Quixotic

Logo Google cervantes Don quijote

“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
Those are probably THE most memorable words ever written in Spanish–the beginning, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. It captures all the irony and ambiguity that will characterize this long novel, written in two volumes and published 10 years apart–the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. It is a book that has fascinated readers for 4 centuries, and inspired numerous other books, plays, works of art, music, films, t-shirts, even a chain of Japanese thrift stores!

Don Quijote, Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ve recenty finished reading the novel in English, more than 20 years after I first read it in Spanish in a graduate class with the great Javier Herrero. Lately,  I’ve had the crazy, quixotic you might say, idea to teach two seminars on the Quijote this coming spring semester: a senior-level seminar in Spanish which I hope to title “Don Quijote 21” and a first-year seminar I plan to call “Digital Don Quijote”. I say quixotic because I’m not a Cervantes specialist, and I have my doubts about how I’ll be able to guide and inspire students not only to understand this extremely long and difficult novel, but to love it as so many generations have. Certainly there were times during my re-reading of the book this summer when  I distinctly did not love this book.

Over the past twenty years I’ve re-read parts of the novel, usually the best, most iconic moments: the wonderful first chapter where Don Alonso Quijano creates his persona Don Quijote and sets about inventing an entire world for the knight errant; Don Quijote’s first failed adventure; the burning of his collection of books of chivalry; his selection of Sancho Panza as his squire and companion; his infamous battle with the windmills, and the interrupted battle with the vizcaino followed by the introduction of the historian/author Sidi Hamid Benengeli; the freeing of the galley slaves; the visions Don Quijote claimed to have in the cave of Montesinos; the adventures on the wooden horse Clavileño at the Duke’s palace; Sancho’s time as “governor” of his own island; and finally Don Quijote’s tragic death. I’ve taught various of these chapters as part of our survey of Spanish literature, and usually students enjoy the selections, which give them a small taste of the genious of this text. But I’ve always felt I was cheating them by giving them so little of such a vast and hugely important book. So I wanted to face the challenge of my own adventure, and teach not one, but TWO classes on the Quijote. The first, in Spanish, would be a more traditional look at the novel as an important piece of literature and its enormous influence on Spanish culture even today. The second a related, yet somewhat different first-year seminar in English using the novel as a way to approach digital studies and digital humanities. We would read select chapters of the novel and relate them to various topics of digital study–the questions of authorship, fair use, and copyright laws; the future of the library; DQ and gaming, digital humanities projects on DQ, DQ as a MOOC, DQ in social media, etc.

However, as I waded through the first volume, with its numerous intercalated stories that often seem rather loosely connected to the main story, I started to doubt my plans. The first idea to go to the wayside was that I could inspire first-year students to read the entire book, and simultaneously include the digital topics I was interested in. But also I began to question my plans for the advanced students. Not only is the book long (some editions are well over a thousand pages), the Spanish (and the faithful English translation by Burton Raffel) can be insanely archaic in the case of Don Quijote, and ridiculously strewn with popular sayings and proverbs in the case of Sancho Panza. Fascinating philosophical questions aside about what (or who) is an author and what is his relation with his readers and his characters, or about what divides fantasy from reality, I began to question  my long-held acceptance of Don Quijote as the first modern novel, not only in Spanish but in any language…Really?? Modern?? I said as much to my husband one night as we were both reading before bed. I had just finished the episode in the cave of Montesinos and was entering into the long episode at the Duke’s palace. I remembered these episodes to be entertaining the first time I read them, but this time around they seemed to be too drawn out, too detailed, with too many digressions. Both the structure of the entire novel–especially the first volume–and Cervantes’ often purposefully difficult language, didn’t seem modern at all to me. In fact, the novel seemed distinctly Baroque. Now, before the Cervantista’s out there start trying to correct my ignorance on the art of Cervantes (which I do not deny), Miguel himself anticipated my misgivings just a few chapters later when his historian pseudo-author character Sidi Hamid Benengeli answered my complaints with a complaint of his own:

“It is said that, in the true original of this chapter, one can read how, when Sidi Hamid came to write this chapter (which his translator only partially rendered into Spanish), the Moor penned a kind of complaint against himself, for having undertaken such a dry and narrow history as Don Quijote’s…” (Volume 2, chapter 44, 586)

Benengeli knows exactly what I was thinking as I read volume one, and he anticipates–even condones–what I am sure my students will be doing next spring::

It also seemed to him, he said, that there would be a lot of people so totally absorbed in Don Quijote’s doings that, finding these other stories of little interest, they would simply skip over or just skim rapidly through them or, if they did read them, would do so only grudgingly…

Cervantes/Benengeli  then sum it all up for me–

he concludes his complaint by asking his readers not to look down on what he has here accomplished, and to praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing. 

When I read this paragraph I was in awe of the genius of Cervantes. Here he was, anticipating MY criticism, answering ME directly, explaining ever so patiently why this book is modern, why it is like no other, why it is still relevant, and why I ought to continue my own crazy quest to bring it to another generation of readers!

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: WW Norton, 1999.

In Defense of (Academic) Language Study

I recently finished teaching a Spanish 101 course during our university’s first summer school session. My course was full, mostly with students from my institution working on the language requirement for our general education curriculum, which requires that students complete coursework or otherwise prove competency (AP scores, for example) at the intermediate level as defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, http://actflproficiencyguidelines2012.org/). So students starting in 101 would likely have 3 more semesters of study to complete the general education language requirement. This term’s course was pretty typical for my lower-level language courses. Some students were only in the course to complete the general education requirement, while others were there because they also had either a personal or a professional interest in learning Spanish. Ofen students see Spanish as a “practical” language and cite this as a reason for taking it. Completing what is normally done over 14 weeks of classes in only 4 1/2 weeks is quite a challenge for any course, but in a language course, it was a colossal task for all of the students, and for me as their instructor, and I have to say that I left the experience with some mixed feelings. I have a student from the course to thank for the topic of this blog post, in defense of (academic) language study, as opposed to the many other ways people can learn another language, from purchasing commercial programs sold in an airport to moving to another country.  I would like to argue for the value of language study as part of a liberal university education.  Also, although academic language study might have the side benefit of proving itself “practical” some day to some students, that is not its only, and maybe not even its most important purpose.

The aforementioned student who inspired this post was one of those students who  seems to question everything at every turn. A non-traditional student returning to school after a few years of experience in the “real” world, this person was not the typical undergraduate content to just do as I said and trust that I knew what I was doing. While it can be quite frustrating and tiring to have to defend oneself in this way, I don’t believe that the student was out-of-line to question me. To the contrary, I, as a professor, should be able to explain the “why” of my pedagogical choices just as well as I explain the “what” of the content delivered in them. So when this student asked me “Why don’t you just use that commercial program XXX?”(*referring to the sort of program advertised in travel magazines, sold in big box electronics stores, and in kiosks at the airport) I was a little dumbfounded.  Why not? Now to be fair, I’ve never really used any of those programs, although I suppose they probably have helped introduce many more people to a new language than I have in my 20 years as a professor. I did a bit of researching and found several reviews of one of the most advertised programs, Rosetta Stone, including this oneon a blog post from January of this year in the Economist. Certainly the program’s special features are intriguing, but I’m still suspicious of anything or anyone who  claims language learning can be quick and easy, natural, painless and never ever boring! But, back to the student’s questions– why not? While one of the criticisms of these language learning software programs is that they are quite expensive, none of them are as expensive as the three-credit summer course I taught, even for in-state students. What is so special about the way we teach language in a university classroom setting that justifies our price?

I myself learned Spanish in a rather non-traditional way. Thirty years ago, in the summer following my high school graduation, I lived for 9 weeks in La Paz, Bolivia. I had never studied Spanish before that moment, but rather had taken 4 years of highschool French. My immediate reaction to the letter announcing that I would be living with a family in Bolivia was to tell them no way, I wouldn’t go! I couldn’t go. I didn’t even know Bolivian, I thought, and I especially didn’t even know that Bolivians spoke Spanish, along with Quechua and Aymara and a few other indigenous languages. But the people at AFS talked me into taking a big risk and go.  Those were the 9 most difficult and most rewarding weeks of my life, and the experience completely transformed me. I came back with a pretty good foundation for speaking and understanding Spanish, but more importantly I came back with a greater awareness of how other peoples around the world lived, and I returned with a hunger to learn more, to improve my skills, and to continue transforming my monolingual, monocultural worldview to something much, much richer. For me it was sort of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the film changes from black and white to color. Going to Bolivia, and learning Spanish opened my mind, and my life to a whole new way of thinking, of understanding and of being. Until I saw my my pictures developed once I was home, I had no idea how different I looked from my Bolivian friends–what a true “gringa” I must have seemed to those around me (evidenced below!). Perhaps proof of my intellectual (not physical) transformation?

Betsy Bolivia 1983

I started my university career the next fall and began my formal study of Spanish. I learned grammar, more vocabulary, and writing, and I continued to improve my speaking and listening skills. I also continued pursuing opportunites to travel–again to Latin America (Cuba and Costa Rica) and then a summer in Spain. I sought every opportunity I could to speak with native speakers in my university.  For me it was that combination of real-world experience and academic study that helped me in my transformation. This transformation didn’t happen easily, it did not happen quickly in fact, it’s still happening 30 years later!  It was not always fun, although often it was GREAT FUN, and it’s what I hope for each and everyone of my students, and the reason I went into college teaching.

Here is an exerpt of my response to my student:

I’m not sure if you were in class the day that I spoke about language learning being like learning a musical instrument or learning a sport. It takes a lot of practice, and it can be quite frustrating at times. Some students are naturals (just as some are naturals in sports or music) and seem to improve almost effortlessly, while others work and work and feel they are not improving as quickly as they’d like. But most students, all but those with the most severe of learning disabilities, are able to improve and they are able to achieve intermediate competency at the end of two years. The problem is, I can’t do it for students. I can provide students a road map (that is, through my syllabus, through the assignments that I give, and the topics that we cover in class, along with my power point slides and explanations that I provide).  I also can provide opportunities to practice in class: in every class I try to make sure that all students have the opportunity to practice all 4 skills necessary for language learning, with lots of speaking activities, reading, writing, and listening. I can also give students feedback, through my comments on their quizzes, on their homework, and on their classwork.But in the end it is ultimately up to the student to use all of these opportunities to his or her best advantage.

Learning a language is an art and a science. It requires skill and knowledge and creativity. The 2011 proposal for a “21st Century Skills Map”, spearheaded  by ACTFL–the same professional organization that has created the proficiency guidelines mentioned earlier–calls for 21st century language teaching at the K-12 and college level to focus on five “Cs”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The proposal goes on to state that it is “only through knowing the language of others that we can truly understand how they view the world.” (http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/21stCenturySkillsMap/p21_worldlanguagesmap.pdf).  While I question the practicality of the proposal’s call for all students to emerge from K-12 at the advanced level, and from university study at the superior level–something only the very best of our Spanish majors are able to achieve in their 4 years with us–I do think it rightly emphasizes active and engaged student learning in a variety of “modes” from the more informal “interpersonal” to a higher level functioning “interpretive” and a more formal “presentational” mode.  These last two are areas a student is unlikely to develop outside of the classroom.

I will continue to seek new ways to encourage my students to become more active learners, able to create and interpret meaning accurately and correctly through both written and spoken Spanish. But my ultimate goal for them, more than achieving a particular language proficiency level, would be that they too might go from black and white to color, to enjoy the wonder of seeing, understanding, and being differently.

Wizard of Oz cover 1900