Thursday, 29 May 2014

Undergraduate memories, part 2

Read the beginning of the story of wrong choices.

I knew from the first day that I had made a wrong choice, that it was wrong education for me. I was passionate about general linguistics, and everything that I learned from that course has been useful throughout my career. I loved Latin that most of my fellow students hated. I liked American History and Society. History of the Communist Party and Scientific Atheism were inescapable, I would have had it anywhere. I quite enjoyed military training: we were trained to be military interpreters and would exit with a lieutenant grade in addition to BA, but in the first year it was general military education. I liked the rigorous learning it implied, and I even liked assembling Kalashnikovs (we were taken to a shooting range just once) and playing with portable radios. I liked map-drawing.

But my major subject was a disapppoinment. I had attended an elite school with focus on English, and in the last year we used textbooks for second-year university courses. I had read scores of English novels. I could make long conversations and recite poetry. Here, we were subjected to “correction” and “remediation” as if we were beginners, and indeed, the level of many of my fellow students was appallingly low. We were sent to the language lab to listen to and repeat long and short vowels. We were not allowed to talk, and we had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in an abridged version. We were told to forget everything we had learned in school. We were failed in tests so that we would know our place.

I joined a student drama club and a “young scholars' society” where I could do more general linguistics, and I even gave a paper at a student conference on the totally fascinating subject of phonemic distinctions in English and German. I was obsessed by phonemic distinctions. I also started taking private lessons of Swedish. After her first chock over my defiance settled, my mother told me that an English degree wouldn't take me anywhere; everybody had an English degree; if I insisted on doing modern languages rather than solid philology I could at least take a more exotic language. At the Institute, we would study another language, but not until the third year, and if it was on the same level as English, it wouldn't be much to long for. So my mother decided that a Scandinavian language was reasonably exotic, and it so happened that the first private tutor she found offered Swedish. It could have been Norwegian, Danish or Icelandic, and who knows where that would have taken me.

In the Institute, we had language classes in groups of ten, and my group was rebellious because we found language labs and abridged Mockingbirds ridicuous and said so. Halfway though the year, our group was dismantled, and we were dispatched to different groups. Based on my previous performance, I ended up in the strongest group of my year, with slightly more challenges and really good teachers. But by the end of the second term, my mother came up with a new idea. I had by then admitted that I wasn't getting an education, merely a degree which I needed to get a job; I was educating myself as much as I could by reading, but my classes, three double-hours six days a week, took far too much time from my precious autodidactic activity, my mother said. I should switch to the evening programme. It would be just three evenings a week, with my days fully dedicated to serious studies. Wasn't it Mark Twain who said that he never allowed schooling to interfere with his education?

The problem was that you could only enroll in the evening programme if you were employed at least part-time, and that seemed counter-productive to the idea of home-schooling. But of course my mother had something else in mind.

To be continued.


Stroppy Author said...

"an English degree wouldn't take me anywhere; everybody had an English degree;" - the mantra here, too. But I do hope your mother lived to see just how far it got you, Maria.

Wish Cambridge had included stripping down a Kalashnikov in the English syllabus; it is so narrowly academic here.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

My mother hated watching my achievements, and we split up at my fiftieth birthday party when she just would not tolerate all the nice words my children, friends, colleagues and students were saying. I have sixty witnesses so I am not making it up. But I wish my father had lived to see me now.

Stroppy Author said...

That is so very sad! I can't imagine not being proud of my children's achievements. I'm so sorry about that, Maria.