Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Humbling Experience

I’ve known for a while that I’m arrogant. I’ve known this largely because I hang out with other literature/art/theater students who will proudly admit that they are arrogant, and I got in the habit of admitting it, too. It’s not that we haven’t earned our right to arrogance: we all work very hard in our chosen field, a few of us (myself included) sometimes relying entirely upon our scholarly performance as a measurement of our self-worth. We are arrogant, but we are incredibly hard on ourselves. If we are not one of the top-performing students in the class, we might as well give up on life—as far as we as concerned, anyway.

I also know I am arrogant because of the way people react to me when I talk about literature. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve used phrases like “authorial intent” or “language instability” and had to explain what exactly that means and why it’s relevant to whatever lit-crit. jibber-jabber I’m spewing at any given moment. It was much longer ago that I lost track of the number of times I have mercilessly berated books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey only to have my conversational partner sheepishly say, “I really liked that book.” (Aside: I always feel like shit because I know that it can feel like someone is insinuating you’re stupid if you like a thing when they take that big of a dump on the thing that you happen to enjoy. I stand by my assessment, however. Just know that I don’t think you’re stupid if you like those books. I love Ghost Adventures. I have no right to judge you.)

So now that we have established that I am arrogant, I would like to admit that I have I was previously unaware of the extent of my arrogant-ness. What opened my eyes was walking into my “Barn- och ungdom litteratur” class—children’s and youth literature. Taught in Swedish.

Oh god what have I done?
Today I had my second lecture and I spent a significant portion of time at the beginning of the class berating myself, asking myself why I would have signed up for a class taught in motherfucking Swedish, asking myself what the fuck I had been thinking. I even spent some time trying to give myself a pep talk: “It’s not worth giving a fuck about what these people think of you. If they think you’re stupid because you can barely communicate and you never talk, so fucking what? You’re never going to see them again after this class.” It did not work.

Before I even went to class I had a minor battle with some anxiety that made getting out the door rather more stressful than it had any right to be. I knew that today we were going to be split into groups and our groups would be receiving the topic we were to be presenting on, along with our schedule. Though rationally I knew that I would be able to understand enough to know which group I was in, what topic we were assigned, and when we would be presenting, the totally irrational part of myself was telling me I would not ever, not in a million years, understand. Scientists had a better chance of cloning an Einstein-Darwin hybrid clone than I had of understanding this pretty basic fucking Swedish. This part of me was significantly louder than the rational side, and it made me want to crawl back in bed.

What does this have to do with being arrogant? Well, I am very used to walking into a classroom and knowing I am going to be a top-performing student in that room. I am so used to it that I took it for granted—I wasn’t even aware I was so comfortable in the security of that knowledge and hadn’t had cause to realize that I was comfortable with it since coming to the University of Oregon.

The closest I got to being forced to realize this weird sort of privilege I had so effectively built around myself was in a class that did not meet with my expectations, in which I simply did not jive with the way the teacher was teaching and couldn’t understand how the class could be considered a literature class rather than, say, a sociology class. But even then I could dismiss it by pointing out that so much of what we were reading had nothing to do with literature, or in fact that we only read two novels in the entire course, or that I (a grown damn woman) was not permitted to write on my chosen topic (one of the two damn novels). I was perfectly capable of constructing an argument that it wasn’t me, it was the class itself. And I still got an A anyway, so all my bitching and moaning meant nothing in the end anyway.

I can make no such argument here. For the first time in three years I have walked into a classroom knowing I won’t be a top-performing student and it is impossible for me to deflect this. It isn’t the fault of the teacher, nor the class design, nor the class literature. It is because I am not fluent in the language in which the class is taught, and this lies entirely with me. For the first time since being admitted to the University of Oregon I am incapable of adequately expressing my thoughts and opinions about a given text, and even though I may have complex thoughts and opinions to express I feel stupid for my inability to express them.

Could I express them in English? Sure. But then what would I learn? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Unfortunately my nervousness about not being able to communicate rendered me literally speechless today. Divided into small discussion groups I just sat by and listened, not contributing a single thought. The first words I spoke to my group weren’t until the end of the discussion and they had nothing to do with the texts: “Förlåt för att jag prata inte. Jag kommer från USA och det är svårt att förstår ännu. Jag blir bättre, men jag är jätte nervös. Förlåt.” I’m sorry I’m not talking. I’m from the United States and it’s still a little hard to understand. I’m getting better, but I am really nervous. I’m sorry.

They were understanding—one girl told me that if I ever don’t understand something it’s okay if I need to have them repeat in English and another girl seemed impressed that I had decided to take a course in Swedish, noting that it must be very hard.

Yes, it is, but it will be good for me. I will be a lot better at Swedish by the time this class is out, in addition to learning a lot of really interesting things about children’s and youth literature (the interplay between the books and the society and such—my jam). I can never remember this in the moment in the classroom, though. In the moment I can’t help but wonder why I ever thought I could do something like this—how could I be so arrogant?

Well, because I am arrogant. I am still arrogant, but this (even just the first two classes) has been an incredibly humbling experience. I no longer sit upon the scholastic throne I had unknowingly placed myself upon, and that’s probably a good thing—you know, in terms of developing good character or something. And even though it was a lesson I wasn’t expecting to learn, it’s just as important as all the Swedish and lit learning I’ll be doing. Maybe even more so.

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