Sigal Samuel’s Hermeneutics

mystics of mile endIn Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.

What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?

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I quit my job once and I want you to know about it

or Some Reflections Provoked by #QuitLit

Six years ago I found myself living in an idyllic midwestern college town, working anywhere from three to five jobs at a time.

Here is a list of what my BA in French/comparative literature and recently completed MA in African Languages & Literature qualified me to do: serve coffee, sell books, rent videos, teach piano, teach French, teach English/adult literacy, babysit, dogsit, file documents in an office, go back to school and complete a PhD.

I happen to think that I was qualified to do any number of things. But it was 2009. No one had a job.

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keita, the canon, and what the hell does “interdisciplinary” mean anyway?

[Disclaimer: this post  is not “finished” in any sense. I wanted to publish it, because I think that it deals with some of the underlying threads we should consider as the battle between the legitimacy of the humanities and the bottom lines of the administration continues to wage throughout the country. But I really, really, really have to get back to studying for my quals, so I’ve got to stop editing. PLEASE, if you think something is unsaid or said badly, I invite your comments. Also, I realize that it’s a little narration heavy – you can skip that and go to the end if you want. No big deal.]

Last week, I did about fifteen minutes of the film Keita * with my students. This was prompted by a short introduction to a West African folktale in their textbook, which claimed that the griot in West Africa is a bard specializing in moral tales about animals for children. While I applaud the inclusion of such culture lessons from the francophone world, and while this description of the griot is not totally wrong, I could not let them leave my classroom thinking that the griot is some kind of Aesop Uncle Remus who lives on African Sesame Street and plays a large ukelele. **

Kouyaté’s film focuses on the education of Mabo Keita, raised in the French colonial school system, whose family’s griot is charged with the task of instructing the young boy in the history of Mandé people(s). Which is pretty significant for this particular family, since its ancestral line links directly back to the founding the Malian Empire.*** The action revolves around this epic tale, but the more subtle circumstances are the tug between Mabo’s French education and the instruction of Djeliba, the griot.

When I watched this film as an undergrad, I remember forming a distinct impression that French literature was inherently bad, and that African oral literature **** was inherently awesome. Which pretty much continued to guide the next…what’s today?…the 18th?…the next nine years of my own education. I had an intellectual swagger. Old white European guys? Psh, who needs ’em? Why don’t you run along back to your Proust.***** I stopped swaggering a long time ago, but I never quite gained the passion for French literature that was supposed to be pounded into me.****** Nos ancêtres les Gaulois ??? Screw ’em – they weren’t mine. But then…neither was Ousmane Sembene… Continue reading

teach standing up

When I began my current doctoral program, I was told that a good-looking CV has four conference papers, three articles, a wide range of teaching experience, and a couple of research grants. If that seems a little outlandish to you, that’s because it is. Who has the time? Because of my teaching load, not only do I not have time to complete the reading for my courses, I certainly do not have time to do the research above and beyond, in order to keep up to date with my field and all of the brilliant scholarship that is coming out. Let alone write articles and go about getting them published. And I make time. I don’t sleep very much. I haven’t had a weekend in two years. I read during the breaks. I cut back on the oh so necessary decompression time affectionately known as “happy hour.” And still… Never quite enough, is it?

In case you haven’t picked up on this, let me clarify that I currently have the pleasure of being a graduate student in the humanities. Which means that I am a very sad person, most of the time. And even more so recently, with all the many signs of an intellectual End Time, galloping toward me. From what I understand, graduate school has always been a simultaneously exciting and debilitating state of life, and one that is difficult to discuss with normal humans, assuming that, as a graduate student in the humanities, you encounter any of these. But recently, this particular career path has become, in addition to stressful and somewhat unrewarding, actually frightening. We’re flocking to the university in droves, and the universities are, for the most part, letting us. They need the cheap labor that we provide as instructors (and many of us actually teach the classes – gone are the days when you were expected to grade exams and shadow a tenured professor – now we’re actually being tasked with writing our own syllabi and constructing curriculum) and, to be fair, we are compensated, though inadequately. But while it’s nice of universities to admit us and sometimes even give us funding, they’re not making room for any of us once we’re ready to become professors. The most striking difference between our experience and those of the older generation by whom we are taught is that now, there is no promise of a job waiting at the end of a long (averaging around ten+ years) commitment to a discipline. I firmly believe that you can suffer through anything if you know it’s temporary. We don’t have that knowledge anymore. The hopelessness of the future infiltrates the present, every minute of every day. And this is pretty bad for morale Continue reading