So my Fulbright teaching has formally begun! I’ll have a piece on the first few days from Bucharest in orientation up in a bit, but I wanted to first tell what was up with my teaching job here in Constanta. I’m in a large city on the Black Sea and at Ovidius University. I had my first three classes this week. They are three two-hour English labs with American Studies majors who are first-years, second-years, and third-years. It’s not a full fledged course so I’ll be assigning under ten pages of reading each week and only one essay for the whole semester. But the excitement of the courses are the enormous academic freedom I have as the instructor. My department pretty much said do whatever you want.
I’ll be teaching “Postwar America: 1950-1980” and using that period for the backdrop of the readings and assignments. We’re starting with the 1950’s, with three courses on the rise of suburbia and the “consumer republic”, the Red Scare, and dissent beneath the surface (from Catcher in the Rye, Beat generation, Elvis). Then I’ll have two classes on the Civil Rights Movement and move on to the Cold War, Vietnam, feminism, the New Left, counterculture, and conservative reaction. Lot to cover but I’m excited for the challenge. I’m very comfortable with the history and politics of the time, but I’m honestly fairly illiterate when it comes to the film, music, and popular culture context. As I noticed when I speak to Europeans, they are much more familiar with the great classics of American film than I and many other millenials! I will benefit too from an American Corner within the university; the US Embassy runs ten around in Romania. They offer monthly programs on the United States and have a HUGE library. I was salivating, I must admit, seeing a shelf containing nearly the entire Library of America series. It sparked dreams of mastering Faulkner, O’Connor, and Richard Wright if I find time.
I was pleasantly surprised with my students so far because I was warned to expect the worse. During the Orientation in Bucharest, Romanian academics and a Fulbright alumn warned us of problems of rampant plagirism and class absences. A former Fulbrighter noted that 96% of her students once cheated on an assignment and she met 45% of her class roster only a week before the final exam. Participation/Attendance is not exactly mandatory in Romania; students can take the final exam often regardless of their attendance. Even if they fail the final exam (a likely prospect if you never show up to a class), they can retake the test (not course) multiple times in later semesters, and the universities try to be “merciful”. Since universities here are underresourced and do depend on student tiuitions, it seems this more “flexible” response is inevitable. My department also warned me of the wide range of work ethic, English ability, and commitment I would find in my courses.
I cannot offer a final verdict, but the first day subdued these anxieties partially. Granted, only 1/3 of my third-year course showed up and 1/2 of my second-years. But students were quite friendly and most were willing to speak freely in class, which is less common in a more lecture-driven atmosphere here. Much of their writing skills will need a lot of work. But in a pre-test I offered, they all read and understood a column by David Brooks on social media addiction, and we had spirited discussions afterwards. Apparently Constanta suffered from the same “Pokemon Go” epidemic I witnessed in Washington this summer. And there are likewise 7-8 years olds who already hold Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Some brighter sides of this new technology were acknowledged though. One student mentioned how Facebook and Twitter were mobilized by Romanian activists in the 2014 presidential election for an anti-corruption liberal (meaning vaguely right-of-centre in Europe) reformer, the ultimate winner.
There was much for me to think about when I asked students what they admired most and did not understand about the United States. “The American Dream”. “Hollywood”. The “multiculturalism”. The “sense of freedom”. Becoming such “a great power” with such a short history. The “diversity”. Much of the Bowdoin (and liberal arts college education) conditions you to be cynical of these claims. You are asked to use every tool available to deconstruct and unmask such grand narratives, rightly asking what people and stories are not being included. There is a role for that in our intellectual lives, but the words of my students reminded me how the work of our nation, incomplete as it is, is still remarkable to ousiders. What we have achieved as a people is not to be taken lightly.
And their words were a reminder that, unless we work through our problems with greater urgency, this praise will become fainter. What will non-Americans come to think of the “American Dream” when they realize that our social mobilities rate is not only unexceptional but rapidly decreasing? What will our “leadership” consist us if we withdraw more from the international stage? What can be admired about our “constitution” when presidential candidates undermine the rule of law and republican procedures/norms through means highly destabilizing (Trump) or more subtle (Clintonian nepotism)? (Note: This is not an attempt to make a moral equivalence between the candidates. As for who I voted for, I will only say #NeverTrump).
Speaking of Trump, his name came up the most when I asked what remained most troubling or confusing about the United States. “How did he become so popular”? “Why would anyone vote for him”? Romanians are particularly concerned because of NATO and their own anxieties about Russia. Romania is far from a nefarious “freeloader” among our allies Trump rants about and is need of his deal-making (blackmail). The country’s military fought alongside American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the country is on track to meet the 2% GDP target on defense spending set by NATO. Racism and the gun culture also came up too. On the Trump issue, I will actually offer a lecture on this at the American Corner for the university on November 2nd. [Bulletin points: The hallowing out of the white working class. Elite cluelessness. The death of the gatekeepers. Apocalyptic Conservatism. Civic illiteracy. Moral rot].
From what I saw this week, it looks to be a great semester!