Belarusian poet and translator Valzhyn Mort 12 has been teaching literature at American universities for years.
In 2006, Valzhyna graduated with a master’s degree in Washington, her poetry and translations are published by American publishers, and she herself teaches master classes in creative writing, literary translation and essayism at the private Cornell University, says KP. 15 people are in her groups, and these courses are chosen not only by philologists, but also by future engineers, biologists, veterinarians, and businessmen.
– At performances in Belarus (just recently my new book of poetry “The Epidemic of Ruzhaus” was published in Minsk) I heard: this is your postmodernism, right? Teachers, librarians - people associated with literature, do not understand such concepts, - says Valzhyna. – Schools and universities in Belarus are engaged in biographical interpretation of works, and do not analyze the text and context, language and style.
In the US, writing courses are a craze. Valzhyna loves children from non-philological disciplines - they bring a peculiar language to classes, forcing philologists to catch up. For example, once a medical student in Valzhyna's class diagnosed a sick character, and Kafka's "Trial" was analyzed by future lawyers.
Classes on the benches in the park
By the way, Valzhyn's career began not at a prestigious private university, but at the State University of Baltimore with not the best opportunities - this applies not only to salaries, but also to the cultural life that the university usually creates around itself, a poor library.
- This is a city university in a fairly poor city. Most students are not only the first in their families to enter university, but often the first to graduate from high school. To earn pocket money, my students sold both marijuana on the corner and danced striptease. In Baltimore, I could get a message like this: "I'll miss class - I was shot in the leg." This did not make these guys any worse or better than others. Literary courses with them were always interesting. They read seriously, in an adult way, from the height of their non-trivial life experience. I miss them,” the teacher admitted.
But the private Cornell University, where Valzhyna has been teaching for 6 years, is in the top 10 American universities.
– There is a gulf between my growing up in Belarus and the growing up of my international students. But this is the essence of my place at the head of the table - I not only give my students knowledge of literature, but also introduce them to various life experiences in this global world. We read a story by Puerto Rican Juno Diaz: a mother works in a factory and gives her sons to her aunts outside the city for the summer so that they don’t get into something. My students brought up with one voice: "She does not love her sons, she gets rid of them for three whole months." Then I told them how my parents sent me to the village for the whole summer, and in this village exile everything is much more complicated than “likes or dislikes”!
Cornell is an expensive university, but it can afford to offer scholarships to the best students. Here they fight for students - the head of the department can personally call a potential applicant with an invitation. Students are at the head of university interests.
Top universities can afford eminent teachers who play a significant role in national and international science and who publish in prestigious publishing houses. Universities want the country's intelligence to be concentrated in them. In order to attract the best scientists in their disciplines, universities, in addition to salaries and medical insurance, pay for participation in conferences, give a budget for the purchase of books, for a personal assistant. They can offer, says Valzhyna, a smaller number of courses. This means that the rest of the time can be devoted to science and creativity - this is beneficial for both the university and the scientist. I know a writer living in New York who is driven and driven to and from Yale by a personal driver. So the university wanted to see her among its lecturers.
According to statistics, the annual salary of teachers in the United States varies from $ 70-80 to $ 220 thousand, from which a decent amount of taxes is deducted. The specific level of earnings, according to Valzhyny, depends on a number of professional factors. For example, an hourly who signs a contract for each individual course often teaches at several colleges at once and still gets far less than a full-time professor. The sums also depend on the state and city capabilities (a different standard of living is also included in the salary), the financial capacity of a separate university, and the success of a specialist in science. There are public intellectuals, stars of journalism. Such one-night performances in the university receive as much as the hourly earns for the whole year.
Cornell constantly invites Nobel laureates, popular intellectuals, lecturers from other universities to speak, organizes readings, concerts. In a sense, US universities have taken patronage over literature - they hire contemporary authors to teach, they bring both debutants and literary stars. When former students publish a book, they are immediately invited to speak at their university.
- A lot in a private university - for the money of its own graduates. For example, one former student can, by creating a special fund, pay the salaries of several teachers, says Valzhyna. - The family of a Cornell graduate who died on September 11, 2001 in the Twin Towers invites an Irish writer to the university once a year - they are immigrants from Ireland, and these literary readings are in honor of the deceased son who loved literature.
At Cornell, teachers have fewer teaching hours, but more time for creative and scientific work. But most of the time is spent on individual work with students.
– We often meet with students on a bench in a park or in a coffee shop and work productively on a diploma or in individual classes in literary translation, Eastern European literature. Many write poetry, they want to talk about it, find out how to publish it.
Yes, there are hours in the office, but I often meet with students over coffee or breakfast.
During literature classes - talking about politics
“They give me a course on Modern American Poetry, that’s the whole program,” explains Valzhyna. - And the department is recruited in such a way that people specializing in different periods and literatures study them from different angles. There is no material from a yellowed synopsis, as well as the fact that you read only the literature of your period without following the latest.
Every year the teacher decides for himself: this semester we will talk about modern poetry only from the books of women. In the next - on the books of debutants. One can, for example, consider the eco-theme in contemporary poetry.
– The course shapes reality. When Trump was elected President of the United States in the fall of 2016, in the spring many literary courses were held under the angle of fascism. We talked about it on the example of the classics, - the Belarusian recalls. – If I read Madame Bovary by Flaubert with students, then we are talking about the current consumer society. This is literature about us. Somehow I wanted to get acquainted with the work of the XNUMXth-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and went to seminars with a colleague. Beyoncé's Limonade album was released at this time, and the professor drew with interest parallels between the texts of Chaucer and the modern singer, who develop the same literary devices.
Students must buy those 5-6 books per semester that they talk about in class, and in paper form, in order to study texts in the margins. Here it is, American capitalism in action - the publishers are also targeting students. Well, the methods of work depend on the teacher. Students are very concerned about grades - they are ambitious and motivated, do not like to waste time, they are interested in everything.
Byelorussian students often come to people who are familiar with Eastern European poetry. They are well read by the Poles - this is the influence of the Nobel laureates Cheslav Milos, Wislaw Szymborska, very popular in 1980, when many American poets wrote under Milos. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Aleksiyevich are reading in the USA. Another Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky is loved not so much as a poet, but as a prose writer who writes about poetry. His prose about literature is an American approach: a detailed, line by line, analysis of the poem.
One of Cornell's famous teachers is Vladimir Nabokov. When he wrote "Lolita", he was just working here at the department of Slavic studies. Valzhyna says she sometimes walks his trails around the campus in Ithaca, for example, on the pond where he caught butterflies.
“They didn’t hear much about Belarusian literature here - the lack of good translations affects it,” explains Valzhyna. – But it was a discovery for me that in the Cornell library there are several cabinets with Belarusian literature – there are all modern authors, series with classics, American immigrant publications. It helped when Svetlana Aleksievich came to Cornell. To be prepared for the meeting, we quickly ordered and read with the students "War has no woman's face." In their reports at the end of the semester, many wrote: it is for the sake of such meetings that you enter the university.