Prior to teaching at West University in Timisoara, I had zero international teaching experience. I certainly heard lots of stories, though. People told me the European system is so different than ours, that the students came to class if they felt like it, that there was a big plagiarism problem and that, compared to U.S. students, European students in general and Romanian students in particular, are shy about talking in class.
I’ve only taught six classes so far at the University of the West, but each class is 90 minutes long so I feel like I’ve racked up some good contact hours and, at this point, I’m happy to report that none of the complaints above are true. In fact, my experience to this point has been just the opposite: the students are lively, energetic and knowledgeable; they do the reading before class, they are very willing to share ideas and even disagree with me and their peers and they take writing assignments seriously.
They do have a slightly more liberal interpretation of attendance expectations, but that seems to be more of a function of their class schedules; that is, sometimes they get enrolled in two classes that meet at the exact same time. I still haven’t really figured out how that can be, but it’s a reality and it’s common for them, when they are in this situation, to attend half of the classes in which they are double enrolled.
Oh, they also laugh at my jokes, a big plus, and they are also playful. Last night, for instance, after I finished some opening comments, I looked down at my desk and noticed that my book of Flannery O’Connor stories was not there. This is a heavily annotated book that’s not replaceable. “Oh my god,” I thought, I left it in the library and I’ll never get it back!” About a minute later, I noticed one of the students in the back, smiling, almost giggling, and she said to me, “Dr. Fretz, I took your book as a Halloween prank!” I was relieved (that my book was safe) and grateful (you don’t do something like that unless you like the person you are playing the prank on).
I realize all this could change over the course of the next eight weeks and I also realize that, in many ways, there are qualifying circumstances: There are a number of Fulbrighters that come through here, so the students seem to be used to American professors, but, still, I suspect they see me as a bit of a curiosity and in that regard, show their best hand. At the same time, since I am here for such a short time and since this is all so new to me, I suspect that I am more relaxed than I would be in my classes back at Regis so I imagine that my students here are responding positively to that as well.
One of the things that has struck me up to this point, though, is the student’s willingness and interest to talk about controversial and sensitive issues. Last week, for instance, we were talking about two Flannery O’Connor stories in my first class. O’Connor’s characters liberally use the N word so it was incumbent upon me to address that issue straight away with the students. I told them a bit about the history of the word, why it made me uncomfortable and why it’s hurtful to blacks. It was hard to gauge how much they knew about the word, so I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but I can say that I was impressed with their willingness and ability to think through how O’Connor uses the word, how it’s used in popular culture and how the word has different meanings and connotations when it’s used by different groups of people.
One of the funnier moments occurred when we started talking about a reference in one of the O’Connor stories. In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a tragically racist character is heading to the Y for “reduction” (weight loss) classes. The students asked me what the Y is so I told them is short for Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. I noticed some funny looks on their faces and when I asked them about it, they wondered, “Why would she go to a place where gay men hang out.” It took me awhile to untangle that, and I’m not really sure I did it well.
A similar thing happened in my second class where we spent a good bit of time talking about the history and the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement. They were familiar with some of the spotlight cases–Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner–and they engaged in a lively discussion about gun laws in the U.S. compared to gun laws in Europe. They were deeply troubled by the levels of gun violence in the U.S. and they wanted to know what was being done to mitigate such violence (not much, sadly, I told them).
Last night, though, during our discussion of two of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, I had perhaps the most profound teaching moment I’ve had in a while. First of all, students (generally speaking) hate Hawthorne. He uses too many words, his sentences are baroque in their complexity and he’s writing about things that most of them don’t care about. Fair enough. I get it. Here, though, I purposely chose two stories–“The Maypole of Merry Mount” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”–because they both deal with issues of religious and political expression and political violence. In “The Maypole of Merry Mount” a band of Puritans break up a pagan celebration (a marriage around a Maypole), kill off some of the Merry Mounters and force two of them–the Lord and Lady of May–to convert to their harsh brand of protestantism. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a young boy, Robin, arrives in Boston at the lead up to the Revolutionary War looking for his kinsman, a Major Molineux. It gradually turns out that Molineux is a Tory whose been captured by the revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty. At the end of the story, Molineux, whose been tarred and feathered, is paraded in front of Robin. It’s pretty ghastly.
Toward the end of our discussion of the Hawthorne stories, I asked the students how they felt about Hawthorne’s portrayal of political violence in light of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. They jumped all over this, making connections, telling personal stories and just generally breathing life into this nearly 200-year old story.
I left class and I felt like I was walking on clouds.