Mar 7, 2014

Fall 1988: Picking Up Russian

I remember every class I took as an undergraduate at Augustana College (1978-1982), from Fiction Writing, which convinced me not to become a novelist, to Paleontology, taught by the professor with the handcuff parties, to Culture and Civilization of Modern Germany, with the professor who kept denying that modern Germany suffered from "the problem" of  Homosexualitat.

 I remember most of my classes at Indiana University (1982-1984), from Victorian Literature, with the professor who kept giggling "this author was a homosexual!", to Restoration Literature, where Viju and I tried to determine if our professor was gay.

But I remember almost nothing from the University of Southern California, where I was working on a doctorate in Comparative Literature (1985-1989).  Maybe because I was busy with Raul and my bed-switching roommate, cruising Richard Dreyfuss, and bankrupting the porn industry. 

Or maybe because I hated everything about it.

Except for the cute fratboys, the statue of Tommy Trojan, and the reading room in the Philosophy Library.

1. The professors were very rich and very elitist, driving Porsches, reading The New Yorker (in Los Angeles), talking about their summer homes in Cabo.  One invited us to her house for pizza, and I thought "Finally, someone with regular tastes!"  Turned out to be goat cheese and arugula pizza.

2. The professors thought that they knew everything.  Unfortunately, what they knew was contradictory. One insisted that that all quotes in academic papers must be in the original language only, and another, that they be accompanied by English translations -- not a problem until they're both on your dissertation committee, ordering you to take the translations out and then put them in again.

3. They thought that graduate students were their personal servants.  One told me to go get him coffee.  Another wanted me to pick up his dry cleaning.

4. They were homophobic, insisting that I omit any reference to gay people from all of my papers.

5. They were insane. One went into a 5-minute tirade, loaded with personal invectives, whenever we said or wrote "the Renaissance mind."  We tried hard to avoid it, but it's such a common expression that occasionally someone goofed, and we had to listen to the tirade again.

6. Did I mention that they were insane?  My degree required a reading knowledge of French, German, and Italian, but my dissertation committee added "an ancient language."

So I spent a year cramming Latin.

Then when I changed my dissertation field from the Renaissance to the Symbolist Movement, the committee chair, Dr. Lazar, said "Oh, you should pick up another modern language.  How about Russian?"

"I don't think it's possible to pick up Russian in six weeks," I said.  "How about if I pick up a Russian instead?"

They stared, not comprehending.

"It's a joke.  Picking up a Russian...."

They stared.

"See, the phrase 'pick up' refers to meeting a stranger for an erotic encounter, so I said pick up a Russian...."

They stared.

I sighed.  "What about Turkish?"