Letters

Letters

Fall 2009, Vol. 18, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

The Humanities at Vanderbilt:
Getting Them When They're Young and Other Reflections

Edward H. Friedman

A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled."--Plutarch

"I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers." --Woody Allen

I came to Vanderbilt in the year 2000, after having taught for twenty-five years, at a small liberal arts college and two large state universities. I had given freshman seminars and beginning and intermediate Spanish language courses, conversation and composition courses, and surveys and other undergraduate literature courses, along with doctoral seminars in the humanities, comparative literature, and Spanish literature, from medieval to postmodern. I thought that I had seen it all, but Vanderbilt has given me more opportunities than ever to teach a broad range of courses with a broad range of students, with results that I can only describe as thrilling for me. (My students would have to speak for themselves, needless to say.)

I had heard remarks that students at elite private institutions these days tended to be whiny, more than a bit bratty, and with negative attitudes and a strong sense of entitlement. Those comments scared me, because I had loved the students at my previous schools; my students always had given me great joy and contentment, and they had made me feel that my investment of time and energy in my career was fully worthwhile. I wondered if the Vanderbilt students would change that rosy picture. Fortunately, the assessment by assorted colleagues in the profession has proven to be "not applicable" in my case. From my first semester at Vanderbilt, I have had exceptionally bright students who also have been respectful, courteous, and engaging human beings. I constantly feel intellectually stimulated and challenged, in the best sense of the term. Students impress me with their ability to master language, literature, and complex and often abstract concepts. The fact that, in the majority of instances, they are reading, writing, and analyzing literature in a language that is not their first is even more striking. Equally notable is that many of the texts studied date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I cannot help but think of their accomplishments as analogous to the oft-cited allusion to Ginger Rogers as dancing backwards and in high heels.

There are several texts that remain most prominent in my teaching. One is an introduction to Hispanic literature titled, in its short form, Aproximaciones, or approaches, which I coauthored with two colleagues from Arizona State University and which is now in its sixth edition. The book likely has influenced (or at least reached) more readers than all my other publications combined. Another is an anthology of Spanish and Spanish-American short stories, called El cuento: Arte y análisis (The Short Story: Art and Analysis), which I have used in class as recently as the spring semester of 2009. In 2006, Jeffrey Ullom of the Department of Theatre at Vanderbilt, who now teaches at Case Western Reserve University, directed a production of Wit's End, my adaptation of La dama boba (The Lady Simpleton), a play by the brilliant and prolific seventeenth-century Spanish dramatist and poet Lope de Vega and one of the staples of my courses on early modern Spanish theater. It was a privilege to see Professor Ullom's consummate skills at work in showcasing the play and the talents of the actors, who together discovered the heart of the play. (I have published an essay on the process, titled "Wit's Friend; Or, Collaborating with Lope de Vega," but it was the collaboration with colleagues and students at Vanderbilt that truly moved me.)

If had had to choose a signature text, as it were, that would be Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. At Vanderbilt, I have taught the novel in Spanish and in English, to undergraduate and graduate students. Those who perhaps have astounded me most are the advanced undergraduate students who read the 1000 pages of the narrative in Spanish, together with other literary, critical, and theoretical materials, and who discuss the readings and write about them in Spanish. By the end of the semester, they are—as they always share with me—completely worn out but invigorated by their efforts. I am the facilitator, but they are the achievers, and I feel that what can be considered an ordeal affects them as readers and as thinkers, energizing them imaginatively and, I believe, philosophically. Don Quixote is, in my opinion, most fascinating in its treatment of reality, which at times seems to reside in the margins of the novel but is really never far off-center. Readers are, arguably, required to contemplate and reassess their views of perspective, perception, truth, history, and art itself. Don Quixote may be the ultimate work-in-progress and self-referential object, and thus the reader cannot help but participate in the creative act. The undergraduate students who undertake this task are likely to be Spanish majors and even more likely to be double majors, combining literary studies with a remarkable variety of other disciplines, and, for me, this diversity of interests makes their reading and reflection especially laudable. Likewise, I am continually amazed by the thoughtful and innovative readings of Don Quixote by graduate students, who probably will have the chance to teach Cervantes's novel in one context or another.

Beyond the outstanding students that I have had in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and in the Honors seminars for College Scholars (on "Don Quixote and the Experimental Novel"), I have had the opportunity to teach courses in the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences (MLAS) program and in the Programs for Talented Youth (PTY), both of which have had a lasting impact on me. While the two groups are radically different in some ways, they are very much alike in others.

The term "working professionals" has been used to describe the participants in the MLAS program. The students in my classes have included doctors, lawyers, businessmen and businesswomen, scientists, and educators, among others. A good percentage are Vanderbilt employees. Those in the program take courses on topics that encompass the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. They are free—and encouraged—to explore a range of areas and to step out of their comfort zones. The program underscores learning for its own sake. The seminar that I have taught in the MLAS program is "Don Quixote and the Development of the Novel," which begins in early modern Spain and ends in the U.S. and England in the new millennium. There has been an air of seriousness, excitement, and dedication in each of the classes. The students have responded with enthusiasm to the substantial amount of reading, and they have offered superb comments in group discussions and in weekly written exercises. My contact with these adult learners has given me great faith in—and admiration for—what universities tend to label as "continuing education." It also has given me, as a Hispanist, or specialist in Hispanic studies, the chance to plug my wares, so to speak, by building the course around Don Quixote, the novel that best exemplifies my particular strategies for advocating the study, analysis, and appreciation of literature and culture. And, I might add, I have maintained ties with a number of my MLAS colleagues.

My first exposure to the Programs for Talented Youth was a three-week course on Don Quixote in the 2008 Vanderbilt Summer Academy. I had a group of seven students from fourteen to sixteen-years-old, each a high achiever and a solid reader. The VSA offers courses for students from middle school through high school, with sessions of from one to three weeks. It was my goal to "move and shake" my band of talented youths, to provide them at this early stage in their academic careers with a taste of literature and literary analysis like nothing they had ever experienced. I had spent a good deal of time on the course design, and I had my favorite novel as the focal text. I had a seminar-sized group and the able assistance of Antón García, a doctoral student specializing in Renaissance and baroque Spanish literature. I was a man with a plan, an ambitious but doable plan, which included the reading and discussion of about seventy-five pages of Don Quixote per day, complemented by a wide-ranging introduction and a selection of short stories, films, and literary concepts. Accustomed to (and certainly spoiled by) motivated students, I was not as fully prepared as I should have been for teenagers to act like teenagers. Four of the students read Don Quixote and turned in the daily written assignments according to schedule. Three read more sporadically and did not deliver the written exercises on the due dates. This kept Antón and me on our pedagogical toes and in a state of anxiety. Who was shaking whose world here? We tried to make sure that we filled our many hours of class per day with productive discussion and exercises. We were aided by those students who had accepted the challenge, including several brilliant readers. Each student worked on a final project: an original short story, play, or critical commentary. One student read a story by a contemporary Spanish author and wrote an analysis in Spanish. I must admit that I felt slightly disappointed at the end of the session. I had, of course, wanted to reach everyone, but that had not happened. Still, according to the evaluations, the students had all loved being at Vanderbilt. Not surprisingly, life at the Commons and the social possibilities were able to trump coursework, particularly homework. Still, I got the students through Don Quixote without resorting to force—which obviously is not the way to promote a love of literature—and, as a result, they are conversant with the novel and with sophisticated concepts such as metafiction, intertextuality, the implied author, and deconstruction, to name but a few. And they rewarded me with an advanced course in teenage psychology.

The summer course made me want to try again, and the PTY invited me to teach a course in the Weekend at Vanderbilt University (WAVU) program in late March of 2009. The two-day intensive course brings together advanced seventh and eighth graders. I planned a course on the short story. I can only describe the two days as awe-inspiring. The students, aged eleven to thirteen, were unintimidated by the complicated readings, which included stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Guy DeMaupassant, Kate Chopin, and several Spanish and Spanish-American writers, among them Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ana María Matute, Juan Rulfo, and Rosario Ferré. They had no qualms about articulating their views, and they proceeded with enthusiasm, good spirits, and compelling arguments. We read ten stories and saw a film (Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo), and each student wrote an original short story. The students' analyses were nothing short of brilliant, and the combination of dynamism, humor, and intelligence absolutely won me over.

With WAVU under my belt, I eagerly awaited my second VSA session and my course on "Analyzing Fiction: From the Short Story to the Novel" in June of 2009. The group was the same age (twelve to thirteen-year-olds) and the reading selections and film would be repeated, but the course would be a week in length, would feature five additional short stories and a novel (Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), and all fifteen of those who enrolled were young women. Once more, I ended up having great fun, and I was again enlightened in the tastes and opinions of teens (and tweens). The readings included stories by four women writers—Chopin, Matute, Ferré, and Nella Larsen—chosen before I received the class roster. I was pleased by the critical and original writing and by the academic and personal gifts of the students. One of my favorite discussions was the half-hour or so in which the students talked about their own reading and film preferences. Besides excelling in their classes, these young women are voracious readers, and they like to choose books that make them feel unique, whether this means books that project worlds and situations similar to their own or entirely different models. The teaching assistant Anna-Lisa Halling, a doctoral student in Spanish, helped me fill in some (wide) gaps in my knowledge of teen topics, specifically those with a feminine twist.

One common feature of the MLAS and PTY options is a broad group of humanities topics: literature, theater, film, art history, philosophy, and on and on. The Masters of Liberal Arts and Science allows mature students to pursue knowledge, to keep learning across the board. The Programs for Talented Youth offer lessons in robotics, forensic anthropology, law, medicine, mathematics, and scientific research on one end of the spectrum and existentialism, the Western canon, creative writing, and the graphic novel on the other. The youthful scholars are able to embark on academic ventures in an atmosphere that highlights dialogue, the sharing of ideas, and an unapologetic attitude toward the pursuit of excellence. Importantly, the programs convey the message that the humanities play a crucial role in the curriculum and in the choices available. The message that the humanities count may be subliminal, but it is there, at the point at which the older students recognize the advantages of a liberal education on their own and the young students are, conceivably, most impressionable.

As I review my years at Vanderbilt, I see my classes in Spanish and comparative literature as a center of sorts, with MLAS and PTY as concentric circles that enhance and enrich my teaching and learning curves. These programs broaden the bases of the Vanderbilt community. On one level is renewal through continuing education. On the other is an effort to "get them while they're young" and to win them over for life. This is good for them, good for the humanities and other disciplines, and, hardly unexpectedly, good for the instructor. In the words of Ira Gershwin, "nice work if you can get it."

 

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