Monday, February 27, 2006

New stuff

Meaghan posted our photos. Note the new link in the sidebar. I'll let you know when she puts more cool stuff on Flickr. While you're at it, check out some of my new links over there. I endorse them all.

In which I wax patriotic (believe it or not!)

Brooke at Desperate Serbwife writes an interesting post about the immoralities she sees in US policies abroad. As she puts it,
The rest of the world is paying attention, and the rest of the world is not happy with what they see.
Of course, there's truth in that, but I think it's partially because the rest of the world only sees a limited slice of what's there. America cannot be summed up by the most inconsistent and irresponsible aspects of its foreign policy. Of course, when you're from (or living in) another country, that's what you see; foreign policy is the face that America presents to the world, and I completely agree that lately, it's been an ugly face. I am continually frustrated and dismayed by stories of my country acting as if its neighbors around the world (as well as its own citizens) were imperial subjects to be treated with arbitrary cruelty and no respect for civil liberties or the rule of law. (In this respect, I would argue that the current Bush Administration's actions are categorically different from anything Clinton, Bush 41, Reagan et al. ever did, but that's another issue.) For me, the real question is why people around the world continue to idealize America, despite constant reminders * of our transgressions, past and present. If the US is so horrible, why does everyone want to move there? I would answer that there is another side to the coin: in some sense, as I have written, the US continues to be a land of opportunity. To see the difference (in a positive sense) between the US and the rest of the world, the best place to look is our system of education. As Adam Hochschild wrote (in a very insightful piece worth reading in its entirety),
...if the arrogance of American military and economic power reflects the worst about us, our schools and colleges, at their best, reflect something more hopeful.
It's something I have experienced firsthand here in Serbia: the university students I teach are simply not encouraged to think for themselves. Throughout their secondary and postsecondary education, they are rewarded for listening silently to their professors, consulting other canonical experts, and repeating these "official" views (verbatim if possible) at exam time. It's not important for students of English to understand the character of Hamlet and really think about why he acts the way he does; what's essential is to know the year when Hamlet was written. The US, on the other hand, presents a society that values independence, that requires students to advocate for their own opinions (while grounding them in fact and acknowledging the opinions of experts), that recognizes that any student could be the next Harold Bloom - or the next Shakespeare. Hochschild calls it "the most vibrant civil society on Earth." It's up to us as Americans (especially those of us who live abroad) to embody this human-centered worldview, hoping to counteract the power-centered dynamic that many people around the world have come to view as characteristically American. * For those of you who have never been to Belgrade: These are photos of buildings damaged by the NATO bombing in 1999. Go back

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Professional culture shock begins at home

Just yesterday I was blogging about different cultural orientations to education, and then I read that some university professors in the US consider actually communicating with their students to be a waste of time. Makes me wonder why some people decide to go into teaching in the first place. (Via Pharyngula)

Monday, February 20, 2006

"A" for effort, or, The challenges of professional culture shock

It took me a couple of months to understand that there are really, truly, ultimately no consequences at all if my students decide not to do their homework. Their entire grade for my class comes from the standard exams at the end of the year, so they have the whole year to get ready. If they decide to prepare for our weekly classes, it's out of an idealistic sense of "wanting to learn." Teachers, like Serbs, tend to be cynics, so I'm surprised that my colleagues assign any homework at all. While this system seems odd to American sensibilities, it does make sense according to a certain logic. As long as you can pass the test, it doesn't matter how you get there; if you can teach yourself better than the professors can, then who are they to assign useless tasks? The logic falls apart, though, when you consider that attendance is mandatory. Students are obliged to show up, but it's up to them if they want to listen, participate, or do any work. All of this came up in conversation this evening with my 7:15-8:00 class. Although we've been meeting since November, they picked tonight to ask for details about my personal version of the attendance policy. Specifically, they wanted to know, "Can we still get your signature if we haven't been in class?" A little questioning revealed what the signature is: I'm supposed to sign their official records at the end of the year to certify that they have met the attendance requirement. My answer, then, was "Of course not. If you weren't here, you don't get credit for attendance." The students said that some of their other professors waive the attendance requirement, but recognized my right not to. Understanding that I care about such things, a couple of students started going over my attendance records to point out days when they had been out sick. (This gets them an excused absence.) One of them had even brought doctor's notes. Imagine that - doctor's notes! In college! Since we were off today's class topic anyway, I asked them about homework. "What reason do you have to do your homework?" I asked. "We want to learn," one student answered. I nodded knowingly. "And what happens if I assign something and you don't do it?" "Nothing. We're not in high school any more." Interesting. In my college days, there were certain classes I would only attend on the day the paper was due.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Super Boooooowwwwwwwll!!!!!

.. in the words of Dana, one of the denizens of the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse. I remember him yelling "Super Bowl!" during Red Sox games. I was up until 4 AM to watch the Super Bowl last night. What a disappointment. It was obvious from the end of the third quarter that the fix was in, and 3. Kanal didn't even show the commercials. This post is dedicated to Carlos, a good friend and gifted tanguero, who also happens to be a Seattle native and football fan. As an Eagles fan, I suffered through last year's Super Bowl too, and I can tell you, you get over it. Especially if the next year all your playmakers are injured early on or suffer from terminal big-mouth, and they end up 6-10 for the year ..

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The American dream, seen from afar

Yesterday Meaghan and I were interviewed for television. One of the local Kragujevac channels is starting a show about interior design around the world, and they were curious about what kind of spaces Americans live in. (For those of you in KG, it's on Channel 9, and our episode should air Monday 13 February at 10 PM (22.00).) I always try to avoid speaking on behalf of "Americans," but we did describe the apartment and neighborhood where we lived in Brookline, Mass. before we moved out here. One thing that struck me during the interview was that the presenter asked about the "American dream" of owning real estate. This has always seemed a bit odd to me, as I'm scared to death of owning real estate. Between mortgages, points, prime rates, closings, settlements, and all that mumbo jumbo on one hand, and mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, buying washing machines, and fixing boilers on the other, my picture of the homeowner's life is pretty nightmarish. Maybe I'm just too young, seeing visions of a "grown-up" life of parenthood and homeownership that limits my conversational possibilities to my (hypothetical) newborn infant's bodily fluids on one hand, and home improvement projects on the other. Enough about my neuroses. The question is, what does the American dream have to do with real estate? Whenever someone mentions the American dream - and it's rarely, if ever, an American - I have to ask them what they picture. The best answer I've heard so far (from Meaghan) is that it's the principle of being able to live your life the way you want, and the idea that anything is within your reach if you work hard enough to get it. I can understand how that would connect with real estate if you come from 17th-century England or communist Eastern Europe, where everyday people were simply not permitted to own land unless they moved away to settle in the New World. Still, America is far too interesting and diverse a place for its guiding principle to be symbolized by a yuppie/Pleasantville scene of 2.4 kids and white picket fences. My own American dream is currently taking place some 6,000 miles from the US. Even as an American expat in Serbia, I recognize that I have certain rights and advantages that are not available to my hosts. I have steady, if short-term, employment from the U.S. government, I can travel to any number of neighboring countries without a visa, and I'm a native speaker of the world's #1 international language. To me, this freedom of movement is as much a part of the American dream as any right to own property. If you think about it, the apartment that I rent now, four small rooms filled with big Serbian furniture, expresses my personal version of the American dream better than any two-car garage.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


... or, it's a small virtual world. When I started my new blog for work, I started playing around with all these cool blog-related sites like technorati. It's basically a set of tools that let you search blogs, register your blog, connect to blogs on topics of your interest, etc. So of course I'm always curious who's blogging in Serbia, other than An American in Belgrade, who we learned about early on because she's a fellow Blogger blogger. I'm browsing the Technorati links pages on Serbia, Belgrade, etc. when I stumbled across this post. For those of you non-Serbo-Croatian speakers, the posting is entitled "Foreigners in Serbia, through the blog-prism." So it's interesting to read the post and see a couple of other expats in former Yugoslavia, but if you scroll down to read the posts at the bottom, you'll see that another blogger, a Serbian expat in Switzerland, gives a shout out to Meaghan and me! I wonder how she heard about us from all the way in Switzerland .. and why she first thought we were in Nis?