Back on Monday

The day job is taking me offsite today and tomorrow, so let me wish you a Happy Halloween and a good weekend a bit early. See you all back here on Monday!

A Mini-Rant Prompted by the Nobel Prize for Literature

By now you are probably aware that the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature is J.M.G. Le Clézio.

Thanks to my beloved mentor, I am one of the apparently few Americans who’d heard of Le Clézio before last week. But frankly, I’m less concerned with the implications of this choice and the bewilderment it seems to have provoked among American writer-bloggers than I am about other things that point to some grains of truth within Nobel juror’s Horace Engdahl’s much-criticized comments about the “insularity” and “isolation” of the United States and its writers.

I’m far less bothered by the collective “Who?” that greeted the Nobel Committee’s announcement this year, for example, than I am by the fact that the same bemused question met an instructor’s reference to another French writer (Stendhal) in my own (American) MFA program.

And I’m much less troubled by the paucity of American readers-at-large who would be able to read Le Clézio in the original (since only a tiny fraction of his books is available in English translation) than I am by the honors students in a program I used to teach in at Harvard who tried to petition their way out of a very light “foreign literature” requirement for students who weren’t studying a “foreign” literature as part of their program specializiation (for instance, those focusing on the United States and/or Great Britain, rather than those choosing to concentrate on France, Germany, Latin America, or a host of other options).

These students had among their champions a colleague of mine who proclaimed at a departmental meeting: “If that requirement had been in place when I was a student here, I wouldn’t have graduated.” My take at the time: Either we have a requirement, or we don’t have a requirement. But listing requirements in a program catalogue without enforcing them, and worse, without asking students to demonstrate how they’ve synthesized this “other” work into their larger course of study–whether we were talking about the “foreign literature” requirement or the “foreign history” requirement (subsequently renamed the “America in the World” requirement), as this colleague and too many others were perfectly willing to let the students do, incensed me. (The long battle that had to be waged to get that “America in the World” requirement organized would be evidence enough to support Engdahl’s comments, but that’s another story.)

If we don’t expect undergraduates and graduate students who are specializing in literary studies of various sorts to go beyond their own comfort zones and to graduate having looked outside themselves, their own time periods, and their own countries, how can we expect it of anyone else?

On Rosh Hashanah

For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish holidays, today is a big one. I won’t be blogging, but will be back tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about Rosh Hashanah, which I am celebrating today, please click here.

School Days

Anne’s recent post about her high school and Boston magazine’s coverage of a high school lots of my college classmates attended (there were so many alumni of Newton North High School in my dorm, which was officially named “North House,” that the place was nicknamed “Newton North House”) have reminded me that I owe my own alma mater of the 1980s some congratulations. Millburn High School has been named the best public high school in New Jersey, and that’s impressive.

As miserable as I was most days I walked through its doors (and routinely I do thank God those years are over), I owe Millburn High School a lot. I owe it introductions to and quality time spent with Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Shakespeare, Racine, Stendhal, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Koestler, and so many others. I owe it the experience of co-editing-in-chief the school newspaper and helping to produce literary magazines in two languages. I owe it the confidence imparted by those faculty and staff who saw something worth cultivating and encouraging in me and my work. I owe it a lot of things that have contributed, in various ways, to my development as a writer. (And let’s not forget the most important practical skill that the Millburn public schools gave me: the ability to type, courtesy of that 12-week “related arts” course back in seventh grade.)

So, in this back-to-school season, allow this alumna to express some long-delayed appreciation for the best public high school in New Jersey.