The first holder of the Mondriaan Chair, Prof. Dr. Orlanda Lie, reminisces about her student days and contrasts them with her recent Visiting Professorship at UCLA.
In the Fall Quarter of 2011, I had the honor of being the first holder of the Utrecht-Mondriaan Chair in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Utrecht University initiated this Visiting Professorship to foster the collaboration and exchanges between the two universities. My core activity as Chair holder was to teach two courses and give a public lecture. In consultation with my host department (History), I offered a course on the Cultural History of Magic and Science, and one on Women’s Medicine in the Middle Ages. The topic of my public lecture was Sarah’s Menopause: A Clerical View on Women’s Physiology.
What was it like to be teaching at UCLA?
A few preliminary remarks may be helpful in this context. I was born and raised in Suriname; my parents are Hakka Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province. When I finished high school, I was accepted at UC Berkeley, where I registered as a student in the College of Letters and Science, from 1967 to 1976. In this period I pursued a BA (double major German and Spanish), MA (German) and PhD (German and Medieval Studies). While working on my dissertation (a comparative study of French, German and Dutch medieval Arthurian romances), I found my way to Utrecht, was offered a job in the Dutch department and have lived in the Netherlands ever since. I joined the UCU faculty in 2004.
Returning to teach at an institution where I was a student more than forty years ago turned out to be a very special experience. Although UCLA is not my alma mater, it is part of the University of California system and, as such, it shares with Berkeley a similar teaching concept to my own student days: a Liberal Arts educational philosophy. As a faculty member of the History department, I was working with colleagues and students who shared my affinity with the broad-based educational system that has also been characteristic of our own UCU Liberal Arts & Sciences context. All these aspects, in combination with the unsurpassed Californian spirit of friendliness and hospitality, made my stay at UCLA both personally and professionally enriching. Not only could I take a look behind the scenes and experience firsthand what it was like to teach at another institution and compare notes, I could also take the time to reflect, to look back and benefit from the insights that I had acquired over the course of my professional career.
In revisiting my own academic journey, I realized how decisive and formative my years as a student were. When I started as a first-year student at Berkeley in 1967, Lyndon Johnson was nearing the end of his presidency and Richard Nixon was already gearing up to succeed him. America was deeply divided by the war in Vietnam. The Berkeley campus was the center of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the hotbed of the student revolution. Telegraph Avenue formed the backdrop for people with flowers in their hair (hippies) and monks in flowing orange robes, who were dancing and chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare. On my way to class, I would pass the campus police, standing tall behind masks and shining shields, and I stayed as far away as possible from the battle grounds: police charging into rock-throwing demonstrators, pillars of smoke and the pungent smell of tear gas. There were peaceful sit-ins and noon rallies on the steps of Sproul Hall, with passionate speakers such as Mario Savio, Marshall McLuhan and Jerry Rubin. Unforgettable performances by Joan Baez (‘We shall overcome’), Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan. In my second year, Martin Luther King was killed, and two months later, Robert Kennedy. In my third year, American troops invaded Cambodia and four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at Kent State University. The Watergate Affair that forced Richard Nixon to resign as president unfolded when I was a graduate student. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post reporters who investigated and uncovered the dirty political tricks behind this scandal, were our heroes.
Another milestone was my first literature course (Introduction to German Literature). The professor wore bell-bottom pants, had a ruddy complexion, long hair, and granny glasses. He always began his class by reading the headlines in the daily news about the war in Vietnam and the student demonstrations. One day, one of my fellow students raised his hand and said: “Professor, what is the sense of taking your class, reading poems by Goethe and novels by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, while at this very same moment, hundreds of people are being killed in Vietnam?” The ensuing discussion taught me a few lessons that have stayed with me until this very day. According to the professor, being a liberal arts student at Berkeley, one of the top universities in the world, was not only a privilege, but also a moral responsibility. As students, we owed it to ourselves, and to the world, to develop not only our intellectual abilities, but also our moral values. The pursuit of knowledge could never be an end in itself. Academics have a moral obligation to use their knowledge and insights in service of a better world. It did not matter what major or which disciplines we would study, our education at Berkeley would give us the academic tools to become critical thinkers and socially engaged citizens. As a specialist of literary studies, his task was to teach us how to read, analyze and interpret poems and novels, and how to communicate one’s findings to others. The mastery of all these reading and writing skills would be part of our academic toolkit for responsible and critical citizenship. With these academic skills we could analyze new developments and make meaningful contributions to the current political debates, like the Vietnam War.
The US political climate of 2011 is marked by the economic crisis. During my stay at UCLA, the student demonstrations that made the news were part of the Occupy movement. Statewide, students rallied against the increase of tuition and corruption in banking. At UC Berkeley, student demonstrators clashed with the campus police in Sproul Plaza. At UCLA, students and workers blocked traffic at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevard to voice their concern about the growing cost of higher education and budget cuts in public services. Most media attention went to the Occupy protest at UC Davis. The video of a campus police officer who deliberately pepper-sprayed sitting protesters went viral. I also discovered that the use of pepper spray was not limited to riot police. On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving (generally, the last Friday in November) and the opening of the Christmas shopping season, pepper spray was in the news again. On this particular Friday, retail stores lure customers by offering substantial discounts on their products. Some stores already opened their doors after midnight. Bargain hunters slept in tents in front of the stores or in the parking lots. The morning news on Black Friday opened with the story of a woman who had used pepper spray on fellow shoppers to make sure she would get to the merchandise (electronics) before them.
When I discussed the Occupy movement with my students, their primary focus was on the rising cost of tuition for their college education. California students at UCLA pay about $31.000 per year; non-California students have to reckon with $50.000 per year. The majority of the students have to borrow money and/or combine study with work. The only way to pay back these loans as quickly as possible is to earn a lot of money after graduation. This means that students who want to qualify for prestigious graduate schools or jobs, must distinguish themselves by getting outstanding grades. Especially descendants of immigrant parents study under a lot of pressure. They feel a great sense of duty and want to live up to their parents’ expectations. Getting straight A’s is the least they can do to show their gratitude.
The extraordinary emphasis on grades was a recurring theme during office hours. For some students, getting anything lower than an A is not only a sign of personal failure, but also shameful for the family. The drive to work hard and the ambition to be successful were salient characteristics of the majority of students I encountered. My drive as a teacher was to find a format for my classes that would challenge them intellectually, provide an opportunity to explore unknown territories, and discover new things about themselves. In other words: How can I share with them the joy of learning, get them out of their comfort zone and, in the process, make them forget the pressure of grades?
I found the answer after a visit to the beautifully renovated Charles E. Young Research Library. The UCLA Library System, with more than 8 million volumes, is one of the top research libraries of America. The collection is spread over several libraries, archives and research centers on and off campus. The Special Collections Department of the Young Research Library has an interesting range of rare books and manuscripts. Standing face to face with a piece of parchment, smelling its oldness, and knowing that centuries ago someone like me was reading this very same passage, is a feeling that I find deeply satisfying. While browsing through the contents of two boxes at the Special Collections Department, labeled ‘loose leaves’, I was thrilled to find that one of the manuscript fragments had preserved an episode from La Mort le Roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur), the subject of my PhD dissertation. If only I could share these treasures with my students! And that was the moment when the idea occurred to me to use these original medieval sources as a time machine that would catapult the students back to the Middle Ages: operation Ad Fontes (back to the sources). I discussed my ideas with the Library staff and everyone got very excited about the project. To protect the manuscripts, we agreed on making high quality digital scans available to the students and organizing a small exhibition of the original sources at the end of the project.
Organizing the project was both enervating and challenging. To complement the other (individual) assignments of the course (open book exam 30%, final essay 30%), I decided to use the format of a group assignment, with a group grade (30%). The remaining 10% was for ‘participation’, and was based on individual log books that students kept during this project. I randomly divided the class in 10 groups of 5 students. Each group was assigned a medieval source that was connected in one way or the other to the themes of the course: world view, magic and witchcraft, magic and (medical) science. During an intense five-week period, students got their first taste of historical research and experienced firsthand the frustrations and pleasures of working with sources that are more than 700 years old1. At the final event, each group proudly presented their findings in the elegant setting of the Library Conference Room, surrounded by the original manuscripts. It was an unforgettable and rewarding experience for all of us.
Prof. Dr. Orlanda Lie holds a PhD in German and Medieval Studies from the University of Berkeley and is a professor of Medieval Culture at Utrecht University and Head of the Humanities Department at University College Utrecht.
1 Since the majority of the students were not trained in deciphering medieval script and did not read Latin or French, they were guided by the information from the catalogue description by M. Ferrari & R.H. Rouse (Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the University of California, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 92-144). The ten fragments that were selected for this assignment are the following: Aristotle (De somno), Aristotle (De physica), Aristotle (De anima), Aristotle (De metaphysica), Macrobius (Saturnalia), Burchard of Worms (Decretum), Isaac Israeli, (Liber urinarum; Latin translation: Constantine the African), Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae), anonymous (Treatise on the Liberal Arts), anonymous (La Mort le Roi Artu). With special
thanks to Octavio Olvera, Visual Arts Collection Specialist (Department of Special Collections).