In Retrospect It Wasn't That Bad

One of the seminal profs in my career is retiring. This professor is seminal because she is the first professor whom I liked outside of the classroom but whose pedagogy drove me up the wall. Her tests always covered material that we had not gone over in class. Her assignments were often pointless. Her expectations (of me) were usually unreasonable, because only a very small number of third-year language students of a group 3 language can compete with native speakers. Her class, which was meant to cover a much later period in time, actually covered a much earlier period in time that I already knew in great detail (the department chair shares some of the blame for this). When I fell in love during my final year of undergrad, her class was the first to fall victim. I regretted the divide that rose up between us but I never regretted it enough to stop skipping.

She was responsible for one important lesson, however. I learned from her to beware of the Anglo-American bias that was (still is?) prevalent in my field because it ignores the existence of different cultural norms. One of the classes that I actually attended during my final year drove home this point. A professor in another department had recently raved on and on about participating in the first (one of the first?) student exchanges to the Soviet Union. The group of young, liberal, Western idealists (or idiots, depending on your point of view) demanded a meeting with two denounced writers, one of whose son was in prison. They boldly (or stupidly) asked these writers what life under a Communist dictator was like. They expected one answer but received another. Both writers told these students that life was good. Life was fine. There could be no complaining. Sitting in my lit class, the professor mocked the professor in another field along with his colleagues. "What exactly could these writers say? Government officials were present. One had a son in the GULag. Why the hell would you ask such a stupid and dangerous question and then be disappointed with the answer?" This, however, did not translate into a carte blanche approval of the other. She was merciless when it came to criticizing Russian and Soviet culture because it, like every other culture has its own set of problems. She just demanded a higher level of awareness of different cultural norms than her Anglo-American counterpart in a different field. Different isn't better. Different isn't perfect. Different isn't worse. Different isn't all bad. Different is just that: different and all of it merits acknowledgement, not just those bits that are proof (positive or negative) of either your world view or your thesis.

I've noticed that the professors throughout my career whom I admire are those that subscribe to this philosophy. An open and fearless mind is the best tool.


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