Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Heels and Backwards

A fellow academic came up with the following definition of what it means to do a Major in Foreign languages:
Ginger Rogers reportedly compared herself once to Fred Astaire, saying she did everything he did: “...but I do it backwards and in heels!” Essentially, what the Spanish major does is to require students do what students in other liberal arts disciplines do, but with a certain "handicap." Analyze this novel, this poem, develop a thesis about it and write it up in a well-developed essay. Do all of this, but in a foreign language. The novel is written in Spanish, class discussion takes place in Spanish, writing takes place in Spanish. 
I often see students who try to contribute to a discussion or answer a question I ask in class and then just give up because the language defeats them. "I could do this so much better in English," they sometimes say when they come to my office hours to share their frustrations. However, if they do decide to take on the added hardship of analyzing literature in a foreign language, they end up us better students, intellectuals, readers, and writers.

To give an example, I have this student whom I shall call Jenna. Jenna took my graduate course on Spanish Golden Age literature as an advanced undergrad last semester. The course was very difficult for her. The readings were complex, and often she would feel that her vocabulary was simply inadequate to approach these texts in any meaningful way. Still, one of the texts we read fascinated her. It was Lope de Vega's Fuenteovejuna, which has very powerful feminist content. After we finished reading this play, Jenna decided to read another work by this author, which was not required for the course. She would come to my office or stay by after class, asking me questions about the play (which was La dama boba). The first time she read it, she didn't understand it. Undefeated, Jenna started reading the play for the second time.

To be completely honest, I was afraid that she would get tired of struggling with the text and just find an English translation. This didn't happen, though. When Jenna finished reading the play for the second time, she actually laughed. Because she finally understood the author's sense of humor. "Wow," she told me. "This was written centuries ago, and it's still funny."

Last week, Jenna came up to me and said that she was now reading yet another play by Lope de Vega. She doesn't need to read it for any course she is taking. She just picked it up because she now can't stop reading this writer. On Tuesday, Jenna and I will meet to discuss this new play she is working on. For this particular student, going about her academic career "backwards and in heels" has proven to be a great thing.

Thank you, Jonathan, for writing the post that made me think of this.

1 comment:

Angie Harms. said...

Fantastic. I love this post. The end. :-)