Mar 14th, 2009
Before embarking on my studying abroad adventure, I had heard various opinions regarding the level of difficulty of Spanish university classes. The vast majority of friends/relatives assured me, “Don’t worry about it!,” claiming that the academic rigor would be far less than that of Cornell. By and large, they’re right; most of my classes have super long reading lists, but few of the books are actually required. Most of the grade consists of one exam and one paper…and that’s it. Classes are pretty much entirely lecture-based and they don’t have any version of discussion-based “sections.”
That is generally the case for all of my classes, except one: Social History of Spanish Colonization. It’s slightly terrifying.
During the first week of class the professor announced that for next Wednesday we would have to read a [dreadfully boring] 16th century text and write a commentary on it. She didn’t give us any instructions about what type of commentary she wanted (In depth analysis? Simple summary and critique?), no minimum page requirement, no theme on which to focus, nada. Just this: write a commentary.
So, I did the best I could, and when she asked for volunteers to share their commentaries on the text in class, I was the first to volunteer.
“¡Qué valiente!,” [How brave!] she exclaimed, apparently shocked that an American student in the second row would be the first to participate. That should’ve been my first clue to the ordeal I was getting myself into, but I just sort of chuckled and said “Gracias” and began with my commentary.
“I think this text is interesting because…” And she stopped me right there. “No, no, no!,” she interrupted, forging ahead full speed in Spanish: “You have to start with the basics – in what age was the text written? Who wrote it? To whom is it directed? Why? Then give me a detailed summary of what the text discusses. Then you can talk about your analysis. At the end.
“…because it’s not really important what you think,” I added in my head. Sitting in my first class of the day, confronted by a slightly hostile Spanish professor demanding a lot more detail than I was prepared to give about a text I didn’t even like, I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
As many students studying in a foreign language could probably tell you, responding to direct questions in a second language is infinitely more difficult than simply sitting in lecture and following along. Exchanging direct eye contact is somehow way more intimidating when you know the person is expecting a coherent response to a specific question, and it’s even more intimidating when that person is your imperious Spanish professor who talks really fast and will be giving you a grade for the course
So as I kind of blankly stared back at the professor, trying to recover from the interruption and comprehend her new questions, she asked again, “What age was it written in? When? What age?”
“Well, it was written in 1519…?” The year was printed on the sheet of paper.
“No, I asked you what age it was written in! The age!”
Grasping at straws (and feeling like kind of a moron), I answered, “Well, it was during the period of Spanish colonization…” Terrific. I correctly identified the title of the course. A+ for me.
After what felt like an interminable stare-down, a bit of head-shaking and a couple raised eyebrows, she eventually gave me the answer. It was written during the FIRST era of Spanish colonization. Hm.
So I thought I was off the hook after that, but no. She kept pelting me with background questions about the text, refusing to give in to my meek “please call on someone else!” face. After fifteen or twenty minutes (which felt like an hour), she finally let me give my (grossly generalized and sadly lacking in depth) summary of the text and we moved on.
This class just completely took me aback because the student-teacher interaction was just so different from anything I’ve experienced in the U.S. Generally, in my experiences at Cornell, professors/TA’s are really excited about your participation and will enthusiastically welcome any comment you make; they won’t shoot you down or make you feel extra uncomfortable if you don’t know the answer, but instead they’ll nicely move on. Spanish professors are tough.
After class, I walked right up to the professor’s desk and said, “I’m sorry I completely misunderstood what you were expecting for the commentary…”
She quickly interrupted me (she kept doing that!): “Oh no I love participation! It was stupendous! Very good. Much better than those other students (it became clear during class that some of the members of the class hadn’t even attempted to read the text, much less participate).” Huh.
So while my Colonization class that Wednesday was particularly stressful and I’m pretty sure my face burned red with a mixture of anxiety and embarrassment the entire two hours of class, I learned several things:
1) My teacher is actually a really nice and understanding person, but she happens to become a scary professor-demon during in-class discussions.
2) The professor expects a lot of detail and background information when addressing a primary text (even if I think the answers are obvious à The first period of Spanish colonization?? That’s all she wanted??!).
3) A one minute brief commentary just doesn’t cut it.
4) My personal analysis really isn’t that important (or at least it’s far secondary to a basic but thorough explanation of what the text is)
5) Class participation will win me lots of brownie points.
So, that class was a really beneficial experience, in spite of the terror/embarrassment/frustration that was involved. Maybe now I should try to figure out why these interactions are so stressful in my next class: Anthropology of Communication…