Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tubas, Nigerian drama, and Lithuanian Identity: Teaching Literature as a Fulbright Scholar

Today's guest-blogger is Dr. Windy Counsell Petrie, Associate Professor and English Department Chair at Colorado Christian University, who was a Fulbright grantee to Lithuania in 2006. During her time in Lithuania, Dr. Petrie lectured at several Universities on representations of exile in nineteenth- and twentieth-century World Literature as well as the role of female and African American authors in American literary history. Here are her reflections on making the transition from an American University to a Lithuanian one.

On the first day of school at Vilnius University, where I was a visiting scholar, I walked down to campus and witnessed the opening ceremonies for the school year, which occur in the first of many lovely courtyards of the University. Students, spectators, and  tourists watched and listened as the school orchestra played the National Anthem and the University song, children danced in traditional folk costume, and the administration and faculty filed out of the main building onto a large adjoining platform. Speeches were made, the national and University flags raised, and I found it quite moving.  Although I think many Americans would find it quaint to spend the first day of school in festivities, with a band in the background, instead of getting right down to business, I think there’s a certain wisdom to this tradition. After all, any new chance to learn should be celebrated, with tubas if necessary.  

I was very, very happy with the primary University to which I was assigned. When I arrived, several people told me that VU (Vilnius University) is the most selective school in Lithuania. It is also the oldest, having been establishedin the 1500s, as well as the only place where the national language was studied  when it was outlawed by Russia during the first occupation. People here are very passionate about their independence and cultural heritage; they have had reason not to take it for granted.  As a faculty member at a University which has not yet reached the 100 year mark, I cannot describe how beautiful I find these old buildings that have witnessed century after century of learning, upheaval, struggle, survival, and change. There is one courtyard with a central fountain where I spent a lot of time reading, and the quiet, cloistered courtyard in front of St. John’s, the University Cathedral, which I looked forward to walking through every day.

The University interior
A few weeks into the fall semester, I was already very impressed with my students. They were always early to class and eager to start, they responded to me when I greeted them (You know, U.S. profs, that often awkward silence after you say “good morning”), and though they have less money and less ease in getting school supplies, their essays are always stapled or professionally bound when they turn them in. They were all seniors, but not all English majors; as my World Lit course was an elective, I had also had some History, Philosophy, Economics, and even Math majors join the class. They were conversant with the assigned reading, able to provide detailed evidence for all their points in our discussion, and there was a good energy in the room. 
I’m still amazed that they were doing all of this in a foreign language--I only wish Icould’ve properly pronounced all their names. There were so many versions of Agne, Igne, Skaiste, and Vaiste, Vladille, and Vaida, and the last names—well,  I never quite mastered the Lithuanian "yte" at the end of girl's names. When I asked a PhD student in the English Department for tips on remembering all the names, she said, "Oh, don't bother."  But I stubbornly kept trying until I was almost word-if-not-syllable-perfect. I suppose I just didn’t feel comfortable having discussions with people whose names I did not know; however, they were clearly unaccustomed to addressing or being addressed by their profs by name. When I used a student's name in class, I could see they were startled. And I received more than one email from my students which began: "Good Evening, Dear Lecturer."
Midway through my 20th century World Lit course, we studied the connections between French/Romanian and Nigerian drama of the mid-20th century, focusing on the dilemma of the individual in times of cultural transition. My lecture was subtitled “Trampled by the Rhinoceros or Devoured by the Lion?”, since the plays in question were Ionesco’s “The Rhinoceros” and Soyinka’s “The Lion andthe Jewel.” It was quite interesting to hear the students’ reactions to the plays, and I was impressed by some of the insights they offered in their essays and presentations. They are very reflective close readers, are doing good research, and rose well to the unusual (in their experience) occasion of being asked to write a personal response essay on every novel each week.
On the last day of my 20th century World Literature class, we talked about the difference between the "cross-cultural" and the "trans-cultural," not only in the context of the Egyptian novel we were reading, but in general. What goes between cultures, and what goes beyond them? The novel we were reading, "The Map of Love," uses the two images in its title to explore the difference: a Map is a geo-political system of division, marking what is mine, yours, how we are separated. Love, on the other hand, is a universal emotional signifier, a word we use to symbolize some kind of coming together. I learned so much from my students, from the perspective they have as Lithuanians, how they balance several cultures and languages in their everyday lives. It surprised me at first how drawn they were to post-colonial texts and theorists, how  deeply those ideas that we associate most with Africa, Asia, and the Middle East resonated with them, and then I thought, of course they are. Postcolonial theory seemed to have given them a new language with which to speak of themselves in my classroom, and I’m sorry I left it until the end of the term.
Outside of the classroom, I privately helped a few students with research for their B.A. papers (an approximately 30 page essay they do here in their fourth year, like a thesis for undergraduates.) I have spent a good chunk of time with one girl in particular, who is doing her BA paper on Scriptural Intertextuality in African-American bildungsroman, a topic in which I am both interested and experienced.  And as I sat with her in the library in the American Center at the Embassy, or as I exchanged research tips and tricks with the wonderful Lithuanian librarians there, who were, at first, my lifelines, and later, my daily companions and friends, I realized that this is what the Fulbright program is about: making connections, exchanging new ways of understanding.  Weaving Egyptian novels, African-American spiritual autobiography, and Lithuanian history and identity together into a single discussion in that Embassy library, is the memory that encapsulates the experience for me.
Dr. Petrie (left) and Ms. Nijole Petrauskiene, American Center Librarian