February 28, 2009 - 11:15 AM
This spring I am participating in the Comparative Literature program's NOMAD undergraduate magazine. An essay of mine was published with them my freshman year but NOMAD was different back then. At that point the magazine was a compilation of essays written for comparative literature classes that were submitted for publication by professors. While I was honored to have my essay published in the magazine, I felt no real connection to that piece that I had, after all, only written because I had to for a class.
The graduate student editors of the NOMAD magazine decided to change the format because of people like me who sort of forgot to even pick up a copy of the publication they had contributed to. Now it is a huge process, a project separate from any class assignment and accomplished with the help of graduate student mentors. The essay topics coincide with the theme of the year, for which they also have speaker nights and events.
Last year's topic was TV series. While I did not participate in that project, it did sound like a very successful and entertaining series of writers, speakers, and events. The COLT (comparative literature) people are so funny: they can choose any topic to have undergraduates write serious papers on, and they chose TV. Then the undergraduate students who decided to participate wrote 8-10 page essays, participated in a conference to read their essays, and were helped along through the whole process by graduate student mentors.
When I heard they would be doing this writing project again this year, I was excited to participate. It's exciting to have another publication on my resume, and also to have the opportunity to work closely with a graduate student to improve my writing and the process of researching and writing a serious scholarly essay. I have also been looking for an opportunity to become more involved with my major and with my fellow COLT students. People who major in COLT rather than English Literature generally fall into two categories: they are either students who are deeply involved with the literature of a second literary tradition (you have to take literature in a second language to graduate with a COLT major), or they are simply the most nerdy of the people who would usually major in English. That's just an opinion, but it's based on experience in COLT classes as well as in my own life. People who are going to bother with a larger and more demanding major like COLT do it because they really love talking about books. And that's the kind of community I want to be writing, researching, and eating pizza with.
So perhaps you are wondering about the topic of this year's NOMAD magazine, maybe even with a discerning and concerned eye toward the title of this week's blog. Yes, friends and readers, that is correct. Out of all of the scholarly topics under the sun, this year's topic for undergraduate research and speaker series is the Undead. That means zombies, ghosts, robots, vampires, and any other being that has somehow been designated between the living and the dead. So from horror to folklore to comedic sketches, our group of ten or so undergraduate participants in the NOMAD magazine will be picking some literary undead figure and writing our hearts out.
Our topics are a great combination of genres, undead creatures, and focuses. We'll be looking at topics from Edgar Allen Poe to Shaun of the Dead, Sweeney Todd to Twilight to zombies and capitalism. Some proposed overarching themes include: displacement, identity, corporeality, the uncanny, feminism and nationalism. It will be, in short, a fabulous and possibly unique assembly of the undead joined together to teach us about our literary truths.
And so I will be working with a ghost who becomes more and more interesting the more I learn about her. Her name is La Llorona, or The Wailing Woman, and she is a Central American ghost who possibly dates back before the conquest of the Americas. Her story is traditionally told along the basic frame of a beautiful young lower class woman who marries a rich and handsome man. They have children and are perhaps happy for a time, but then the woman begins to feel that the man has begun to stray. When confronted by her husband's infidelity and disinterest she responds by drowning their children. And when she eventually dies she finds that she cannot enter heaven without those children, so she haunts waterways wailing for her dead children and searching for others to drown as well.
What originally interested me was hearing about her from my friend Sonya, who grew up in New Mexico and heard this story as part of her childhood in a white, middle class area. I was immediately interested in how the folktale has expanded across the border between nations, ethnicities, and class.
As I read more and more about this figure, I am encountering more and more interpretations of this ghost as a means of both maintaining and altering the culture of Hispanic women living in the United States. La Llorona is a figure from their country of origin, but is also a figure whose wailing voice can also cry out against the multiple layers of oppression that this population faces. Chicana literary leaders like Cherrie Moraga and Sandra Cisneros have written reinterpretations of this figure, as have many other authors in various ways and with various intentions.
So I will be examining La Llorona in the context of a folklore tradition intended both to maintain a group's cultural identity and to serve as an engine of social change in the world. I have an opportunity to use my Spanish skills, to work with the literature of a community I am deeply interested in, and get to know this ghost a little better.
I'll keep you posted. But for now, mark your calendars. There will be a formal conference on May 16th, and the whole array of undead figures and their undergraduate interpreters will be there.
Join us...if you dare.
February 22, 2009 - 10:30 PM
Allow me to begin with a quote: "The normalcy of civilization is not an inevitability of human nature."
Good one liner, right? Pretty countercultural stuff, with a kind of great revolutionary ring: that we should not make claims that the way our culture works now is inevitable or natural. People can choose to act outside of society and it works just fine for them, so we know that society as a whole can also be changed. Examples: people who live non-violently, people who live purely on local produce, people who live in silence.
I didn't pick up this "departure from normalcy" quote from some kind of hippie meeting. It was at my church, First United Methodist. And the quoted speaker is a respected (and controversial) theologian and Biblical historian, John Dominic Crossan. He is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of Christian scholars who are re-examining the life and times of Jesus to interpret his teachings in the modern church. John Dominic Crossan is a scholar interested in the contemporary implications of Jesus's life and teachings, and has studied the history and context of the Bible for many, many years.
I love this side of my religion. The side that goes back to Jesus as a radical thinker who said that the immigrants should be welcomed, the poor should be fed, the prisoners visited, and that the untouchables, un-save-ables, of the day should be welcomed as equals and as friends. I love the Jesus who had little good to say about the established church, who was so intense in his challenge of the established order that he died for it.
I love looking at the Bible with someone who has studied the context and original content of Biblical writings. As I am not myself any kind of authority on ancient Jewish and Roman culture, much of the Bible is lost on me without someone to explain. Crossan's most recent book, and the subject of his lectures, is a new look at the Apostle Paul, an early church leader who has been frequently misunderstood and misquoted, from Biblical times until now. As Crossan told us, Paul wrote letters that were answering specific concerns and questions of Christian communities at the time. He was not writing to us as 21st century Christians: when we read Paul's letters we are literally reading other people's mail.
John Dominic Crossan's interpretation is that the original Paul believed that all were equal in following Jesus. Paul's statement that there is neither man nor woman, slave nor free, was not just something pretty to say: it was his idea that, although people are different, there could be no hierarchy in the fellowship of Christians. This meant, for Paul, that there could be no Christian slaves held by Christian masters, and the question of women's place was not even worth a letter: it was simply a fact that in listing the respected Christian Roman leaders he included many women.
Crossan also spoke repeatedly to the violence in our world: the violence we do to each other and the violence to our world. Many images of God in the Bible essentially amount to a household: that a well-run household is one in which everyone has enough, the people who need help get it, and people work together. When this is applied to God, then Earth is God's household and we have done one hell of a job keeping things running smoothly. Basically, in this interpretation of the Bible, we're making God look bad, and getting closer to blow ourselves up in the process.
I could write on and on about this event: about the idea of non-violence and non-compliance with the "normalcy" of society. I could talk about the idea of distributive justice and again about the idea that the world we are supposed to be working toward is one in which everyone gets the help they need and no one goes without. To hear some church leaders talk, the biggest issue facing the world today is that of homosexual priests. Or homosexuals in general. I don't think so. Crossan doesn't think so, and I find it hard to imagine Paul or Jesus thinking so as hierarchies continue to mean that the household of humanity is founded on degradation, lack, and desperation.
So that's my church message of the day: that the current state of the world is not moving in accordance to any kind of rational or sustainable plan. If humanity continues along the current route we will probably end in blowing ourselves up. I happen to be a Christian so I imagine a Christian plan. But that's not really the most important thing here: what is important is that there are huge problems in our world, and that enough thoughtful, compassionate (and radical) people getting together at the same time can change the world for the better.
February 21, 2009 - 5:45 PM
I already blogged that I'm in a Senses of Place class, and that we're writing place essays as final projects. In class I'll be writing about the "sense of place" I had in Chile, and I'm really excited about putting some of my nostalgia into literary format.
But the idea of writing about places has stuck with me, making me think of all the places I have visited and of the places I've lived, and how these places have a mark on my soul. Because when a place is important to you it becomes the context of your life, and the basis for your development. You cannot escape identification with a place, or with the memories there. So I've thought of all of the places that have left their marks on me: my old neighborhood, my grandparents' houses, my middle school, a campsite in the Rocky Mountains, my high school and the marching band field there, friends' houses, and my places here in Eugene. And because this is an Oregon blog, I figure that this last will be the most relevant and interesting to people. The memories and friendships I have of my life in the dorms freshman year have been absolutely central in the subsequent years of my college career. They were the context of a third of my time in Oregon, the foundation of friendships, and the setting for so many good times.
So, first let me say that my freshman roommate and I were completely incompatible. We didn't fight, really, and I can't say I spent much time being actively angry. It was more a slow sinking into a realization that we had almost nothing in common and no interest in trying to be friends. Sharing a space that small with someone you don't like can be a tricky maneuver. By the end of winter term we were speaking about 20 words to each other each week. Friends would come in and out, we would do homework and sleep and talk on the phone, all without really even noticing each other. My first experience sharing a room could have been a bit more comfortable.
Despite roommate issues, I had the most wonderful time in the dorms. I was in Walton-Decou Residence Hall, one of the three honors dorms. We were all there together: a big group of freshmen coming together and stuck together for the year. My first night in the dorm I was still a little bit scared I'd come out of the first week without close friends. By the end of the week it took me half an hour to get down the hall because I'd stop to talk with so many people.
One of my most intense memories of early college was one night when eight of us crammed into my friend Nathan's dorm room and sat on the beds with the lights out, listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." I'm sure not all of you will believe me when I say there was no substance usage going on, but it's true. It was just a group of us, who were slowly cohering from a group of strangers into a group of best friends, and we listened to music in the dark.
We spent a lot of time upstairs in Grant and Nathan's room. I was there all the time, because I didn't want to be in my room with my Cold War roommate. But every night a big group of us would gather upstairs to watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. We'd line up on the beds or sit on the floor, with homework in our lap, ready for a good laugh at the state of the world. Basically those evenings of intelligent ridiculousness were exactly what I'd hoped for in college: a group of good friends paying attention to the events of the world and having a darn good time doing it.
Then there was the dorm food. We complained, of course. Everyone always does. But the food was actually pretty good. There's a decent variety, and an increased availability of vegetarian and vegan options that mean more options for everyone. We'd go for soup and sandwiches at lunch, or for bean burgers, or for salads. For dinner we usually ate at the buffet-style meal hall, which was also pretty good. I developed a strong love for the Mongolian BBQ place, Fire and Spice. I ate lunches with different combinations of people as our class schedules changed throughout the year, but I don't ever remember eating lunch alone. And dinner was always an all-of-us-together event. We'd grab a big table at Carson and eat our meals together, just like I would with my family at home. We talked about our days, made weekend plans, laughed at each other, and just basically had a wonderful time.
The consistency of routine-class, meals, homework, and TV nights-was interrupted by the adventures we would have together. My friend Grant would come and distract me from my homework and a group of us would go walking for hours in the middle of the night, alongside the Wilammette River on the Autzen footpath. We'd take weekends and go to Portland or Bend to stay with friends' families and get out of Eugene. We took several excursions to nearby hot springs, and these trips are some of my favorite freshman year events.
Spring term freshman year I had the best double-feature concert event of my life. The Decemberists and Nickel Creek came to Eugene in the same four-day period. The Decemberists concert was absolutely amazing. They are one of my favorite groups anyway, and their energy together on stage was just amazing. And halfway through a song lead singer Colin Meloy got down off the stage, leaned on my friend Verni, and played a guitar solo. Oh, the presence of greatness! The McDonald Theater is a great place for a concert, anyway, since it's small and easy to feel a part of the event, instead of just being part of an audience.
And that was life in the dorms: a time of intense community. With so many people living in a small space, there was always someone to be with. Walking down the hall you walked past friends. Walking past the common room downstairs there were friends. Casual friendships resolved quickly into permanent ones. Drama developed, relationships changed, new plans and adventures came along, but all in a cooperative manner. That is what I miss the absolute most about life in the dorms: that feeling of perpetual un-loneliness.
I haven't been back in the Walton Residence Hall since I moved out in June 2007. I've left that place completely in my daily life, but it is still entirely present. I spend most of my available time with people from that time and place. It feels like I live in constant reference to that time when we were all living together in that place, coming together as individuals discovering their adult lives, and as friends becoming closer and closer in that close proximity.
That's the thing about place when you start to really think about it. Memory functions in a tricky way. If I think about it, I'm still listening to Pink Floyd in the middle of the night with seven friends. I'm walking by the river in the dark. I'm listening to music, avoiding contact with the roommate, teasing the same friends and falling in love with the same group of amazing people.
Do you ever really leave a place like that behind?
February 15, 2009 - 4:00 PM
I am a tour guide for the Clark Honors College on campus. It's a good job, if sometimes a funny one. On days when no one shows up for a tour, I do odd jobs around the college instead: I do data entry, assemble information packets, and it's me who keeps all those plants alive. I've gotten quite skilled with Microsoft Excel these days, and can use the copy machine like nobody's business.
But I signed up to be guiding tours, and that's what I really love doing. It's so fun when prospective students and their parents come in. Often they're on a trip including multiple university stops, just like I was when I arrived on campus for the first time. Their eyes are already glazed over with days of college tours and travel. They're jet-lagged and overwhelmed. The high schoolers are usually hungry and tired, and the parents are always interested in scholarship information.
It's fun, though, because I get to think back to being a high schooler myself, worried about college but mostly interested in what was happening in the here-and-now of high school life. Now, three years into college, I've come to take University life for granted: it's simply my reality these days. This job allows me to look back at my decision to come to the UO, and to think about the real pros and cons of my studies in the Honors College and at the University in general. Also, my little sister is a senior in high school this year, and I think of each student-parent set coming in as being like my sister and Mom visiting colleges: each with a completely different set of issues, interests, and questions.
I always tell the tour groups how happy I am here. I really am, too. I have loved the vast majority of my classes and am continually surprised and grateful for the variety of extracurricular options being offered on campus. At some point in the tour I always end up in the same place: telling them that the Honors College has given me small classes full of engaged students in the context of a large university with all the opportunities and benefits that come out of a large student body and diversity of interests. I think my college life thus far has been a great balance between the two.
The Honors College itself doesn't make much of a tour. It's located on a single floor of a small building (Chapman Hall). I sit my tour groups down in front of a computer to go over the course listings by way of explaining graduation requirements. Literature and history sequences taught by this variety of professors, with this variety of focuses on the same period of time. I tell the tour groups that our classes are limited to 25 students, and that the professors are all motivated and concerned for their students. And, at least in my experience, that's the truth.
Then we move on to colloquia classes, or seminar courses designed by professors to explore their areas of interest more closely with a group of engaged students. I have loved the colloquia classes I have been in so far. And I love that the Honors College students are such a diverse bunch: the most popular majors represented in the Honors College are English and Biology. So in any given class discussion you have a huge variety of perspectives on the same topic.
Then I show the groups the library, which is less impressive for its book selection than it is for its atmosphere: the couches, the (well-watered) plants, and the theses. They are the real pull of the library: all those gray-bound theses lined up on the top shelves, one for each student to graduate from the CHC. Creative writing majors' first novels, languages majors' original translations, science majors' lab work, and a whole host of topics in between. I have recently begun work on my own thesis project and have gone from imagining my thesis as some huge obligation looming in my future to seeing it for what it is: an opportunity to explore one topic in an extensive and supported way. It's finally something to something excited about, and I look at those shelves and know my thesis will be up there, bound in gray with my name on it for the world to see for years to come. Opportunity.
I walk the groups through the hall, show them the computer lab and the bulletin board, the colloquia classroom with its oblong table setup, the "shrine to the faculty" with pictures and copies of publications the professors have contributed to, and then the Honors College student lounge with the couches, kitchen, and ostentatious world map. And that's really it as far as the tour goes.
Then come the questions. What are the benefits? Will I be a nerd? Can I graduate in four years? Should I live in the honors dorm? Will this get me into grad school? And on and on...
I love this part, because I basically get to talk about my own experiences. How else can I answer these questions? For me, the benefits are the motivated peers, the engaged faculty, and the community I've found there. I was a nerd already, but some people at the HC don't seem to be, and I don't think my social life has been hurt by Honors College status. I'm graduating in four years with two majors, a minor, and study abroad. I loved living in the dorms, and my seven best friends were all also in the honors dorms. I don't know if the HC will get you into grad school because I haven't applied yet. But I know a thesis project will help you out, as will professors who really know who you are...
And on and on. I talk about my friends and the variety of their majors and study abroad experiences. I talk about Eugene and my volunteering projects. I talk about my classes and coursework and extra-class scholarly work. In the course of my talking I always come to realize how well I've been able to explore my interests in college, and how many cool things I've been able to do.
I think I could have been happy at other colleges. But I think my experience here, at the CHC and the UO, has been a wonderful one. My life feels like it is continuously expanding in terms of my abilities and in goals. I feel more and more ready to face a world that is offering more and more in the way of experiences, options, and needs. I try to tell that to the high school students and their parents. I try to make them see that college, whether here or wherever else they might choose, is going to be a thrilling ride: a time when you get yourself both figured out and shaken up.
I hope they find a college that matches them the way Oregon matches me. I knew the second I hit campus, actually. The rest of my college visits were mere formalities: this is the only school I applied to, and I knew I was accepted with scholarships before Thanksgiving of my senior year of high school.
And I've never once regretted it.
February 14, 2009 - 11:30 PM
Happy Valentine's Day! And, even better, Happy Birthday, Oregon!
Probably everyone has something to say about Valentine's Day: either the romance or the frustration of the over-comercialized holiday. Whatever. I'm single, but even on the Valentine's Days that I've been dating I've never been a huge fan.
So I'll spend my Valentine's Days celebrating Oregon's birthday. And this year is a big one: 150 years of Oregon greatness. What an awesome thing to be a part of.
My friends and I hiked Spencer's Butte today. It was so beautiful; Oregon is so beautiful. I can see Spencer's Butte from the front door of my house. I love the mornings when I look south to see fog on the butte, with the trees and that special early morning air quality. But I've only actually climbed it once before, during the spring of my freshman year. I was excited to go back to see the Butte again.
It was a lovely day to be hiking. It was really, really muddy, but the clouds were so dramatic and the view is spectacular. From up there Eugene looks really small, and you can see that it is really surrounded by beautiful forested areas. I love the hills and mountains stretching out in all directions from that high point. It's worth the hike, which surprised me at the end with some rock scrambling and more and more mud. We took pictures from the top: my friends all together, the heroic individual shots, and the ever-popular jumping pictures (which require about ten pictures taken per single quality shot).
Oregon landscape is still somewhat of a mystery to me. Growing up on the Front Range in Colorado, the Rocky Mountains dominated my childhood landscape. The Rockies are very dramatic: they stand in a huge unified line to the west of Denver. My drive to school every morning was always focused on the mountains as we drove west: the gray-green foothills, the deep blue-purple mountains, and the snow-covered peaks. They are so dramatic because they rise out of relatively flat and featureless plains. Denver is high in elevation, but not mountainous in its own right. I'm from flat and dry, if you get right down to it. If grass is green in Denver someone's been watering it. My landscapes are almost all artificial: the landscaped gardens, watered lawns, and trees coaxed into living where really only cottonwood and willow grow along creeks without assistance.
Then I arrived in Eugene, where even in winter the dominant color is green. Really GREEN. Green lawns, green trees. Even in winter the trees are green. Moss doesn't just grow on trees in my neck of the woods. To be quite honest, the trees here in Eugene look like a bad movie set to me out here. The kind of over-the-top set design that no one really buys into. It's a shock to my shades-of-beige world view.
And so are the mountains. Spencer's Butte is huge, and right in the middle of basic flatness. And that is odd enough. But even more strange, to me, are the Cascades (which are incredibly beautiful and I love them, although they're not quite on the same scale as the Rocky Mountains-there it is, the Colorado mountain snob coming out). You pass through the Cascades that are basically big hills to my eyes, until all of a sudden there's a huge, random mountain off all by itself. While I theoretically understand the idea of volcanoes, the reality of a huge extinct volcano just stuck out by itself in a string of small mountains looks very odd. We're talking about single mountains here, where all I've known before are mountain chains: peak upon peak continuing upward in a unified whole until you reach the Continental Divide and then move down the Western Slope. The Oregon mountains are dramatic in a different way: in their biodiversity, in that show-off green, and in those random mountains, snow-covered and showy in the midst of the rolling of the smaller mountain chain.
Perhaps this split perspective, this simultaneous mountain snobbery and green envy can only come from someone who grew up at 5,280 feet. I have the mountain love that tells me the Coastal Range are just forested hills, and then the shades-of-gray accustomed eyes that nearly fall out while driving through them. The view from Spencer's Butte is magical, like a scene from Lord of the Rings as I imagined it when I first read the Tolkein's trilogy as a child: the rocky hill, the moss hanging from the trees, and the fog rising out of the mountains in the distance. There were even faint towers of smoke rising from homes outside of the city proper. Middle Earth: magical.
I stood on the highest point of Spencer's Butte, considering my adopted home. I traded my Colorado mountains for Oregon landscapes, a starting elevation of a mile for a majestic vantage point on a butte 2,052 feet in elevation.
And that, for me, has been a fair trade.