Forgive my praise of the humanities; you’ve probably heard this enough. But I truly love a well-taught and organized seminar class. There is something both uncomplicated and incredibly rewarding about reading a text and spending an hour and 20 minutes having a conversation about it (with intelligent people). I recognize that this is an incredible privilege and I feel lucky to have Amherst professors guide these seminars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t nitpick and point out some of the deficiencies and flaws I have noticed, particularly in the English department. I know you’re probably thinking, “Uh-oh, this kid is gonna dig himself into a huge hole!” Relax. My problem is more with the students than the professors, so hopefully that mitigates my stance a little.
I have found myself in the unique position this semester of having two literature seminar classes back to back in the same room — one taught in Spanish and one taught in English. Yes, that’s right, two hours and 40 minutes of talking about books. Given my already established appreciation of doing just that, I was excited about this schedule. It was both a microcosm of comparative literature and of comparative teaching styles. However, I have found the Spanish class to be overwhelmingly more enjoyable than the English one.
There is something about expressing your ideas in a second language — communicating in an uncomfortable way — that comes across as sincere and humble. This sincerity and humility opens the door for a real conversation. A discussion in which ideas are built off of one another. An exchange in which everybody is not saying “What struck me is…” and “What I find interesting is…” No. I don’t want to know what struck you, what you found to be impactful (what an awful word). I want there to be a train of thought. I want the class to build knowledge together about a text, not in competition with one another. In my Spanish classes throughout my time at Amherst, a certain hesitance emanates from the students because most of us are not comfortable speaking. This allows the professor to take the lead and ask specific questions that ultimately lead to a fruitful, dynamic dialogue.
In my English classes I have felt like there is a competition of who can have the brightest and most impressive idea. Yes, we can all use big words. We can all say things like the “genesis of his neurosis.” (Good job, you go to Amherst.) This degree of comfort leads to arrogance, which suddenly creates tension in the classroom. Thirty minutes earlier in my Spanish class, I wasn’t even thinking about this stupid concept: participation. But now, I feel hesitant and nervous. I’m certainly listening to my peers talk, but within a span of 20 seconds one idea has moved on to the next. Do I share what I’m thinking even though it has nothing to do with what the last person said?
I’m sure we have all felt this before to some degree. Nonetheless, I find it intriguing to flesh out the role of language in our comfort, our confidence, and finally, in the way we present our ideas to the world. Of course, it is incredibly important and valuable for everyone to be confident in themselves and their ideas. I do not want that to change. I do think that we Amherst students, especially English majors, would benefit a lot from humility. It’s okay to say something simple. You don’t have to go on a huge philosophical diatribe every time you talk. Yes, it sounds cliché, but we genuinely need to listen to each other a little more.
Full disclosure: I am an English and Spanish major. I deeply, deeply enjoy talking about literature in two different languages, so I think about it a lot. This is not intended to be an attack on the uppity, philosophical English major, but more of a self-reflection. Let’s remember that even though we’re majoring in the language we grew up speaking, we are still learning. So, let’s act like it.