January 2009


I come from Pittsburgh.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t want to say that, when I had a very Andy Warhol-ian approach to my hometown (for those that don’t know, Mr. Pop Art is from my humble village — and his name was actually Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire…. further proof that Hungary is all over America. But he rarely admitted this, choosing instead to say that he was from New York or a “citizen of the world.” That Pittsburgh turned and both built an awesome museum for his work and named a bridge shows how hard it is to get away from the city. Go on and reject it — Pittsburgh will still claim you back). Like Warhol, I didn’t see being Pittsburghese as an advantage, particularly when I finally left the area and entered Georgetown with a sea of Califorinias, New Yorkers and people from “just outside the city,” Bostonians and other New Englanders.  There was a reason, I thought, why Pittsburgh was the butt of jokes in movies: Auntie Mame is from there to showcase her brashness, when Dr. Teeth and his band need to land somewhere pathetic during The Muppets Take Manhattan they land there, and so on. Mullets and man-jewelry run free there. We even have a less-than-charming local dialect.

But I got older. I took a hiatus from D.C. for a year-and-half long stint as a reporter in the Pittsburgh suburbs. I rediscovered the city. I wised up to the fact that all those fancy-pants Georgetown kids who were “from just outside the city” were really just from Jersey after all.

I still went back — and will go back — to D.C.  In the end, I do fit in there far better than I do in Pittsburgh. Yet, when it comes to where I am from, it is still Pittsburgh. Which is why I will miss the city tomorrow, when that great symbol of Pittsburgh — the Pittsburgh Steelers football team — will attempt to win its sixth Superbowl.

Taking my Fulbright role as “cultural ambassador” seriously, I attempted to endear my new Hungarian friends to my homes by giving away Steelers and Hoyas gear for Christmas gifts. This may have worked: yesterday, the head of my university department, András, e-mailed me this Newsweek story, where Howard Fineman speaks about the Steelers fandom as an imagined community, as a tribe that serves to makes us feel part of a group even when the traditional notions of “neighborhood” and conceptions of “place” and “home” break down in an increasingly transient society that America is.

da' burgh ahn' at

da' burgh ahn' at

In many ways, I have to agree. The Steelers, after all, just aren’t about football. Indeed, no sports team is: in grad-school speak, the sporting event is the liminal moment, more about the ritual than the outcome. But I believe that, more so than in the newer and brighter and shinier cities, the Steelers have had to stand in for hope in a city that lost so much when the industry for which the team is named — steel — fell in the 1980s.  People had to leave, an economy had to restructure. Some parts of the city have improved; others haven’t.  But in any case, Pittsburgh now has a diaspora —  people who have full lives in some other city, but still have the sense of from Pittsburgh.

Like girls who live in Washington for nearly 8 years, but would never, ever cheer the Redskins (and not just because of the shamefully racist name). (more…)

Despite the patient attention of my kisci tanár, Petra, yesterday, my Hungarian skills still most closely mirror that scene in Love Actually where Colin Firth tries to speak Portuguese to win his lady love.  After Petra’s careful attentions in the morning, I headed to my usual classes at C.E.U., where Gabi, my teacher, wanted us to explain our day. This meant not only using verbs, but using the past tense, so I think what I said most closely translated to something like: Yes, the day is full. I working at Fulbright Center 7 hours. I helping student write things. Essays. I helping students study exams. It was being interesting, and all students being nice.”

While Gabi tried to help me untangle this mess of Magyar, she also taught the whole class a new vocabulary word: hallgató, which is a word for student, but it is only used for university students. (By contrast, the word I had used, diák, is a more general form for student at any level).

Trying, as she always does, to get us to make sense of Hungarian structure (ha!), Gabi asked us what new word reminded us of. It’s a verb, she hinted. You remember this from last term.  Finally, one of my classmates hit on the phrase zenét hallgatok, or “I listen to music.” Igen, said Gabi, pointing to the similarity between the verb hallgat and the noun hallgató. 

So, I countered, this word for student literally means “listener?” That explains a lot!! One of my biggest challenges, of course, has been getting my students to talk to me, to engage in discussion. The fact that the very name for their position implies passivity in learning certainly helps me understand the clash between my comfort with interactive pedagogy and my students’ seeming desire that I just lecture.

But that doesn’t mean I’m letting them off the hook.  On the contrary, I’ll just be enacting an even firmer nem hallgató approach this spring.

I’ve been working at the Fulbright Advising Center all day — but I’m getting as much of an education as I am giving. Annamaria, the wonderful program coordinator for us American Fulbrighters in Hungary, brought her 6-year-old daughter Petra to work today.

Petra, noticing my lack of Hungarian skills, has taken it upon herself to help me improve.  My kisci magyar tanár is quite excited, and does not seem to be concerned that I only vaguely understand her. First, she patiently explained, in slow Hungarian, that since I am an American, I speak English, but since she is a Hungarian, she can teach me Hungarian.

Nagyon jó! I said, “very good.”  And this was all the encouragement she needed. She drew me a few pictures, and reviewed the colors with me (and seemed disappointed — but willing to help — when I knew the word for “red” but not “purple”.)

Petra is also beginning her own multi-lingual adventures: she can count to ten in English. This discovery has led us to a fun new game, which I call “Robyn and Petra Count.” Petra counts to ten in English, then I follow with my egy, kettő, három …

Once Petra approved of my basic numbers, however, she began a bit more demanding, and insisted I count by tens, which involved several attempts until she was pleased with me pronouncing the word negyven or 40.  Next, she made me a paper fan, which involved many tries before I could say this word to her liking (…and, don’t tell the teacher, but I have already forgotten this one!)

I must run now. My tanár just made me a paper butterfly and she is very unimpressed with my pronunciation of its Hungarian name — pillangó —  so we need to go practice some more.

As if my next job — teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College —  wasn’t AWESOME enough already, my dear friend, Amanda, who with her journalistic prowess at washingtonpost.com gets all the juicy D.C. area news first thing, sends me this wonderful bit which must have come across the newswires very recently:

Jill Biden to Teach at Northern Virginia Community College

! ! !

Besides the fact that I am still a little (oh, OK, a lot…) starstruck with the new administration, I am just bubbling over with joy about this one because the fact that the second lady (is that an official term? nem tudom… ) is taking this job is a huge, huge bonus for NOVA and for all community colleges.

Most people in academia know that the community college does not get enough love from the general public. It finds itself the butt of jokes in mainstream movies.  It doesn’t get the same money from many states’ governments. Even a few of of my “liberal” and “progressive” and “social activist” professors, who would balk at the merest suggestion of any race or ethnic slur, actually were disparaging when I said, no, I am not going for the Ph.D. right now because I had picked the two-year track. But you could be an excellent scholar, sniffed one, look at this paper…  you could get into a doctoral program … ”

Could, yes. (And still might — but later, when I have some more classroom experience to make it really worthwhile, and definitely in a more teaching-related genre of English, like composition and rhetoric). But why would I want to leave the classroom now, when, after two weeks into my first adjunct job teaching developmental English, I already knew that teaching at community college was the best job ever. To put things into perspective, the adjunct job paid so little I actually basically broke even after gas, and I took it on as my third job, in addition to being a full-time master’s student — and I still couldn’t wait to get there every week. Sure, I loved a lot of my grad school classes; but I loved rolling up to English 1 or English 111 classes even more.

You know how most girls talk about the happiest day of their life being their wedding day? Well, my happiest day thus far occurred when I was teaching at Lord Fairfax Community College:  a student, who had quite nearly failed out of English 1 (a.k.a developmental English, the course before freshman composition) and was ready to quit the course came in to say goodbye because he was heading off — with scholarship — to the four-year school he had dreamed of.  He was beaming; I burst into tears. You just can’t find that type of joy at every job.  (And forget the white dress and veil, for methinks said incident will always be displacing wedding day on the Great Day list … with all due respect to My Mysterious Future Husband, Wherever He May Be).

Indeed, when, after several semesters of this adjunct work, NOVA interviewed and offered me a full-time job at the Loudoun campus, I felt like Christmas, my birthday, the Steelers winning the Superbowl, the Hoyas winning the NCAA tournament and the Strand’s $1 book sidewalk sale had all come at once. In my mind, all I could think was I get to do this … AND get paid actual money for it? It was so much, I needed to lay down in the grass outside my apartment to compose myself (apologies, once again, downstairs neighbors, for freaking you out). It was too amazing, too wonderful for words.

It still is, to be honest.

So, while it is rather unlikely that Mrs. Biden would be picking my slightly-further off campus to teach at, or that her two adjunct courses would overlap with mine (so, no Amanda, I probably won’t be “picking up her Secret Service guards,”), her “star” power does wonderful things for all of us that believe in community colleges and the very important work they do.  As she said in her statement about the job:

“I am thrilled to return to the classroom to continue working with community college students, whom I greatly admire and enjoy teaching.”

Agreed. When I see what my C.C. students deal with in their regular life, the fact that they all try so hard to make it through and to class is enough of a kick every morning to make sure I’m doing my job at 110% all the time. I have always learned every bit as much from them as they have from me. Biden has also made previous statements about how she finds community college teaching to be so vital to the country’s success as a whole (ditto, Professor Biden. After all, with 50% of all college students in the U.S. being community college students, we have to give the two-year system much respect). Additionally, Professor Biden holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. degree as well, further demolishing the myth bandied about on many a Chronicle of Higher Education forum or frantic M.L.A. conference that the people who teach at a community college are somehow lesser than four-year instructors. One need only look at the bios of the English professors at my campus of NOVA to see that: these people are dynamos, times ten.

I once joked that the community college is like the Hufflepuff of higher education — if my memory serves me correctly, somewhere in the Harry Potter series, there was a song with a line like “Said Hufflepuff I’ll take the lot. And teach them just the same”. Well, that is what we do: we take people where they are, and we get them where they need to be. That’s not just a job that’s “as good” as a four-year school — in my opinion, it’s better. Those of us who have taught at a community college know this. I just think it’s fabulous that now we have a big-name pubic figure who knows the same.

I’ve just returned from that most gloriously geeky of events, an academic conference — or, more specifically, the Hungarian Society for the Study of English (HUSSE) Conference, with my fabulous colleagues from Pázmány Péter University.

Listening attentively

Listening attentively

As an two-time English major and current English professor, I am a professional nerd. Maybe as I get older and spend more time in academia, I’ll start to hold similar opinions to those grumbly teachers who send in letters complaining about how awful conferences are to The Chronicle of Higher Education — but I think not. I love conferences: you get to learn a little bit about all kinds of different topics in your field, without any of the pressure of, say, taking a class. You get to actually do something with one of those treatises of academic-ese you wrote in graduate school by sharing it. And, if you’re in the humanities, you usually get some free wine. All in all, what could be better?

Zsolt and Kinga make academia fun!

Zsolt and Kinga make academia fun!

But while I’ve enjoyed every conference I have participated in so far, my Pázmány colleagues completely blew me away at this one.  I have always known that they are very intelligent people — and they have shown themselves to be the kindest, most helpful and friendly hosts any visiting teacher could imagine — but this is the first time I got to hear their serious work in action. And it was quite nearly overwhelming, it was so impressive.  Two of my colleagues, Veronika and Kinga, delivered fascinating papers on Shakespeare adaptations that were excellent: Kinga’s looked at a BBC popularized version of Much Ado About Nothing, while Veronika’s focused on an adaptation of Hamlet staged in the Nyugati pályaudvar, which is the Western Railway station here in Budapest. (Although, since I know about how much work Veronika does in the average week — like getting this awesome book published — her ability to deliver a paper both as smart and enjoyable as hers only furthers my sneaking suspicion that she has built herself a clone).  Another colleague, Boldizsar, not only offered really interesting ideas about the connection between Chatterton and Walpole, but did it all without reading from a paper at all — he just stood there and talked, weaving gorgeous sentences extemporaneously.  I should probably also point out that I loved all these presentations, even though they are all on Dead White Guys — and, as anyone who knew me in graduate school or  has seen my syllabi knows, DWGs are far from my favorites … indeed, my M.A. years were usually spent trying to convince some professor to see that my ideas on pop-culture-y stuff like, say, Britney Spears’s image on tabloid magazines, were

The Pazmany Crew

The Pazmany Crew

worthy of academic papers (thanks for that one, Professor Tinkcom.)

And those are just a few of my brilliant colleagues. Needless to say, after listening to all of that, I was more nervous than I had ever been at a conference when I had to stand in front of them and deliver my own paper on abolitionist children’s literature. (It turned out O.K., too —  but I’m still considering it a work-in-progress).

But, more important than adding another line to my C.V., this conference reminded me how much I love being in academia. For all of the negative things frustrated academics can (often rightfully) complain about — the increasing laziness of students, the lack of attention and funding given to humanities departments, the less-than-gigantic salaries, etc. — I feel so lucky and happy to have stumbled into this career after a few years of post-college wandering. Having a career that truly lets you be creative and keep learning all the time outweighs any of the drawbacks.  Although the “Georgetown default” plan (i.e. lawyer or investment banker) might get more esteem from the general public, I’ll leave that whirlwind of Blackberries, billable hours,  and three-piece suits to my old classmates. I’ll just stay right here — happily — in the world of essay rubrics, dry-erase boards and sitting around and talking about books.

… but this was too good not to share.

I popped by the Fulbright Office this afternoon to print out my presentation for the HUSSE conference tomorrow in Pécs.

Hey, did you hear the Magyars do it too?

As I walked over to pick it up from our fancy-schmancy new printer, my Hungarian colleague Csanád came running down the hall — to fist bump me while saying “Change has come to America!”

Good to see the ol’ homeland is still setting trends, both politically and stylistically.

After three months of studying Hungarian language at Central European University, for three hours each week, I have graduated … to the elementary level.

Yes. That is correct. I had to move up to elementary.

But don’t get me wrong — elementary is hard enough for this English-speaker with a bit of Romance language experience. I am sitting here, staring at my little sheet of Hungarian homework, which I intended to do before I leave super-early tomorrow morning for a conference in Pécs with my colleagues. I remember thinking how my friend Carolyn faced a much more difficult task as a Fulbrighter to Bulgaria, because she had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. But frankly, these few sentences might as well as be written in Cyrillic for as much sense as they make to me. Siiiiiiiiigh. I am fondly remembering being able to discuss politics in Italian; here, I would settle for knowing what to say to the little old Magyar ladies who populate my building after I pass the standard “good morning” or “hello.”

Szimpla!

Szimpla!

Although, I was chatting online last night with Jeannette, who held the ETA Fulbright position in Hungary last year, and told her that my newest accomplishment is that the bartenders at one of my favorite hangouts, Szimpla, have finally begun to humor my poor Hungarian enough to tell me the price of my Dreher or forralt bor in Hungarian instead of English. She assures me this is rather impressive indeed, and that it must be a good sign for my language studies.

Still, back to the books for now.

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