Introduction to my six-week summer stay
at New York University on Manhattan in 1999
A) My motivation for spending an educational holiday there
During my life-time job as a teacher of English at German grammar schools, a vocation I had resumed in 1973, I had never been to the States, which is why early in 1999 I made up my mind to go and see at least part of the United States myself, the country which has shaped and left an enduring mark not just on the English language itself, but also on people’s life style throughout the world. English in its variant form of American English had unquestionably become the dominating force in the determination of virtually everybody’s life, irrespective of their cultural, religious or ethnic origin.
Language is not just a body of single words, framed by spelling rules and a grammar that includes a prescriptive punctuation system. It is more than that. It reflects a historically grown way of life, a certain mentality, i.e. mindset covering a particular attitude to life. In so far the American way of life has been ‘victorious’ with the outcome of the Second World War almost everywhere in the four corners of the world. Through the means of a combination of advanced technology and language it has achieved an unstoppable, irresistible spreading all over the world ever since, a lure and temptation no-one has been able to escape from.
That’s what I had wanted to investigate, to probe into myself when I was planning my trip to New York City, only to find out, however, that New York is not proto-typical of what is characteristic of the United States as a whole. That’s what people there kept telling me.
One way to put my self-assigned task into operation would have been to fly to New York on a fleeting visit and spend a couple of days there, ticking off all the major objects on the schedule of my sight-seeing tour. Yet, this is just what I wanted to avoid: merely bumming around like an ordinary tourist. Scarcely do they get in contact with people in these places. And as a consequence they don’t get to know what real life there is like. They just have a vague if not faint idea of what life in America, for instance, is like when they fly back. All they can say is, “I/We’ve been there.” That’s not a result I would have been pleased with. Touching upon things, yet not going into them so as to lay them apart and see what’s in them is not my cup of tea.
It’s always two legs one has to stand on. It’s this way you obtain a good footing or rather grounding that puts you in a position to get things into a firm grip of yours. The one leg I chose to rest on primarily – to continue with this metaphor – consisted in attending a six-week course on “Twentieth-century British literature” designed for upper level undergraduates at the College of Arts and Science, one ‘school’ out of 9 making up NYU. Judged from hindsight, I’m glad I went on that track. It rendered me into close proximity not only with student life on the campus and at the university-owned residence hall on 35th Fifth Avenue which I was accommodated at, but with all the personnel involved with the running of all these facilities. So finding out about literature is always finding out about life. That’s what any such study boils down to.
B) Course description
The course I attended was one out of a number of “Advanced Electives in Literature”, as it said in the bulletin (= Studienführer) for the summer season. With the exception of two poems, one by Winfred Owen (“Dulce Et Decorum Est”) and William Wordsworth (“My Heart Leaps Up”) it centred on poetry, fiction, and drama since World War I.
Distributed over four days a week, Monday through Thursday, with a session/lecture running for one and a half hours on each day we managed to cope with quite a ‘load’ of literature from that period, on the bulk of which we had to write one-page responses for the first three days of the week and a two-page reflection on Thursdays at the end of the working week. The themes on which we wrote our appreciative feedbacks were left up to our choice quite according to our own predilections.
Mr. Aaron Rosenfeld was in charge of the course. Being our lecturer and tutor, he used to comment on our writings. They were never marked respectively graded, literally speaking. Yet whenever his criticism contained some positive remark we felt good and pressed on with the work we were expected to do. In the beginning I remember it was extremely hard for me to produce a paper each day, type and print it in one of the two computer labs (= ‘computer rooms’ in Brit. E.), from which I hurried back to my room through some deserted backstreets of Manhattan, usually an hour or so after midnight. Even the nights were so hot and humid I couldn’t find sleep before about 2 a.m., with the ventilator incessantly running near my bedstead. The whole course was more than just one on literature. If I come to think of the constant stress and duress I was under, taking into account the amount of newly and shortly (without notice) announced pieces of literature we had to read and prepare over the weekends, my educational sojourn in New York City resembled more a ‘survival training’ than a leisurely occupation with literature.
To give you an idea of what we dealt with, let me present you with a rough outline of all the literary specimens we (tried to) shed some light on:
In poetry we concentrated on:
a) W. B. Yeats (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, Among
School Children, Sailing to Byzantium,
The Second Coming)
b) T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland, The Lovesong of
J. Alfred Prufrock)
c) Thomas Hardy (The Darkling Thrush, Hap)
d) D. H. Lawrence (Love on the Farm)
e) W. H. Auden (Musée des Beaux Arts)
f) Philip Larkin (Talking in Bed)
g) Seamus Heaney (Digging)
As to fiction we focussed on:
A) the novels of: a) Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
b) George Orwell: 1984
B) the short stories of: a) K. Mansfield: The Voyage,
The Garden Party
b) E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops
c) James Joyce: from Dubliners:
An Encounter, Ivy Day, The Dead
C) the essays by: a) George Orwell: Politics and the English
b) Salman Rushdie: Fiction, Vina Divina,
As old as Virgil,
as lyrical as Rilke,
as hip as hip-hop
As regards drama we picked out: a) G. B. Shaw’s Major Barbara
b) S. Beckett’s Endgame
The acid test of the course came with the mid-term and end-term conditions.
Halfway through the course we had to undergo a severe written exam, in comparison to which the counterpart of my ‘Staatsexamen’ at the university of Heidelberg was next to nothing.
The hard-core section of this exam consisted of two questions either of which required us to ‘jot down’ an essay-like analysis of some major items we had investigated or just touched on in class up to that point of time. I’ll proudly give evidence of this in that I publicize my two answers here on this website, too. So everybody will be able to see and judge for themselves (as to whether I’m right or wrong). The rest of the exam was in my eyes a ‘detestable’ memorising of specific details from the literature we had scrutinized, single features, which unfortunately had slipped my mind. I hate purely reproductive work, which is in no way a showcase for someone’s creative competence, let alone ‘intelligence’. It was thus, i. e. due to that circumstance that I got only 92.5 percent out of 100 as a result. Had there been round about 21 participants at the beginning and during the first phase of the course, there were just some 14 persons left on it after the mid-term exam. This fact speaks a language of its own.
The peak of our strain was yet to be reached. The burden upon us was heightened by two further demands tightening up the tension in us. By mid-term we had to work out and submit a five-page prospectus of what we were bound to extend and elaborate into a final fifteen-page paper to be handed in on the last day of our late morning seminars. No wonder therefore that this meant a stress situation which was almost unbearable at least for those students who unlike me covered another university course in a different field/subject concurrently. For most of my fellow-students this was simply too much. I guess (from what I remember) only about four or five persons – including myself – handed their final paper over to Mr Rosenfeld on time.
To let you perceive what things in the second half of the course were like for us I take pleasure and pride in presenting my prospectus and final paper here, too.