Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
Being a religious studies professor means that Robert Baum is frequently asked about his own religion, to which he responds cheerfully, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist,” a remark that reveals his “deep commitment to make sure Africa is included whenever we talk about the world.” Running through all of Baum’s work—whether teaching, research, or outreach—is a value on religious literacy, the desire to promote a better understanding of the world’s major religions.
As Professor in the Classics Department at MU, Daniel Hooley’s research includes Roman poetry, the classical tradition, and translation studies, about which he has written three books, including his most recent, Roman Satire (2006). Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. The dissertation became his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry (1988).
Serendipity led Tim Langen, Associate Professor of Russian, to his research field. A language requirement in college caught him at a crossroads; pondering the possibilities, he decided that “French, German, and Spanish seemed too familiar, and Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic maybe seemed too foreign. Russian seemed just distant enough and just close enough.” He soon discovered that he enjoyed studying the language and so decided to major in Russian history and literature, a combination that allowed him to connect two fields he cared about.
Being bilingual, Dr. Strong relates, is the start of being able to practice law in two languages. However, she cautions, a comparative knowledge of law in different countries and cultures is also key. In this segment, she discusses her current collaborative project: a book for bilingual lawyers, and relates some of the differences between practicing law in Spanish and in English.
Dr. Hearne has recently become interested in the innovative growth of Native animation, which focuses on getting Native stories and languages to new generations.
Foley distinctly recalls the roots of his interest in languages and oral tradition. During the third grade, assistant principal Jean Buteau offered to teach French to Foley and two other students as an alternative to study-time. In graduate school, two teachers were especially influential. One of them, Robert Creed, introduced Foley to oral tradition by performing parts of the Old English Beowulf during every seminar meeting, illustrating how — unlike the written word — oral traditions live in embodiment. The other, Anne Lebeck, was Foley’s most inspiring teacher of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which also derive from oral tradition. Seeking a modern analog, Foley later began to study the living oral traditions of the Former Yugoslavia.
The basic idea behind the study of oral traditions, explains John Miles Foley, is that we must approach them differently from how we approach written texts. Foley’s seminal book, How to Read an Oral Poem (2002), now translated into Chinese, offers a methodology for approaching oral tradition while paying attention to such crucial aspects as performance, audience, structure, and specialized language.
Peace Corps volunteers are trained for about three months before being set loose in their assigned countries. The first step involves staging, which offers a general orientation and a place to meet the other volunteers in their group. “You get your first round of shots and this really quick and dirty cultural training,” Kate Fjell explains. Then they go to the assigned country, where they train intensively for three months. “You learn a lot about the culture, how to fit in, basically, and important cultural clues you should know about,” Julie Feeney laughs, “so you don’t end up getting married by accident!”
This phase is sometimes referred to as “the honeymoon stage,” says Nick Spina. “Everything’s new, everything’s exciting, every experience is the first time. You laugh a lot. You joke a lot because you don’t know how to communicate, so you use a lot of sign language, and you just try whatever you can to get across to people,” Spina recalls. “It’s challenging too, because they dump you with a host family immediately, and you are automatically in a situation where you are completely out of your element for the first time.”
For most of the volunteers, the language training is intense, covering every conceivable topic—“from how to buy things from the market to how to greet people, how to tell people you don’t feel good, and then how to have a conversation about AIDS.” Of course, language learning doesn’t end there. Once the volunteers arrive at their assigned site, the training continues. For instance, Spina had a language tutor, with whom he met once a week: “I would continue memorizing vocabulary and practicing my speaking skills with her, and I steadily improved. Some people work harder at the language than others, and some people learn it better than others. By the end of my service I could communicate whatever I needed to. I could have meaningful conversations. In hindsight, I’m proud of how much I accomplished, but it was a struggle. I mean, Armenian is not a language they teach you in schools, so learning it from scratch was a hard thing to do.”
Beyond language training, which is crucial to the survival of the volunteers, the technical training is also indispensable. “While you’re there, there may be ongoing training that happens throughout the service, depending on your project,” Craig Hutton says.
“We would go on fieldtrips and learn about the soil and different trees,” Matt Rysavy recounts. “We’d talk to different professionals in the government to get their feedback and see how systems worked, to make sure we were on a good starting page, so when we got to the village we knew we had a good background of their local customs, their local culture, and how we were going fit into the bigger national scene.”
“The technical portion was really good, especially for me,” recounts Fjell, “because I had an archeology degree coming out of college. I had done some work in the HIV/AIDS field, and knew the basics, but I didn’t feel very confident teaching about AIDS. The technical training really helped. “
When they think about the Peace Corps prior to going, many volunteer trainees have basic questions and fears about such things as bathrooms and living conditions, and many expectations get shattered. “I had a really idealized vision of what the country would look like and the language that people would speak,” Julie Feeney recalls. “All these preconceived notions that you come with, I think they are your biggest obstacles.” For example, ahe chuckles when remembering how she had expected it to be “like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful,” only to discover that Paraguay’s industrialized cities do not fit that image. Likewise, Nick Spina had imaged that he “would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he was assigned to an Armenian city of 60,000 people.
Many Peace Corps volunteers discover that they have underestimated the language barrier or the technical assignment. For instance, Feeney expected that she would use Spanish principally, but soon discovered that people in the countryside in Paraguay speak Guarny instead. “It was a struggle,” she says. “I hadn’t expected to feel that kind of dependency on others for communication…. I didn’t expect to be a child again. So there were many different things that I had to reevaluate.”
Having already volunteered, worked with non-profit groups, and traveled abroad, Kate Fjell felt prepared for certain aspects of her assignment in Malawi. Yet, she remembers; “it totally blew me away. It was nothing like my expectations. It was so much harder, so much more rewarding, so much more challenging. It was just more. Everything was ramped up by a power of ten, I’d say, or maybe even a power of 100!”
Moreover, Fjell adds, she hadn’t expected to feel so socially isolated and awkward: “Peace Corps volunteers will always talk about it being like living in a fish bowl. I was the only white person for forty miles, so I definitely stood out…and that was really hard. People were so fascinated. People would follow me to the bathroom, you know, because they wanted to know if I went to the bathroom the same way…. I wasn’t used to being watched all the time, and it took me a long time to get used to it.”
Because of these kinds of experiences, Spina reached an interesting conclusion: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations. You have to be flexible. Those who go in, saying ‘I want to do this, I want to do it there, and I only want to do that’, end up having a really hard time. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.” Beyond flexibility, one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps, according to these Peace Corps, is re-evaluating the meaning of success. “It’s not always tangible,” Feeney cautions, “it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learn to appreciate little victories.” Agreeing, Matt Rysavy adds: “You really think that you can go and make these humongous changes. In reality, they are just small dents,… but it’s still positive change. That’s what you have to remind yourself of when it’s all said and done.”
Kate Fjell graduated from the College of Wooster, in Ohio, with a degree in archeology. The Seattle native watched her friends pursue different graduate degrees, but didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation. “I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school at some point, but I was also aware of how much grad school cost, so I didn’t want to go unless I knew it was something I was really passionate about and interested in,” she says.
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Fjell already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade and continuing through high school. She went abroad in high school and studied abroad in college. The Peace Corps, therefore, seemed to make sense: “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus.” Moreover, Fjell adds that she wanted to leave something good behind; “so I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
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From 2001-2004, Fjell worked in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa that is neighbored by Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. "While I was there, I was doing community health and HIV/AIDS work. Like a lot of places in southern Africa, Malawi has really been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic,” she explains.
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Fjell was assigned to work at Kalaluma Health Center, in the central rural region of Kasungu. By the end of her time in Malawi, Fjell was primarily working on three projects: 1) a drama group on the topic of HIV/AIDS, 2) a group of high school girls on the topic of life skills and self-esteem, and 3) a youth success team, which did similar things in the context of soccer. “In Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, there isn’t a word for ‘self-esteem’ or ‘confidence’ or any of those things, so we did a lot of teaching about what it means to like who you are, and that, if you like who you are, you are not going to make poor life choices or risky behavior choices,” Fjell says.
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While Fjell’s approach toward her work was holistic—ranging from education and economic development to agriculture and self-esteem training—whenever possible she focused her attention on women’s groups. “Women really are the key, in my mind, to change in Malawi,” she observes, and so she tried to connect with women’s networks: “I always wanted to be sure I was seen as a woman, and not just a white person, or an HIV/AIDS person.” As such, Fjell made a special point of getting involved in traditionally female activities like pounding maize and cooking nsima (the Malawian staple food).
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For Fjell, language acquisition was one of the most challenging parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer: “I remember, after all those hours of language training, I felt pretty confident, and I went into the village and I was surprised that they didn’t talk as slow as my teacher, and they didn’t speak in such formal tones.” In the end, Fjell says she learned from young children: “They taught me a lot. I learned so much of my language from going to primary school! I remember that one of the first phrases I learned was ‘what is that?’”
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About sixteen months into her service, Fjell experienced a major accomplishment: “I still remember [when] I got my first joke in Chichewa, when I knew I understood the language. We were all waiting for the prenatal clinic to start, just hanging out, talking, and somebody cracked a joke, and I started laughing. And they all looked at me, and someone said, ‘Did you understand that?’ and I said, ‘I get it! I get it!’ It was so amazing. It was just like everything clicked. From that point on, my work was better, my relationships with people were better, and it started to really feel like home instead of just somewhere I was trying to survive. And that was a major shift in my service.”
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It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while they tried to determine their career goals. In others, it was already compatible with their ambitions. Regardless, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had irreversibly changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given.
â€¢ Julie Feeney, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, joined Peace Corps right after college to help her narrow her career goals. “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people…but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world. I met someone who was doing Peace Corps, and it just seemed like a perfect fit—a way to travel and a way to get work experience in a safe setting, so I decided to apply.”
â€¢ Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, also thought about joining the Peace Corps after college, during a time when his job search “was floundering.” Having majored in sociology, he wanted to experience another culture. “It’s a nice system because the agency pays for everything while you’re there,” says Rysavy, “and it’s world-renowned as being a good development agency.”
â€¢ Nick Spina, from Michigan, also joined Peace Corps because its connection to his area of study. “I was an economics and political science major, and did a lot of international studies…. I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying. I’d also done a good amount of volunteering…so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, joining the Peace Corps provided a solid way to learn a language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” Spina adds. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently.”
â€¢ Craig Hutton, having grown up outside of Macomb, New York, explains that he is “one of those people who absolutely has to see what (and who) is on the other side of the next hill.” He switched colleges, in fact, to find an internationally focused academic program and campus, and he even studied abroad twice. “When I arrived at my senior year, I hit that familiar “what next?” point. I knew that graduate school was in my future, but I didn’t know where, and I certainly had no idea in what.” At a career fair, Hutton found himself standing in front of the blue-clothed Peace Corps table. “The more I read about the Peace Corps volunteer experience," he remembers, "the more I realized this was the right opportunity at the right time. Looking back on it now, I see my Peace Corps service as the place where it all came together.”
â€¢ Kate Fjell, hailing from Seattle, Washington, already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade, and had previously studied abroad. “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus or in the big cities or just passing by to check it off my list. I want to say that I have lived there and have a feeling about what living in this place is like.” And, Fjell adds, “I wanted to feel like I left something good behind, instead of just money. So I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
Nick Spina is originally from Michigan. “I joined the PC immediately after graduating from Michigan State. I graduated in May and left the country in June.” As an economics and political science major, Spina had already engaged heavily in international studies: “I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying.” Spina had also done a good deal of volunteering, “so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, Spina wanted to be able to speak another language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” he observed. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently. I don’t think I ever got to that point, but I got pretty close.”
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From 2004 to 2006, he worked in Armenia. “When I was told I was going to Armenia, I didn’t know where it was, so I had to get a map and look,” admits Spina, who was assigned to be a community development volunteer with a local non-governmental organization on human rights issues. Spina worked on a range of different projects. “We tried to educate the community members on everything from human trafficking, and how to write a business plan, to English.” <br/ > <br/ >
“A community development volunteer spends a lot of his/her time planning different projects based on what the community needs,” Spina explains. “So we do a lot talking, have a lot of meetings to figure out what the community needs and how to go about addressing those needs.” <br/ > <br/ >
While Spina worked on a number of different projects, he feels especially good about one, which involved organizing and implementing a summer camp for 10- to 15-year-old Armenian boys. As he explains, “we had a plan to teach them about things they weren’t being taught in schools, such as health, hygiene, nutrition—things they are not going to get from a traditional Armenian education, but that are absolutely crucial to quality of life issues. We talked about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, things that they need to hear early on…[but are] taboo topics in Armenia, so we were having very frank conversations about how to live a healthy lifestyle. And I was pretty proud of that because I know those boys have an advantage over their peers because they received information that is very useful and important,” he says.<br/ > <br/ >
Those young boys were, however, not the only ones who benefited from the summer camp. “My language got a lot better over that period of time because in order to communicate with teenage boys, you talk a lot and you learn to have a sense of humor with them,” he notes. “That always stands out in my mind as a really good experience for everybody involved.” While the teachers were Americans, they were paired with an Armenian teacher, “so the boys were not just getting a one-sided view from an American.” That was important, explains Spina, because “the whole point of Peace Corps, of course, is to learn from each other. Americans learn from Armenians, and Armenians learn from Americans. This was a great opportunity to fulfill those goals.”
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Spina employed a particular strategy to help him become integrated into the community, a city of 60,000 people. “I wanted to meet people my age. And the best way I could figure out how to do that was to join the local youth basketball team,” he explains. “We practiced every day, and we had games all around the city and other cities. It was a really unique experience to be the foreigner on a sports team.”
Rangira Béa Gallimore’s second book, L’oeuvre romanesque de Calixthe Beyala: Le renouveau de l’écriture féminine en Afrique francophone sub-saharienne (1997), focuses on contemporary Francophone writer Calixthe Beyala. Whereas her first book subverts “the master’s language” by using the French of the slums (les bidonvilles) instead of classic French, her second book attempts to subvert patriarchy itself. Providing counterpart to male writers “who idealized the African woman as this beautiful symbol of the earth,” Beyala offers main characters who are forced into prostitution because of sexual abuse or poverty. “It’s very clear in her writing that she’s using the female body discourse. The body in writing is exposed, it is displayed,” explains Gallimore, and indeed Beyala’s tendency to address taboo subjects has created controversy. “It was very shocking for an African woman to write such things,” yet women’s bodies in Beyala’s novels stand as a “symbol of the violated earth, of the bad and the evil” that they have had to endure through their bodies. “You cannot deny the reality of Africa,” responds Beyala to her detractors.
Most recently, Hooley has completed an introductory book on Roman satire. It covers the historical development of satire, explaining the genre as inherently human: “It’s in our blood; it’s hardwired into our brains.” Satire carries a very broad definition: it is partly a reaction to power and a way of expressing resistance, but at other times it provides a vehicle to poke fun at things.
Hooley talks about his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry, and how it opened a door for him to begin studying the various theories of translation.
While Hooley’s first book focused on Latin translations, his second book, The Knotted Thong: Structures of Mimesis in Persius (1997), is a study of Roman satire—namely of Persius, one of the three major Roman satirists. Hooley was drawn to this man and his work partly because Persius was considered such a “strange guy.” Satire, Hooley says, “fosters all those things that are healthy for the human spirit—it makes us laugh at silly things and sometimes makes us laugh at things that are egregious and wrong.”
Langen highlights three major reasons to study Russian literature and humanities more deeply than for simple enjoyment.
A language requirement in college caught Langen at a crossroads where he decided to give Russian a try. He soon discovered that he enjoyed studying the language and decided to major in Russian history and literature, a combination that allowed him to make connections between a scholarly field and other things he cared about.