Thursday, January 31, 2013

Re-entry: Bringing It Home After Studying Abroad

In one of my last posts, I talked about what you should do when you come home from study abroad.  We often refer to this as "re-entry," which makes me think of spacecraft falling back to earth on a turbulent cushion of superheated air.  Exhilarating, terrifying, and hard to explain to those who haven't gone through it, I imagine.

Now let me offer one more step that will make re-entry even more valuable for you.  As you journal and reflect on what you saw while you were abroad, take time to look over your journal entries, and ask yourself, What do I want to bring home?

What will you bring home?

Charles Peirce once wrote, "An American who has never been abroad fails to perceive the characteristics of Americans." Now you've been abroad, and you see things differently.  Make your new vision matter.  Is there one lesson you can incorporate into your life? One thing you saw abroad that you wish you could have here?

When I've lived in Europe, I've never needed a car, but here in the U.S. I often feel I need to drive even when I'm not going very far.  So I've decided to try to walk or bike whenever I can, and to use public transit.  It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference for my health, and it might make a difference in the lives of others around me.  This is one thing I've brought home.  

So how about you?  What did you learn?  What do you see differently?  And what will you bring home?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Try To Understand One Another

“Try to understand one another.  You can’t hate men if you know them.” 

John Steinbeck, From his journal, and written about his fiction writing.  Quoted in the introduction to Of Mice and Men, (New York: Penguin, 1994) xi.

When You Come Home From Studying Abroad

It being the end of our January term, Augustana College students have just returned from studying abroad in Thailand, Cuba, India, New Zealand, touring Europe, and elsewhere.  We place a high value on study abroad, because when you return, you can never see the world the same again.


We think that when Americans study abroad, that's good for the whole world because it helps Americans to see America as they could not see it otherwise. 

Of course, it's not without its costs.  Our students who have just come back are jetlagged and road-weary.  Many are a little deeper in debt.  And the new term is about to begin.

That being the case, let me offer some advice to those of you who are returning from studies abroad.  I know you're tired, so I'll be brief:

1) Get some rest.  Stay up until it's dark out, and then sleep deeply.  Get back in sync with the sun on this side of the world. 

2) Journal every day.  Trust me.  Do this.  Do it now. Don't put it off.  Your memories are already fading. Get it down.  Write however you want - impressionistically, narratively, whatever.  Write about all five senses.  Write about language.  Write about the people you were with, and write their names down. Write down names of places, hotels, restaurants, museums. Do it now.  Go.

3) Tell stories. To anyone who will listen.  Storytelling is one of our oldest and best ways of sharing our experiences.  Enrich your classmates and professors who couldn't join you.  Tell us what you saw, what surprised you.  Tell us anecdotes about specific times, places, meals, people, vehicles.  Give us detail.  As you do, you will nourish your own memories, and you'll sort out what matters most to you.  As Umberto Eco once wrote,
"One who tells stories must have another to whom he tells them, and only thus can he tell them to himself."* 
And perhaps most importantly,

4) Come up with a couple of one-liners.  This is how to prepare for the inevitable question, "How was India?"  If you say "It was amazing!" the conversation is over and the opportunity is gone.  Instead, try something like "I never had food like the food I had in Delhi!" or "I wish you could have seen the quality of the rivers" or "The best day was the fourth day."  If the questioner was just being polite, that will satisfy them.  But these specific memories, offered as one-liners, are invitations to further conversation.  They are a way of saying "Would you like to know more?"

You had a great experience.  Some of it was wonderful, some was no doubt very difficult.  This is why we go.  Now, you've brought it home.  Do what you can to preserve the memories, and to share them with the rest of us.

So welcome home!  And now, go get some sleep.  (And then you can read Part Two of this post.)

My mother in Rome during her college years.

*Umberto Eco, Baudolino, (New York: Harcourt, 2002) p. 207.

Wettstein on Narrative Theology

I have occasionally written about theology and theomythy in this blog.   And in my book From Homer To Harry Potter my coauthor and I attempted a longer defense of the idea that the heart of the Bible is not propositional theology but narrative theology and storytelling.  I am right now working up a review of a marvelous book by Howard Wettstein (the picture on his home page is worth a thousand words) entitled The Significance of Religious Experience.  His book is thought-provoking and illuminating -- I'll save the details for the full review -- but for now, let me offer two helpful quotes.
“We often speak of the biblical narrative, and narrative is another aspect of the Bible’s literary character.  The Bible’s characteristic mode of ‘theology’ is story telling, the stories overlaid with poetic language.  Never does one find the sort of conceptually refined doctrinal propositions characteristic of a doctrinal approach.  When the divine protagonist comes into view, we are not told much about his properties.  Think about the divine perfections, the highly abstract omni-properties (omnipotence, omniscience, and the like), so dominant in medieval and post-medieval theology.  One has to work very hard—too hard—to find even hints of these in the Biblical text.  Instead of properties, perfection and the like the Bible speaks of God’s roles—father, king, friend, lover, judge, creator, and the like.  Roles, as opposed to properties; this should give one pause.” (108)
“Biblical theology is poetically infused, not propositionally articulated.” (110)
I will confess that this is a difficult review to write; it's rare that I find a book that I'd rather quote at great length rather than summarize.  His writing is lucid, combining analytic rigor and pragmatic vision with Talmudic wisdom.  It is delicious in its suggestiveness.  It's the sort of book I expect will tinge everything I write for a long time.

On Creeds

"Creeds are better sung than signed.” 
-- F.F. Bruce, quoted by Robert Gundry, his doctoral student, in Books& Culture, January/February 2013, p. 30.
I observe that signing a creed is a political act; singing one is a liturgical act.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Scholia, Essays, and Education

Over the years several of my Jewish teachers have reminded me that the most important part of the page is neither the text, nor the commentaries, but the white space.  Because the white space is the place that remains for us to fill with our own commentaries.

(White space, refracted)

In an earlier post I spoke of the pleasures of finding marginalia in others' books, and of writing one's own marginalia.  The word "marginalia" means, of course, "things [written] in the margin."  In a way, the aim of education is to prepare us to write our own marginalia.

We set aside places for education, and these we call "schools," from the Greek word scholé, meaning "leisure."  Most students don't think of schools as places of leisure, but it is only a person with leisure from menial daily work who has the leisure for school.

That word scholé is also related to the word scholion (Greek) or scholium (Latin).  Those words mean "a comment."  The act of reading is not complete with seeing the words on the page; we have read a text when we have observed it, worked to understand it, and then contemplated its meaning for our own lives.  Looking at words without reflecting on them and then calling it reading is like looking at a menu without eating a meal and calling it "going to a restaurant."  Technically true, but not at all nourishing.

Those with leisure to read books also have the leisure to reflect on books and on what they mean for us.  When that reflection takes the form of scholia (the plural of scholion and scholium) - that is, when we write comments on texts, the writing is an attempt to complete the act of reading.  So when we teachers assign essays we are (ideally) not assigning writing so much as reading. The aim is not a polished essay; the polished essay is merely the sign of something else.  The aim is reflection on texts.  The word "essay" comes from a French word meaning "attempt, try"; each essay is an attempt to become a little better at observing texts, at understanding what they mean, and at articulating what they mean for us.

Librarians: Saving The Past, Saving The Future

This week in Timbuktu terrorists fleeing French forces torched an ancient library, destroying invaluable manuscripts. The good news is that some locals managed to save some of the manuscripts, and others have preserved them digitally.  Not all is lost.

But sadly, much is lost. Some of my academic friends, upon hearing this news, denounced the terrorists as worse than murderers.  I won’t go so far as to say that the destruction of these antiquities is the equivalent of murder, but it seems to arise from a similar intent: the desire to dominate others. 

People who burn books are trying to limit the thoughts of those who are alive.  Book-burning is an attempt to silence authors, to eliminate their voices.  At its best it is insultingly paternalistic; at its worst it is bullying and even tyrannical. 

Which suggests that the work of librarians, and of all who preserve books, is the opposite of tyranny.  To save books, and to make them available to others, is to nourish democracy.  It is to preserve the voices of the past, the Cadmean souls of long-lost authors, for the sake of what we may yet learn from them.

We sometimes depict librarians as pale denizens of musty stacks, lurking behind counters in drab frocks and silencing those who dare to speak too loudly in their bookish caverns. But the function of the librarian is quite the opposite of this; on the rare occasion that they ask us to be quiet it is only so that the voices of authors may speak loudly across space and time.  It is not just uniformed warriors who defend liberty; the librarian is also an essential servant of freedom.  We mustn’t forget that.