Why we read, part 2



Have you ever found yourself disagreeing with a fictitious character’s actions based on your experiences and or culture? Or judging their decisions because it is something you would never do?

While I shouldn’t say this is wrong for the everyday reader (but I think it is) I will say it is wrong for those of us who have chosen the path of higher education, at least as it pertains to the humanities. We humanities majors have committed ourselves to studying more about the world so that we may learn among other things, empathy and understanding. We have committed ourselves to not just learn about people and events, both past and present, but from other people as well. We are not to sit in our ivory towers tossing our chamber pots over the heads of anyone passing that we find culturally unappealing or acting in ways that do not fit our understanding of the rules of social engagement.

Sadly, not everyone who decides to earn a humanities degree understands this. Yet this lack of understanding keeps them from the beauty and heartbreak of those different from themselves.

I am currently taking a class titled “Non-western lit”. The name says it all. We are reading a novel a week (which is why my blogs have been few and far between) from authors outside of our western culture and cannon, with the understanding that we are to read from their point of view. In other words, we are to drop our Orientalist and post-colonial views, and see the world through the eyes of the characters presented to us.

There is a woman in my class who, despite being a self professed world traveler, refuses to see the non-western world as it is but instead comments on behavior that disgusts her. She sits in judgment as if all people walk the same path and have the same life experiences as her.

Take for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize wining, interpreter of maladies. In this beautifully written but heart wrenching collection of short stories there are people who make decisions or do things that may not make sense if we look at them from the western perspective. Some of the stories contain characters that we can identify with even if we do not agree with their behavior.  But just because we do not agree with them does not mean we in a position to judge them. Yet, at every turn this woman will blurt out, “My husband would never do that”, or, “my husband would never act that way”.

The story When Mr. Pirzada comes to dine”, is a perfect example of what this woman is missing as she sits in judgment. Mr. Pirzada (a professor we assume) comes to America to study botany on a government scholarship.  While he is in America an Indian couple and their daughter befriend him. While he is in America the Pakistani army invades Mr. Pirzada’s home country of Dacca. The couple and Mr. Pirzada sit night after night watching the news for any signs of hope as they watch teachers being dragged out of their homes and shot in the streets. Mr. Pirzada clearly cannot safely return home to his wife and six children.

The theme of this story is family. The ones we have and the ones we make. This unnamed Hindu couple takes in Mr. Pirzada, a Muslim, in because they share a cultural heritage.  And, even though Hindus and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for hundreds of years, the couple become his surrogate family in a time when he needs family the most.  This is what we were supposed to get from the story.

What did my aforementioned classmate complain about? That Mr. Pirzada did not return home to his real family! She asserted, “Her husband would never do that!” When I asked if her she and her husband had ever lived a country that was ravaged by war, she admitted they had not but held firm in her conviction that her husband would return to her if  he found himself in this situation. When our professor asked her how Mr. Pirzada was supposed to fly home during an invasion, she became silent but unconvinced that Mr. Pirzada did the right thing by staying in America until it was safe to return. My classmate was focused on the theme of family responsibility, but her absolute stance on what her husband would do, blinded her to beauty of the story.

A part of me understands why my classmate talks about her husband so often. He passed on two years ago, and clearly there is a hole she needs to fill. By remembering him as the perfect husband, she can cling to her past, as the present may be too painful for her. I don’t know. I feel for her, yet there are days I want to shake her and remind her of our commitment to grow, not from the experiences we have had, but from the ones we haven’t. What stops me is my willingness to step back and try not to judge her too harshly. As bad as I feel bad for her loss, I feel equally as bad for what she is continually loosing; a chance to grow as a person.

The next time you find yourself at odds with a character’s behavior, remember the author is not asking you to sit in judgment, rather you are being asked to understand based on the information you are being given. Allow you to learn and grow. After all, isn’t this why we read?

Blogging & Earning a Masters. Is there a difference?

Weekly Geek Time! You guess the author

It’s a beautiful rainy Sunday here. Just the kind of day I like. Rain clouds tend to bring out the green shades of nature, which are gorgeous backdrops against the multitude of brightly colored spring flowers. My mood is always lifted when it rains. It ‘s as if my soul is being cleansed. I’m between classes right now; the spring semester is over and my next summer course starts in a week. Between the rain and my freedom from school, I’m in a relaxed and contemplative mood.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my education lately. So much of what excited me in the previously is now draining me of enthusiasm. In the past I looked forward to exploring new ideas and writing essays on my discoveries. I was one of those students who could sit down and write a 10-page paper in just a few short hours. All of my papers earned praise and delight from my professors; they appreciated my written attempts to dive deep into the subject matter. I always thought long and hard before I wrote and often wrestled with my subject in order to pin down my thoughts and feelings for it. I really felt like I was developing as a critical thinker, and by the time I graduated, I felt as if I matured into a whole new person. I looked forward with anticipation to graduate school. Who would I be when this was finished?

I was a little apprehensive about grad school (I have spoken about this before) because I pictured more demanding professors who, with red pen in hand, would rip apart anything I wrote, challenging me to think deeper. The graduate’s handbook warned of expecting As. “It is not about the grade, it is about the journey. This is a time of learning new skills, not showing off the ones you already have”.  Intimating yes, but completely within the bounds of higher education. Okay, I told myself, forget about being an A student, just make sure you do your best and push yourself to new limits!

What I didn’t’ expect was to be handed material from absent professors, who it seems, have no interest is pushing a student to do anything! Out of the four classes I have taken, two (which is half, yeah a humanities major can do math) have consisted of written lectures and Youtube videos. We students were expected to read then write essays answering canned questions posed to fill up paper space, not to push us to think deeply about the subject at hand.  This is not helping me become a master of anything- well maybe bullshit if this keeps up- I can’t believe I am paying for this!

Earning a masters in humanities is a lot like being a critical reader and blogger. By comparison, blogging critically about books and current events may be more effective than earning a masters. As bloggers we are passionate about what we choose to read and write about, and try hard to make sure our thoughts are well crafted so our target audience continues to read our work. We encourage, nay, need feedback so that we may start open discussions. It is our hope that our words foster new ideas within in our small community.

Last May, I found myself missing school so I did a series of blog posts titled A Course, a Course, my Kingdom for a Course! The series was my attempt at self-education. I wrote a Shakespeare course syllabus and set out reading and watching nothing but Shakespeare for two months. My hope was that by the end of the two months, I would have a better understanding of the man and his work. It’s too bad I couldn’t do this for two years and then show my work to a University and be handed a master’s in Shakespeare.

If I could hand out masters in literature I would give the first one to Ben over at Benreadsalot. This is man who, for the love of the experience, is reading and critically blogging about it. He is doing more than just reading and writing; he is exploring the world of literature and writing about his experiences. You could not ask for a better student than Ben. He not only expresses himself well, you see how literature is affecting his worldview.

I have come across many bloggers like Ben. Bloggers who allow literature to seep in and enrich their lives. All of these people, knowingly or unknowing, are earning their own masters and experiencing higher education on a very personal level. I marvel at them all.

I want to teach at the college level, so for now I will continue on the path of traditional education, though when I do teach, you can be damn sure I will not be an absent instructor. If you take one of my classes be prepared to think critically and prepare yourselves to be transformed by what you read. And if school is not for you, take heart, you are probably on your way to a masters without having to stress over midterm and final papers. Lucky you!

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