First Semester Surprises

As I approach the last week of classes of my first semester, I want to reflect on some of the ways that my program has been different than I expected.

First of all, King’s College is a much more diverse place than I imagined. It makes sense—London is, after all, closer to Budapest than Ann Arbor is to the town I grew up in—but in the first few days I was overwhelmed by the amount of different languages and accents I heard. Half of my program is from overseas.

That said, there is also a surprising amount of Michigan here. In my first few days on campus, I met one classmate from Lansing, one who had gone to Wayne State, and one who had grandparents in Ann Arbor. A few weeks later, the Primark—think of a cross between Target and Kohl’s—had a wall full of Michigan gear. Hats, sweatshirts, beanies, all showing off the block M. No other schools, just Michigan. A man on the tube struck up a conversation, and it turned out he had graduated from Ross just a few years ago. Last year one of my professors was in Ann Arbor for a conference. And several bars have Founder’s All Day IPA on tap.

Every class I’m in is a seminar, something I’m very unaccustomed to as an engineering student. The point of the class is usually not to teach us a specific fact or idea, but rather to work together to illuminate and unpack the aspects of the books that interest us as a class. This requires a totally different kind of preparation and study—instead of just memorizing the material, we have to question it, dig into it, complicate it. And nobody ever knows where the discussion is going to go, least of all the seminar leader. I often feel like a kid who’s gotten his hands on his parents’ car keys and gone for a joyride without knowing how to steer.

One thing that really blindsided me about the program is that it’s not always primarily focused on books. In my class on the Arab Spring, we read several novels and some poems, but we also looked at blogs, films, social media posts, paintings, and music videos. Furthermore, our class discussions tend to reach beyond questions of literary technique and form to things like economics, politics, international relations, and human rights.

Despite this breadth of focus, people also focus on sometimes ridiculously specialized topics in their research. Have you ever wondered about the history of specific German words? Or the influence of radical Italian politics in 20th-century India? Or the influence that Classical mythology has had on Caribbean fiction? Then comparative literature might be the field for you.

Although it can be so specialized, there are moments of incredible connection. For instance, what do Glenn Gould, Luciano Visconti, Richard Strauss, and Dante have in common? According to Edward Said (and one of my instructors), it’s lateness—that is, an approach to artistic creation based on internal contradiction and refusal of conventional form. It’s these surprising and insightful moments that make this area of study worth it.

 

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