month when our students start thinking about grad school. So this student came to talk to me today about his plans to apply for grad school. The guy is really gifted, and I have no doubt that grad school will be really good for him. He came to talk to me because he sees me as a mentor. At some point in the conversation, he said, looking crestfallen, "Of course, I don't have a chance in hell to get into an Ivy League school."

To my shame, I didn't find the words to tell him how lucky that made him. It has taken me a while to formulate all this. So now I will probably print out this post and give it to him.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What Annoys Me About Ukrainians. . .

. . . is how easily they give up on their national identity to identify as Russians. Here is one example. Blizzard has announed a championship between its professional Starcraft players. Two of the top competitors are Ukrainian (which everybody who follows the championship knows because they are kind of famous). But in the list of competitors you can see here they are identified as being from Russia. (See the comment section for the discussion of where they are really from).

Centuries of colonial domination first in the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union (as well as the attendant brainwashing) have taught Ukrainians to be ashamed of not being Russian. We were constantly made to understand that being from Ukraine somehow made us uncultured, uncivilized, and stupid. Even today, 19 years after Ukraine finally achieved its independence, Russian media are filled with nasty jokes about the stupidity and greed of Ukrainians. So when Ukrainians have a chance to make a good name for their country internationally, they often forego this opportunity in favor of presenting themselves as Russian, which somehow makes them feel better about themselves. This is too sad for words.

Cold War Mentality in Ken Follett's Fall of Giants

I can never say no to my readers, so after getting several requests for a review of Ken Follett's new book Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy) I started reading it. The book is almost 1000 pages long and I will post a review as soon as I'm done. For now, I wanted to discuss this curious phenomenon that I have been noticing for a while where English-speaking writers fall into an outdated and ridiculous Cold War mentality whenever they write about Russia. I shared a while ago that I feel a deep-seated postcolonial resentment against Russia. Even so, things that Follett writes about that country are completely wrong and often offensive.

Take, for example, Follett's description of the Russian Orthodox Church. I'm no fan of the ROC. Today, they represent a very conservative and stifling force within Russia. During the Soviet era, Russian Orthodox Church collaborated with the KGB, betraying the confidences of their parishioners. Still, this doesn't mean that accusing the ROC of every sin under the sun is either reasonable or acceptable. The following passage in the novel is so blatantly wrong that it's scary:
I went to the church and told the priest we had nowhere to sleep.” Katerina laughed harshly. “I can guess what happened there.” He was surprised. “Can you?” “The priest offered you a bed—his bed. That’s what happened to me.” “Something like that,” Grigori said. “He gave me a few kopeks and sent me to buy hot potatoes. The shop wasn’t where he said, but instead of searching for it I hurried back to the church, because I didn’t like the look of him. Sure enough, when I went into the vestry he was taking Lev’s trousers down.” She nodded. “Priests have been doing that sort of thing to me since I was twelve.” Grigori was shocked. He had assumed that that particular priest was uniquely evil. Katerina obviously believed that depravity was the norm. “Are they all like that?” he said angrily. “Most of them, in my experience.”
Of course, there are freaks and criminals everywhere, but this blanket accusation of mass pedophilia amongst the priests of the ROC is not sustained by any kind of historic evidence. The priests of the Russian Orthodox Church are not only allowed to marry, they are required to do so. This suggestion that the ROC priests molest their parishioners' children en masse is simply wrong.

Follett also states that the ROC priests massively collaborated with the secret police during the tsarist regime. As I said, such collaboration with the secret police did, in fact, take place. However, it happened during a completely different time period and under completely different circumstances. I'd never even heard of any suggestion that the priests of the Russian Empire collectively betrayed secrets told to them in confession to the tsar's secret police. This is a figment of Follett's unhealthy imagination.

This tendency to collapse historic periods in Russia into one huge mess is evident in many other aspects of Follett's novel. He doesn't seem to realize that serfdom (the Russian equivalent of slavery) was abolished in 1861. The nobles who owned peasants before serfdom was abolished did, indeed, torture, maim and kill their serfs almost indiscriminately and sometimes with no punishment. That, however, became impossible after 1861. At the turn of the XX century, the relationship between the nobles and the peasants, while still problematic, was in no way similar to the way it was in the pre-1861 era.

Another facet of Follett's annoying Cold War mentality is his tendency to present all Russians as heartless, vile jerks. There is a scene (that takes place in 1914) when a police officer assaults and tries to rape a young woman in the streets of St. Petersburg. The narrator makes a very weird statement about how "no Russian would address a peasant . . . courteously." This is, of course, ridiculously wrong. There always were many people in Russia who would address anybody in a courteous way. Suggesting otherwise, is simply offensive.

Thankfully, the young woman who is assaulted by the police officer is saved by a character whose kindness, helpfullness and charitability turn him into some kind of a Jesus-like figure. So who is this Christ-like character who roams the streets of St. Petersburg saving damsels in distress and offering his assistance to anybody in need of it? Who is this Savior of the poor and Redeemer of the downtrodden? The answer is obvious. He is an American from Buffalo and against the background of the vile, abusive, nasty Russians, he offers an example of what a good human being looks like.

So if you thought the Cold War is over, read Follett's book and think again.

An International Faculty Member in the Midwest

My university has had some problems with soliciting donations and getting external funding because it hasn't shown a deep enough commitment to promoting diversity among students and faculty members. So now the administration is doing its best to show how much we, the international faculty members, are appreciated. Today, for example, we had yet another reception with our Dean where every international faculty member was given a really cool (and expensive) gift.

It isn't easy being an international faculty member on the border between Illinois and Missouri. The food options are non-existent, ethnic foodstores and restaurants can only be encountered if your drag yourself over all the way to St. Louis. People have trouble understanding even those of us whose English is really fantastic. I've lived in many different places on this continent, but this is the first area where people have trouble understanding my English, which, believe me, is not heavily accented at all. Life in this area is really boring, which is very difficult for international academics to get used to. Everybody looks the same, dresses the same, speak the same way, and has had the same (very limited) life experiences. Foreigners stick out like sore thumbs in the midst of this uniformity.

This is why it's so rewarding to feel that one's foreignness is at least appreciated by the university administration. I think it's very useful for the students to see some variety in the kind of faculty members who teach them. Our presence in the classroom is enough to show the students that different ways of being, thinking and relating to the world exist.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Male Homosexuality and the Hatred of the Female Body

I understand that the daily frustration of being gay in a homophobic society must be incredibly painful. I mean that I understand it on a logical level but I can never truly imagine what it must be like. I hate homophobia as passionately as I hate racism and xenophobia of any kind. What I don't understand, though, is why the very reasonable rage of gay people against the homophobic society often translates into a rage against the female body. If anybody is likely to have at least a minimal understanding of what a gay man experiences when his sexuality is devalued, ridiculed and repressed by society on a daily basis, it's a woman who goes through a very similar set of experiences. Then why do some gay men enjoy engaging in verbal assaults on the female body so much?

I first encountered this phenomenon when I was reading the novel Count Julian by the greatest living writer Juan Goytisolo. The novel is the greatest masterpiece of the second half of the XXth century, in my opinion. Still, the scene where the narrator takes an exploratory trip around Queen Isabel's reproductive system and describes it with disgust and horror is very unpleasant for most female readers.

Today one of my favorite bloggers wrote a post where he turns around the homophobic discourse that questions and often interrogates him about his sexuality. The post is really good and funny. That is, until it starts ridiculing the female body in a very offensive, nasty way:

The vigina must be the strangest organ in all creation. It’s a curious little fleshy miniature canyon with understated accessories sometimes hidden by a forest and other times just plain bare. Then there are the breasts for which I fail to see the purpose off during intercourse, it seems like they would just get in the way and could potentially be hazardous. Depending whether they are coconuts or tennis balls they do have the potential to cause a concussion or lead to suffocation.

I understand that a gay man must be enraged by society's effort to redirect his desire towards the acceptable choice of a woman as a partner. However, isn't it obvious that women, their bodies, their sexuality are really not to blame for any of this? Just like a gay man is born with his sexuality, a woman is born with her body. It isn't something one chooses most of the time. Being disgusted with the female body is as stupid and vile as being disgusted with homosexuality.

Murdering in the Name of Christ

In my Hispanic Civilization course, we talk about the crimes perpetrated by Spanish Christians in the name of Jesus. The extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the crimes of the Inquisition, the fascist Catholic dictatorship of Franco (1939-75). My students look horrified (one was actually in tears when we read Bartolome de Las Casas's account of the destruction of the Indies.) How could they do that in the name of such a peaceful, charitable religion? they ask. How is it even possible?

I came home after this kind of discussion today and I watched recordings from the trial of Scott Roeder, the murderer of Dr. Tiller. He talks about his "conversion" to Christianity in a way that would make Torquemada listen up and take notes. This makes me want to bring these recordings to my students and ask them: "What have you done to stop this insanity? Nothing? Then keep your crocodile tears about the victims of Spain's militant Christianity to yourselves."

Did Google Images Go Back to Its Original Format?

Or am I going crazy? It seems like Google Images mostly went back to its original format and abandoned the idiotic experiment it undertook last week. If so, it must have happened in response to a huge popular outcry against the silly and cumbersome transformation of the Google Image search engine.

I'm extremely glad that I can go back to using it unimpeded by useless experimentation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Start of a Beautiful Blogging Friendship

As an autistic, I'm pretty weird about dates and numbers. I remember the strangest dates any one can imagine. I always scare my husband out of his wits by reminding him of the dates of even very insignificant events in our relationship. Of course, I'm not one of those people who expect others to keep track of dates. To make life easier for friends and family members, I always begin reminding them of my birthday or any anniversary I want commemorated well in advance.

This is why I remembered that today is the anniversary of the night when I saw an opossum next to my house for the very first time and wrote about it in a panicky blog post. Then, I discovered that some cheeky blogger made fun of my terror. To which I responded in my trademark aggressive and humorless style. However, thanks to this whole opossum debacle I discovered my most favorite blog ever. (I'm sorry, everybody, I love your blogs too but this one is just too good.) Now I visit that blog obsessively and enjoy it immensely. Turns out it's useful to be ridiculed every once in a while. :-)

Joyful Divorce

I wish I'd known of these divorce attorneys when I was getting divorced. Now, this is a firm with the correct attitude towards divorce. The divorce lawyer I had kept evincing surprise at the amount of joy I expressed in her office. Which was very misguided of her.

V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa: A Review, Part II

At the very beginning of the book, Naipaul shares that he decided to come back to Africa because it was a place that inspired A Bend in the River, one of his greatest masterpieces. To me, it seems like the author decided to visit the place that inspired him so much decades ago in search of his somewhat lost creative spark. He mentions in The Masque of Africa that while he was writing his 1979 novel, he hardly saw anything around him. It's obvious to any one who read A Bend in the River that this novel had a lot less to do with Africa than it had with Naipaul's own post-colonial experiences. This is why his attempts to open himself up to Africa and African belief systems fail so badly: he is a writer who writes beautifully about himself, but has no interest for nor patience with things that don't concern him personally.

Since none of what he sees around has any connection to his experiences, Naipaul feels page after page with gratutitous stories of a lonely, starving kittens and of how much (almost to the cent) he had to pay for every encounter with every person. Whenever the author tries to talk about daily life in Africa, he only manages to produce a string of trivialities. To give just one example:
Uganda was Uganda. Education and school uniforms, giving an illusion of possibility, was easy; much harder was the creation of a proper economy.
It seems like even his signature style that has captivated readers all over the world has deserted Naipaul here. Of course, whenever he abandons the fruitless attempts to discuss things that are of no great interest to him and returns to his favorite subject of himself, Naipaul is back to his beautiful and incisive writing. For example, the passage where he describes his arrival at the airport in Lagos is truly delightful. Then, however, he goes back to a plodding retelling of what people he finds eminently boring (which is pretty much every single person on the planet aside from himself) told him about African belief systems.

From time to time, Naipaul's sly sense of humor breaks through the tedium of his narrative and he regales us with playful little stories about his African experiences. In Nigeria, Naipaul visits a babalawo and asks him to answer a question that supposedly bothers him a lot: "Will my daughter get married?" After showing his surprise that such questions perturbed men from far away lands, the babalawo proceeds to offer his answer:

The babalawo said, “The girl is not going to get married. You have many enemies. To break their spells we will have to do many rituals. They will cost money, but the girl will get married.” Everyone in the room was quite excited. Adesina, his brother, the guide: the babalawo had them all in the palm of his hand. I said, “But what he’s told me is good. I don’t want the girl to get married.” The babalawo looked appalled.

I know that if I were in Naipaul's place I wouldn't be able to resist a similar piece of feminist playfulness. I just wish the writer showed us this side of himself a lot more in this book instead of being ponderous and grave most of the time.

Measure of a Blog's Popularity

I always thought that the real measure of a blog's popularity will be when new readers start going back to my old posts which I wrote when I only had 3 readers in the entire world (thank you, guys!) and leave comments there. And now it's happening! My post on male circumcision that I wrote in my very first week of blogging is now a place where a lively discussion is under way.

Thank you, readers, you made me very very happy today. I still remember how I first had a total of 7 visitors in one day, which was huge news for me and made me both excited and terrified at the same time. Now, if I have less than 400 visits in a day I start wondering what I'm doing wrong. :-)

Blogging rocks!


It's really weird to find a mound of ice on campus in the midst of the ridiculously hot weather we've been having in Southern Illinois. One thing I can't get used to (apart from religious fanatics) in this area is this unforgiving heat we've been having for the 6th month in a row. I have dreams of falling headlong into a mountain of fresh snow. But today it's sunny again, which puts me in a vile mood.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa: A Review, Part I

I couldn't wait for V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief to come out. Naipaul is one of my favorite writers. In his amazing A House for Mr. Biswas, he describes the post-colonial experience, my post-colonial experience, the way nobody else knows how to do. Naipaul is hated by many for his condescension, his nasty personality, his male chauvinism. He is even more hated for refusing to participate in the facile celebration of national independence and an even more simplistic condemnation of the empire. Any search for one's "authentic" self, as Naipaul demonstrates time and again, is a farce. Any "return to one's roots" is silly. Naipaul's honesty about his painful and complex relationship with the Empire has garnered him many enemies. His impeccable style has angered those willing to dismiss him as a quack who only got his Nobel Prize for political reasons.

Many of those who enjoy Naipaul's novels have found his travel books unpalatable. His India: A Wounded Civilization makes many of his reader fume with rage. I have no doubt that the same will be true for The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief. Since I don't know as much as I would like about either India or Africa, I always prefer to read Naipaul's travel books in terms of what the writer is telling me about himself in these books, rather than what he has to say about the places he visits.

Overall, I think the book is a failure. "Against that ordinariness, which consumed everything, there was no defense", says Naipaul about modern-day Kampala almost at the beginning of the book. This statement defines, in my opinion, the general mood of the book. Naipaul never warms to his subject. He lists the things he saw in Africa without offering the profound analysis he is capable of. He allows his voice to be colonized by the numerous interviews with the people he met, most of whom offer nothing but platitudes, such as "We have to have honor for the sake of our fathers," "We have to wake up to our responsibility." In order to offer the readers some respite from the unrelieved boredom of these stories, Naipaul relates stories of African belief that can be seen as shocking, unusual, or exotic. He attempts to substitute analysis with an endless lithany of details about each practice he discusses, which fails to make these stories any less mundane. When that is not enough to interest either the author or his readers, Naipaul enumerates some of the news items from a local newspaper: "Man burns 10 to death in hut," "My husband was hacked to death as I watched," "Accused of burying her son alive," etc. As hard as Naipaul tries to link these events to African belief, he fails since I could read any such piece of news and more in our local St. Louis Metro area newspaper.

[To be continued. . .]

The Importance of Writing Well

I have this student who has a beautiful writing style. His is a natural talent. He isn't even majoring in English but in mechanical engineering. I love the way he writes, which I let him know on various occasions. I'm quite jealous of people who have a natural talent for something that it's so hard for me to acquire.

Yesterday we were writing a midterm, which this student failed. Realizing that he did badly, he wrote me a long, beautifully structured, carefully worded e-mail explaining why he messed up. The e-mail is so well-written that now I can't make myself give him a bad grade for the exam.

Clothing Choices and Tolerance

I was invited to a close friend's wedding a while ago. She asked me not to wear my black and white dress because those colors are not appropriate for a wedding. It turned out that I couldn't wear a red dress either because this was the color the bridesmaids were wearing. I was also asked not to wear green because the mother of the bride would be wearing it. Eventually, it turned out that the only color I could wear was blue. I didn't have a blue dress, so I had to purchase one for the occasion. At no point did I think that my friend's requests were unreasonable. It was her wedding, so she had a right to make them. If I didn't want to comply, I could decline the invitation and stay at home wearing a black and white bathrobe with red slippers and a green shawl, if I so chose.

Clothing choices are regulated in Western societies all the time. I have to attend the Dean's reception on Thursday. Do you think I can show up in my swim-suit? The Dean is Venezuelan; could I arrive wearing a T-shirt saying "Bolivar sucks dick"? The Dean's wife is from Catalonia; should I put on a blouse that says "Aquí  no se ladra, aquí se habla el idioma del Imperio" ("Here we don't bark, here we speak the language of the Spanish Empire," a sentence that was used during Franco's dictatorship to discriminate against Catalonians)? If I practice my freedom to make these clothing choices, how long do you think I will stay employed? Do you think anybody will feel compelled to tolerate me much?

We all realize that showing up for a serious job interview in a beach dress or a Bermuda shorts will mean we can say good-bye to that prospective employment. We all accept that many companies have a dress code and if we don't want to observe it, we should look for a job elsewhere. Nobody wears flip-flops to the opera nor jeans to a wedding. Everybody is comfortable putting the words "Black-tie event" on invitations. But somehow niqabs, burqas and other forms of attire that signal female subjection don't qualify for the same kind of scrutiny.

"Oh no," people start squeaking immediately when they hear this argument. "This isn't about clothing choices. It's about religion. We respect the right of people to practice their religion freely and as they see fit." Really, though? Then how about polygamy? Has that suddenly become legal in the US? How about female genital mutilation? Many people see it as part of their religious practices. Should we make it legal here, too? Unless you are in favor of legalizing these religious practices in this country, there is no logical argument you can offer for the defense of the niqab on religious grounds. Especially since there are mullahs who are declaring fatwahs against the niqab on the grounds that it has nothing to do with Islam.

So if the defense of burqas and niqabs both as a clothing choice and as a religious practice is gone, then what's left? Why do some people start screaming tolerance the moment these clothing choices are mentioned? I'll tell you what's left: contempt and the desire for self-aggrandisement.

Historically, the main argument used to prevent women from voting, working and being self-sufficient was that it would be too much of a burden for these feeble, little things. Men didn't see women as valid human beings, so they couldn't imagine women having the same rights and bearing the same responsibilities as the only real humans, i.e. men. This is exactly how some Western liberals view Muslims. "Poor things, how can they be expected to understand such complex and lofty things as tolerance and women's rights," they think. This allows these liberals to feel good about their own "tolerance" while condescending to the poor, burqa-wearing savages. Slavoj Zizek, one of the greatest philosophers of our times, wrote beautifully about this:
We white Leftist men and women [should] leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt . . . [Western] politically correct self-flagellation is an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. . . The positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after effect of colonization).
So here how it happens that a white Christian woman Clarissa is held to a much higher standard in her clothing choices than a brown Muslim woman Fatima. I, however, believe that both Fatima and I are equally and fully human. We should both be held to the same kind of standards. If I can control my desire to wear clothing other people find offensive or even simply inappropriate, so can Fatima. And as for tolerance, I can never say it better than Zizek:

What lurks at the horizon. . . is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the politically correct preachers of tolerance and respect for the other's beliefs: a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Please Pardon our Progress

This is a sign that could be put up in the airports asking people to remove their niqabs and burkas as they enter the countries were progress has been achieved in what concerns women's rights.

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Helping Students Review in a Literature Course

Often, students who are taking high-level literature seminars feel lost in the amount of new material presented in class. Especially, if the class is conducted in the 3-hour lecture format once a week, like my grad seminar in the Golden Age Spanish literature. So I came up with what I consider a great and fun way to help students review: making crossword puzzles.

I take all of my students to the language lab (if you don't have a lab in your department, you can simply print out a grid and bring it to class), break them up into pairs, and get them to prepare a crossword puzzle for their colleagues to solve based on the material we cover in class. I use some of those websites that allow you to create free crossword puzzles. I tell the students that the winning group will be the one that comes up with a crossword that I will find difficult to solve (this hasn't happened yet but they are trying hard.) As a result, students go over their notes twice: when they try to come up with interesting and complicated questions and the second time when they look for answers to their colleagues' puzzle.

Yet another benefit of this activity is that it allows me to rest and do nothing while the students are still engaged in something useful. As I mentioned before, my teaching philosophy is aimed at allowing me to work as little as possible. :-)

A French Woman Tears a Niqab from a Tourist's Face

This is what happened:
Prosecutors have called for a 63-year-old French woman to be given a two-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of €750 (£659) after she admitted tearing a full Islamic veil from the face of a tourist from the United Arab Emirates.

The woman, a retired English teacher identified only as Marlène Ruby, said she was "irritated" by the sight of two women shopping in Paris in their niqabs.
"I tore her niqab off and I shouted. I wanted to create a bit of a scandal," she told Le Parisien. Her anger, she said, sprang from witnessing the treatment of women in the Middle East, where she used to teach. "I think it is unacceptable for the niqab to be worn in the country of human rights. It's a muzzle," she said.
I'm obviously against tearing anything off anyone's face or violence of any sort. But here is what bothers me: I'm not sure about the Emirates, but I know that if I travel to Saudi Arabia, I will have to don an abaya right in the airport. And as mush as I resent the idea, I would absolutely do it out of respect for the country I'm visiting. I understand that the Saudi people find my low-cut blouses and short skirts offensive. While I don't share their beliefs about the need to restrict female freedom, I don't think it's my place to defy them in their own country. If I can't put up with the humiliation of an abaya (which I can't), this means I will not be travelling to their country any time soon.

So my question is: why is it that my culture deserves less respect from niqab-wearing people? And also: why do we infantilize these people to the extent where we don't demand from them the same tolerance and understanding of cultural differences that we are prepared to exhibit when visiting their countries? If I am expected to put on an abaya in a Saudi airport, why doesn't a Saudi woman remove hers in an airport of a country where women have won - after long and painful struggles - the right not to be considered anybody's property?

And please don't mention religion to me in this context because, as everybody knows, niqab has nothing to do with Islam.

My Great-grandmother

I blogged before about how important it is for a woman to be able to look back on the women in her family who came before her and be proud of their strength and achievements. As a product of 4 generations of powerful, highly educated women with brilliant careers, I know how invaluable their successes are for my career and personal life.

My great-grandmother on my father's side was called Mary. She was born in a shtetl and was one of eight children in her family. The revolutions of 1917 gave her the kind of opportunities that as a woman, and a Jewish woman at that,she could have never enjoyed in the Russian Empire. She received an amazing education and rose to the heights of her profession. I can't be more specific about what she did because, as I understand (and let my family members who read the blog correct me if I'm wrong), she worked in the defense industry and most of what she did was classified.

Grandma Mary was a very authoritative, powerful woman. I only remember her as somebody who loved me to bits and pieces, so it's hard for me to imagine her as this imposing figure everybody feared and respected. The family legend says that she left her first husband because she couldn't accept that he had the temerity to have opinions of his own. The content of the opinions was irrelevant. It was the very fact that he dared have them that annoyed her.

Grandma was a fiercely loyal follower of the Communist Party, which is not surprising because she remembered the pariah status of Jews in the Russian Empire. She also couldn't have failed to realize that, as a woman, she would have had no chance at any kind of a career if the 1917 revolutions hadn't taken place. When perestroika came, grandma reacted as one of those faulknerian heroines I'm sure she never read about: she refused to accept it. She wouldn't turn on the television or the radio, she refused to read newspapers or acknowledge any of the new realities. In the last years of her life, she escaped in her mind to a time that she could still understand and be comfortable with.

Publishers Refuse to Enter the XXI Century

When the Kindle first appeared on the market, Amazon guaranteed that all new releases will cost $9.99 or less. Then, publishers realized that digital sales were cutting into their profits from over-priced hardcover editions and started raising Kindle book prices. First it was eleven dollars, then 12, then 14. Recently, they have gone completely nuts and started charging more for a digital copy (which, mind you, you can't share with your family and friends) than you will pay for a hard copy.

On the left you can see Ken Follett's Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy). I've been dying to read it because part of it is set in my country during the time of the revolution. So much garbage is written by English-speaking writers about that period in my country's history that I couldn't wait to see how Follett (famous for his absolutely hilarious books on medieval Europe) would approach the topic. And then I realized that the publishers were charging $19.99 for the Kindle version of the book. This, of course, is pure insanity. Kindle owners have been boycotting the book and posting one-star reviews of it on Amazon to attract the publishers' attention to the sheer idiocy of charging so much for a digital copy of the book.

Today, the price of Follett's book was lowered from $19.99 to $19.39. Obviously, the price will eventually go down a lot more. I have no doubt that in a couple of years I will be able to buy the Kindle version of the novel for as little as $7. If I am still interested, that is. It is very disheartening to observe how recalcitrant publishers are when it comes to giving up on outdated practices and embracing new technologies. One has to be completely clueless not to understand that the future of publishing lies with digital technologies. Early adopters of electronic reading devices are trend-setters in an area that will eventually overtake publishing altogether. Alienating today's Kindle owners and prospective buyers of digital books is a stupidity that, I hope, will cost these publishers dearly. Publishing houses who learn to ride this new wave of technology will end up creating customer loyalty and selling more books in all formats. Those who fail to realize that $30+ hardcovers are a thing of the past will end up going out of business. Good riddance, too.

P.S. None of this, of course, dampened my enthusiasm for my Kindle. If the publishers are idiots, the Kindle is not to blame. In the end, it will come out winning no matter what because it is that good.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Often Should New Posts Appear?

I always wonder whether I blog too much or too little. Would my readers like to see me post more often? Or less? Or at the same rate as I do now?

So I decided to stop wondering and ask you. What do you think?

Should posts appear. . .

Hardcore Gamers...

. . . are all  nuts. OK, maybe not all of them but many definitely are. Which I didn't know until I posted a review of Civilization V where I dared (and what a horrible thing to do!) to mention that I like Civilization V and didn't enjoy Civilization IV. Since then, I have been inundated by angry messages from gamers, ranging from mildly offensive to scarily crazy, berating me for expressing my opinion of the game. This is really insane because it's just a game. And probably now I will be hated even more because this is not a sentence any hardcore gamer ever wants to hear.

I have been accused of being paid by the company that made the game to promote it (I wish, but in what universe would they hire somebody like me who only plays a couple of times a month, at best?) and of never even having seen either version of the game and just writing bad things about Civ IV out of spite (yes, because it cheated on me with my boyfriend.)

So, gamers, please stop writing to me, telling me how Civ V's introduction of hexes has changed your life for the worse. If you care about it this much, you probably never had a life to begin with. Maybe now is a good time to get your ass out of that arm-chair and go get one.

P.S. My husband's comment on this subject: "If you spent as much time with gamers as I do, you would know that these people don't have any sex. At all. Ever. Then, you would be more compassionate towards them."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Obsession With Identity

On the margins of this article that I just got accepted for publication, my former thesis advisor wrote, "Why this schizoid obsession with identity?!?" She was right in that I have been studying collective identity for years with a scary dedication. The reason I'm so interested in collective identity is that I'm not comfortable with the one I have been assigned by being born into my culture. The Russian-speaking culture, that is.

Today, for example, we went to a Russian grocery store in St. Louis. I dressed with more care that I put into dressing for the opera. Then, I applied make-up for 40 minutes, which is something I never do unless I'm about to meet my fellow Russian-speakers. I know that people will be judgmental, they will stare and make disapproving sounds if you are not 100% put together. If you are a woman, that is. Nobody cares what you look like if you are a man. And then people will make strange comments, whose meaning I will not be able to decipher. Which will make me feel like a complete idiot.

This was the reason I left my country 12 years ago. I was extremely uncomfortable with my own people. And they aren't bad people, or anything. There are many great things about the Russian-speaking culture. The problem is that I always felt completely alien to it. When I moved to North America, I lost out financially. I don't think I will ever have the same level of economic well-being here as I had there. I obviously lost out in social status because an immigrant is always an immigrant. I really lost out in terms of food because now I have to schlep all the way to St. Louis to get my favorite food. But it was all worth it because now I'm around people I get. And who get me. And that's worth more than I can explain to anybody who has not experienced life in a culture where you feel you have no idea what people are doing and why.

So here is the reason why I study identity, trying to figure out how it works.