Pazmany University


Well, it sure happened faster than I thought: my school year is over. I taught my last classes at Pázmány on Tuesday.

And I still haven’t quiet recovered from the sentimental ball of goop I get at goodbyes.

One quality I sometimes worry about having as a teacher is that I like my students too much (which, of course, makes it harder to be hard on them when they do the occasional “oh-really?-the-essays-are-due-today?” kind of things). Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have really great groups everywhere I have taught in my short time thus far in this career, maybe it is part of the nature of teaching writing and literature, where emotions and personal experience tend to come out in the classwork more than, say, they might in algebra, but I have left every class I have taught so far with a feeling of sadness, like I’ve just made some wonderful new friends and now I won’t get to see them regularly anymore.

The experience is compounded at Pázmány firstly because of the distance between Hungary and home, as well as  the fact that the end of Pámány makes it all the clearer that this crazy, lovely, dream-world-like life the Fulbright year has been for me is winding down.  Yet, it also felt even more bittersweet because of how I saw some of my students grow so much — whether it was in their ability to speak more confidently in English, or the real “big success” for me — a student who is using the modern American women writers I taught this year for her thesis.

Then, those darned kids went and made me cry. In a good way. (more…)

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… and I forget just how completely and utterly exhausting teaching is.  This semester, I have arranged my schedule so I only teach one day a week — Tuesdays — which means three-day weekends (huzzah!) . But it also means all three of my classes in one day, then immediately followed by a little comedy act I like to call Robyn Tries to Learn Hungarian. Today, said act comprised me repeating nagyon fáradt vagyok (I am very tired) while poor Gabi tried to get me to understand indefinite and definite present tenses (to no avail, sajnos).

I remember my mother telling us that no one but a teacher can understand how tiring it is when we used to tease her about long breaks or insist that her job was easier than ours as students. And, of course, in that irritating way mothers tend to be, she is right.  I’ve realized that when I teach, it really is like being on stage, like putting on a show. Particularly because I’m trying to get my students to be very participatory —  everywhere, but especially here, where I am doing it in spite of a general pedagogical culture that stresses passive learning — this show becomes more intense. I find myself teaching with my whole body — arms flying, making faces, doing voices, pacing from table to table.  I remember after my first semester teaching at Lord Fairfax Community College how quickly I learned that 3 hours of teaching was like a 12-hour day at an office job’s worth of energy. But the lovely two months off I got here sort of softened me, and after my second week back teaching, I have a strong desire to sleep until noon tomorrow.

But that said, there is one thing this semester that is great: two of my three classes are loud. My Conversation class barely requires any prodding: they all said they didn’t want to do grammar work, and complained that many have majored in English for many years but never get to speak English. Done and done, I said — we’ll just talk. Today, for instance, to practice speaking English quickly and extemporaneously, we played the game Celebrities. Good fun, and good English practice.

My class on Contemporary American Women Writers — which has many repeat students from last semester —  is simply wonderful, too.  I was worried, at first, to see that no men signed up for the course.  Perchance I did give myself a reputation as a crazy man-hater? I wondered at first.  But that concern faded fast because this group of women is so, so bright. The students talk easily with each other and me, they’re willing to work hard on doing close readings, they see clever things in the writing that I haven’t seen and they have open minds.  Being one who always has had co-ed education, I have long been skeptical of the single-sex education supporters who claim it is better for girls to be on their own, not influenced by male dominance, and so on. I didn’t even consider all-female colleges, for instance. What is the point of being with all girls? Dudes don’t frighten me — and besides, I have to learn to hold my own against them in the “real world” so best start now was always my theory.  Yet,  there is something about the dynamic in my Women Writers course which has me considering a different point of view. Everyone seemed naturally comfortable there. Which, of course, is not to say I don’t want men to take classes on women — indeed, I think it is vital. I simply adored the guys who would “man up” (pun intended) and sign up for courses cross-listed as gender studies or women’s studies in college. But, with a class of students this good, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the lack of male species in this particular course.

Now, my final course,  which is on the History of US Journalism and Media … well, that requires a little … or a lot … more prodding. As usual, I figured this would be the easiest course: we’re studying US history through important works of journalism and important journalism moments, which means scandals and muckracking and all that juicy stuff. Should be naturally enticing, no? But the atmosphere here is just much quieter. I think, in part, it might be that many students are still used to history as a lecture, or that they don’t have the scaffolding in American history to feel comfortable speaking about this subject. I’ve got a few more ideas which I’ll need to pull out  … but if anyone has any tricks in the “Please Get My Class Talking” bag, I’m listening.

And now, I’m going to bed.  Tanítottam, nagyon fáradt vagyok, es alvasom.

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.

This morning, I logged on to my computer today to continue my ever-present quest to be a “perfectly organized teacher” (ha. anyone else who teaches understands that as an oxymoron) by doing some early work on my reading lists and lesson plans — but, of course, I needed my quick morning perusal of the New York Times to be sure I was up on what’s up back home and in the world. And, what should I find in the #2 most e-mailed spot but a story which validates my whole philosophy of teaching (not to mention one of my main goals as a Fulbright teacher): this wonderful story about how Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) is moving away from its tradition of giant lectures for freshman classes.

Of course, at M.I.T, the courses in discussion are “hard” sciences — classes with names like “classical mechanics” and “electromagnetism” and other such things which make only the vaguest of sense to this humanities-mired teacher. But as anyone who has been following my teaching progress here (or who has asked the seemingly-innocent questions “So, how are your Pázmányclasses going?”), this switch between the tradition of a lecture-based pedagogy to what I consider to be a far more effective interactive classroom has been a big concern for me. My students (like many educated in the European system) are used to lecture, memorize, test, and I have written several times already about my struggles to get students to actively participate in class. While it was still a struggle to get a real conversation going, even by the end of the semester, the environment did improve — and I even had a few students email me about how nice it was to have a chance to speak and be heard in class.

The professors involved in the new interactive classrooms at M.I.T. also reported a better attendance rate — something else that has been a struggle while teaching in Hungary. Students, used to a lecture where their physical presence matters very little, if at all, seem a bit surprised when I tell them they are losing points for not being in class. As one M.I.T professor in the article put it, students “… see the lecture as dispensable, that is that they can get it out of a book more efficiently than getting up, getting dressed and going to lecture.” Hence, lecture equals emptier classroom … which, in turn, this article argues, led to higher failing and dropout rates.

I know M.I.T isn’t Pázmány, but methinks this story is still encouraging for what I am trying to do here. In both situations, there is a tradition of passive learning and a certain resistance on the part of the student to change that — but that’s exactly why we should keep trying to do it. Down with the lecture!

I’m facing a nice, fat stack of essays for grading and commenting on this weekend. But what is the bigger lesson (to use the positive term here) is the number of essays that came in late … or not at all.

First, in keeping with my spirit of open-mindedness and keeping positive, the good news: the essays that did come in on time look great. My heart is warmed, for instance, to see how many of my Contemporary American Women Writers students chose to write about The Bluest Eye, despite the fact that this tale, in classic Morrisonian style, is dark, difficult and complex (and I’m just as excited to see how one student attempted the same with Beloved … a doozy of a book, to say the least).

But the semester’s end certainly provided some learning opportunities — both in terms of cultural difference and in my own teaching style. I was nagyon frustrated, to say the least, when half of one class showed up without their final essays. I know Hungarian students do not have a culture of essay writing, and thus the 7-page term paper (pretty short, by my American 4-year college measure… my term papers were usually more in the 10-15 page range, and tended to close in on 20 pages as I advanced) seems long.  They do the lecture-oral exam format more, as I have mentioned; the very practice of original thought and research at the heart of U.S. academic writing is not as emphasized here. But keep in mind that I am supposed to be here to offer a different way of learning … and that I had assigned this in October. I had reminded (and re-reminded) about deadlines. I had helped students find secondary sources. I offered significant feedback on outlines. Basically, I assumed I had done all I could do to make the process as easy as possible, while still doing what I should be doing as the visiting Fulbright professor: giving the students a chance to learn in the American style, which includes writing.

But many students still came with no paper.  Several offered this excuse: “Well, we have at least 10 classes, so I had a lot of essays to write.” True. But (A) of all, you had ample time and (B) of all, WHY IN THE WORLD DID YOU THINK IT WAS FINE TO NOT DO MY ESSAY, THEN?

After first storming about the lounge and complaining to Veronika (and asking Zsoli, our student worker, to please spread rumors that I was very frightening, so as to avoid this issue next term) … and then sweating it out a Bikram yoga class, I can see this as more of a learning experience, and, that while it is still frustrating, it is not all bad. Firstly, (more…)

Being a Hungarian Fulbrighter is coolest type of Fulbright-ing for any number of reasons — the wine culture, the fact that we have spas, the crazy language where one word can last four paragraphs, the paprika — but it is especially cool because every month, the Fulbright Commission takes us somewhere for a meeting, where we all get to see each other and catch up. It makes for a nice happy family feel to the whole thing experience. And this month, we spent part of the trip at my very own university, Pázmány Péter, with a tour of the unique design by modern “organic” architect Imre Makovecz (a little like Frank Llyod Wright in philosophy, although the style itself is very different) led by the incomparable Veronika Schandl.

With just two months at the school, I have already developed a pride in it which, if it doesn’t match my Georgetown love, could certainly grow to that level, so I was quite happy to see it shown off to my group here.

Pázmány!

Pázmány!

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

Hungarian Fulbright Group

Hungarian Fulbright Group in Esztergom

Happy Monday!

On one of my first days teaching at Pázmány, I remember trying, somewhat in vain, to elicit an opinion from my students. “Come on, just tell me what you, personally, think about the poem,” I goaded. The students looked everywhere but at me, until one girl piped up: “Well, what do you think we should we think?”

Arrrrgh.

As I finish up my first month teaching at Pázmány, I’m getting much more comfortable with my students and my classes — but I’m still pushing on getting the students to actually talk … and even more so, to feel comfortable talking and, importantly, expressing original opinions. 

But, to do this, it seems I am fighting against a culturally-inculcated pedagogy based more on the lecture-remember-regurgitate model. My colleague, Károly, and I had tea after class and discussed this sort of back-and-forth we have with the students: we ask a question, they do the duck-and-cover or suddenly seem intensely interested in the ceiling tile or their notebooks. Starting a real conversation can be quite a trial. Károly, along with some of the other Pázmány professors, told me that most Hungarian secondary schools do subscribe to the idea that a quiet student is a good one — and Károly noted that the English and American Studies department (our shared department: Károly heads the history/culture section) is unique even at Pázmány, as most other departments still rely on a lecture format. (when I said I can usually get my students to warm up about halfway through the class, another colleague, Zsolt, laughing said that might actually be the best record they have.)

 As such, I certainly cannot expect that I’ll say “Hey, what do you think Joyce Carol Oates meant?” or (more…)