the mountains we climb


taking in the view during the climb to the fortress above Kotor, Montenegro

I like climbing to the top of things: small mountains, large hills, tall church steeples, massive cathedral domes, crumbling castle walls, harbour-side ladies with lamps, twinkling towers of steel.  I’m not inordinately fond of unprotected heights; I’m a little unsteady on rail-less stairs; I’m less than adventurous when it comes to risking my neck.

But. I like the view.

You get a completely different perspective on London from the heights of Parliament Hill. You see Florence in a new light when you’re looking across the roof tiles of the Duomo. You forget to be afraid when you’re gazing out across the Blue Mountains from a rocky outcrop while hanging on to an Australian pine tree. You take a deep breath of amazement when you’re at eye-level with the gargoyles of Notre Dame. You gain an appreciation of your own strength after you climb the equivalent of 97 flights of stairs to reach a castle on a Montenegrin mountain. You wonder about life’s possibilities when you wander with friends through an 18th century fortress by the Aegean.

I like teaching undergraduates: in a university classroom, while sitting in a coffeeshop, after walking through a museum, at the end of the day in a hostel common room, over pints at the pub, in the hallway between classes.  I don’t particularly enjoy grading the dumpster-sized collection of papers at the end of the semester; I could do without the hoop-jumping required by various administrative bodies; I’m far from pleased by certain student attitudes.

But. I like the view.

You get a completely different perspective when you let students make sense of a difficult concept on their own.  You see issues in a new light when you work with students from different backgrounds.  You forget to be annoyed when students make you laugh after a long day.  You take a deep breath of amazement when you read a beautifully reasoned argument in a paper. You gain an appreciation of your own strength when you don’t lose your mind after students come to class without doing the reading.  You wonder about life’s possibilities when you see former students making lives for themselves after graduation.

The spring semester started this week, and I have now met my two classes: a 2nd year practical course on text interpretation and a 3rd year course on American culture and civilisation. The latter was a little worrisome, being both completely new to me and open to any direction; I struggled to find an organising principle, much less specific readings. Inspiration finally struck – American culture as reflected by and created through public schools – and I pulled together a decent lecture to start us off.  The first class was actually pretty fun: the students were engaged, they asked and answered my questions, they got most of my attempts at humour.

I was slated to teach a 3rd year literature seminar, which I’m sure would have been just fine, but I really enjoyed teaching the practical courses last semester (probably has something to do with that pedagogical background).  So, I asked to teach another practical course and my DH was kind enough to oblige. Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive, which he appreciated: I wanted the chance to teach some of my 2nd year students again.  They were such a great group!  So, I was over the moon to see 10 of them beaming back at me when I got us started bright and early Monday morning.  Since then, I’ve had one student email to say she’d like to join the class; another ask if she could come without signing up since she has a schedule conflict; and two shyly tell me they missed me, too, after I ran into them and said how much I missed having them in class again.

Despite my enjoyment, teaching here isn’t easy. It isn’t easy anywhere, just to be clear, but teaching in Romania has its own unique challenges.  I have to work around the question of whether students can find the texts I want to assign before wondering if their cultural literacy is strong enough to study what I want to study.  I have to deal with absenteeism that is partly supported by the unrealistic scheduling of their classes (how students are expected to be in two required classes at the same time, I don’t know, Hermione’s time-turner still being a work of fiction). I have to learn the subtleties of an educational culture that isn’t my own, one that encourages students to be passive recipients rather than active creators (while recognising that the same is happening in the US). I have to accept that just letting things go is the only way to survive the lack of what we consider fairly standard information.

It’s all worth it, though.  Aside from the pure joy of working with interested students in an interesting country, I have the chance to develop as a teacher. Everything I do here provides a different perspective on how and what and who I’ll teach when I return to the US. I find myself mulling over all sorts of questions in odd moments here: should I keep that structure for the methods course, is that assignment really the most helpful to students, might students respond better to different readings? Some of the questioning  is located at a higher altitude, taking aim at my professional goals, my personal decisions, my way forward.

Mountains come in many different forms, it seems.