For the winter term I’ve been teaching a course in the English department here at the University of Maynooth and yesterday was our last class meeting. Given than I’ll be moving to New Zealand and on leave from my home institution next academic year, it was the last class I’ll teach for some 15 months. I half-heartedly looked around for a university near where we will be living in Whakatane on New Zealand’s north island. The big universities are two to four hours away by car and given that we’ll be living on the beach on the Bay of Plenty, one of the sunniest and warmest places on the island, I figured I could find better ways to spend my time than preparing for classes and grading papers. I can’t say I’m happy about the prospect of being out of the classroom for that extended period of time, but, I guess I can’t say I’m sad either so I guess it’s more correct to say I’m ambivalent.
One thing I do know is that teaching abroad this year has been a unique and exciting experience. I spent the fall semester teaching American Studies classes at the University of the West in Timisoara, Romania, I had a chance to lecture at Karoli Gaspar University in Budapest and then this past semester I taught an American literature course at Maynooth as well as an Irish history course to the Regis students who are studying here at Maynooth.
Each of these teaching experiences brought its set of joys and challenges. I still think about and miss the students at the University of the West. Their warmth and their excitement in learning about American culture is still with me and I’ll always be appreciative of their generosity and willingness to share their time and experiences with me and my family.
Given the way the class schedule was set up, I ended up spending a lot of time with the Romanian students–we were together in class for three hours every week and then quite often they would meet me and my family for dinner after class. They were a funny, irreverent and gregarious lot and I think, in many ways, they spoiled me with their friendliness and openness. They made bracelets for my children, gave us delicious Romania foodstuffs and a number of them even came to the post office with us and acted as our translators so we could ship our boxes from Timisoara to Romania.
Teaching at Maynooth has turned out to be equally exhilarating but quite different from my experiences in Romania. Irish students are by nature, I think, more cautious and guarded in the classroom and I think it took the students in my American literature class a little while to get used to my teaching style which is more Socratic and discussion based than what they are used to.
I also have a tendency to get worked up and dramatic around certain literary moments and early on in the semester, I think some of them thought I was slightly crazy. Like, for instance, when we discussed that amazing moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck is faced with the prospect of turning Jim into the authorities (and doing the right think according to antebellum slave laws) or continuing to hide Jim from the authorities (and breaking the law) and he stands there and thinks for a moment before he does the truly right and just thing and declares, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell.” It’s a classic American moment of the individual giving the middle finger to a corrupt and unjust system. I’ve read that passage probably 100 times over the course of my life. It still sends shivers up my spine and I have to say that it resonated deeply with me as I read it with my Irish students following the ascension of #45 so, naturally, I got slightly worked up and acted it out and while I think the Irish students were entertained by my excitement, I noticed them giving each other sidelong glances as if to say, “Oh, boy, what have we gotten ourselves in to now?”
At the same time, though, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the sarcasm of my Irish students. The Irish are, generally good at sarcasm and take some pride in their cheeky and cynical outlook on life. That makes sense, given their history vis a vis the British empire, and it makes for honest and entertaining verbal exchanges in the classroom, especially when I would ask them to think about Irish equivalents to American historical or literary events.
For instance, while we were reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, I did a little presentation for them on public memory and American war memorials which prompted a funny discussion on Irish public memorials. The Irish, I learned, are really good at mocking their public monuments and for good reason, I have to say. Here, for instance, is the monument Dublin put up after the IRA blew up the statue of Admiral Nelson on O’Connell Street in 1966. They call it “The Stilleto in the Ghetto” or “The Stiffey in the Liffey” (!).
The famous statue of Molly Malone is dubbed “The Tart with the Cart” or “The Dish with the Fish.” James Joyce’s statue off O’Connell Street is referred to as “The Prick with the Stick.” Are you getting the patterns?
Americans, who by and large do not possess the trenchant and irreverent sense of humor of the Irish, have no nicknames for our iconic public monuments and you don’t have to look too far beyond the Washington Monument for material.
As the students packed up their bags and walked out after our last class, one young man came up to me, thanked me for the class and asked for some book recommendations of American authors. Students used to ask me questions like that quite frequently, but I’ve noticed over the years, as the internet and hand-held devices take a large toll on all of our intellectual and spiritual lives, that I get those kinds of requests more and more infrequently. But, I’ve found Irish students to be quite intellectually curious and well read so I was pleased to write down a few books for the young man (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was at the top of the list), and made a mental note of that moment as I’ll want to remember it next year when I think back fondly on this past year.