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The Evolution of Language

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Carmen Valentin, newly tenured in Grinnell's Spanish department, also has scholarly and personal interests on two continents -- in her case, Europe and North America. A native of Spain, she received B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Hispanic philology at the University of Valladolid, and cut her teeth as an instructor by teaching the university's courses in Spanish for foreign students.

That she received her doctorate in philology -- the study of the origins of language -- would suggest Valentin came into her area of study through a passion for the nuts and bolts of Spanish. She agrees readily. However, the path she has taken into a deeper understanding of Spanish has led through poetry.

More specifically, she has studied poetry and commentary in Aljamia, a system of writing the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula began using during the Middle Ages to write Spanish using the Hebrew alphabet. The Sephardim kept this tradition alive in the new settlements they established in the Ottoman Empire after they were expelled from Spain by an edict of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

"The Ottoman Empire was tolerant of other people who worshiped differently, and their communities were permitted to keep their traditions and culture intact," Valentin says. "This included the use of Aljamia."

This formerly Spanish community of Jews continued to use their Middle-Ages Spanish, which then began to evolve linguistically along different lines from the language of Spain -- hence Valentin's interest as a philologist.

"The literary texts the Judeo-Spanish created are the best tool scholars have today to study the evolution of the language," she says. "After their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula, the Sephardim wrote a literature exclusively in Hebrew, reserving Aljamia for mere translations of the Bible, prayer books, treatises on morality, and collections of precepts. We know of only a few Aljamia texts from the 16th century that have no biblical content. The language is barely different from the Spanish spoken at that time in Spain. The 18th century really marks the time when the Sephardim start writing original works in Judeo-Spanish."

Valentin first began to look at a group of poems called coplas and a body of rabbinical commentary called the Me'am Lo'ez. These texts provided a window through which she could look at how Spanish changed under the extreme pressures of exile and encirclement by the dominant Ottoman culture. For her dissertation, Valentin transliterated -- that is, systematically converted Hebrew characters into corresponding Latin characters -- those coplas that had moral content.

"The coplas are the first original poetic expression in Judeo-Spanish, (and) the Me'am Lo'ez is the first narrative," Valentin says. "Both were born to help the rabbis teach the Judaic religious foundations to Jews who could not understand sacred readings written in Hebrew, such as Midrash and Talmud."

It was a wide open area when she began. Almost no other scholar of Spanish had been interested in either the Judeo-Spanish exiles or the body of literature they had produced. Part of the problem lay with the peculiarities of Aljamia itself: the texts, since they were written using Hebrew letters, were mostly ignored by scholars who, though they might have been experts on the Spanish language, mostly could not read Hebrew.

"This has been one of the unknown parts of Hispanic literature," Valentin says. She was fortunate in her mentors. She was introduced to Jacob Hassan, one of the foremost Spanish scholars in the world, who took her under his wing and taught her transliteration.

Though Valentin's field of study has gotten more crowded of late, that's fine with her. She's moved on from the coplas and into uncharted territory again, studying gender and language in Sephardic drama, examining women's representation in these works.

She finds Grinnell the perfect place to do such exacting work: safe, quiet, relaxed -- something she and her husband, Santi, who is an architect, value for themselves and their son Sergio, who's nearly 5 -- and with diligent students who're likely to be interested in more than acing that day's quiz on declension.

"At Grinnell I've learned that what the students were expecting of me as a professor was that I not only be the person who taught them the material, but also that I be a person who could talk to them outside of class," she says. "Really, that was not my experience in Spain. Many of the students here are willing to be challenged. They're motivated, willing to accept risks, and they attach more importance to what they are learning than just getting a good grade.

Following the Connections

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Shuchi Kapila believes that English is an academic discipline that is anything but merely academic.

"By the time I got to university, the study of English had become a cutting-edge discipline," she says. "I felt that in studying English I would be doing something to change the world of ideas."

Kapila, who grew up in Chandrigarh and New Delhi, came of age intellectually and academically during a time of foment in Indian society, when the roles of women and questions of class were being re-examined from bottom to top.

"The best work in developing world feminism to date came out during the '80s, when I was in college," she says. "It brought together language, ideology, and the law, and the place of women really opened up in these debates. And there was a strong belief that the theoretical skills you acquired by studying English could be used to study the body of culture. I could see that the ideas I was learning about were going to go somewhere."

Kapila received a B.A. in English at the University of New Delhi, in preparation -- as she thought at the time -- for a career in journalism. She even took the exams necessary to winning an internship with theTimes of India.

"They called and said, '"Well, we're waiting for you to come down and do an interview,'" she says. "And I found I just didn't want to." Instead, she went on to complete an M.A. and M.Phil. in English at New Delhi, then became a lecturer at Miranda House, which she refers to as "India's Smith." It was the education she received from her colleagues there, as much as anything else, which confirmed her in her choice of profession.

"There were some amazing women on the faculty there who were reading theory and feminism and making all these wonderful connections," she says. "I remember in particular one Woman's Day, when I was in Calcutta, there was a scholar at Jadavpur -- a Shakespeare scholar -- who went to this park and addressed a crowd of women workers in Bengali, on the history of the women's rights movements from Victorian England to the present day. She was doing all her scholarly work on Shakespeare in English and then she was able to go to a park and do her speech in Bengali, and I formed the idea then that this was the type of versatility that I would like to develop."

Kapila concluded that developing the skills to help her realize this ambition would require her to leave India. She sent out her applications and ultimately decided to do her Ph.D. work at Cornell University.

"It seemed like it would be an adventure," she says. "I'd be able to work with people who'd done all this interesting theoretical work, and be away from my family for the first time -- truly afloat and independent. I thought I'd certainly go back after five years."

But life, as has been famously observed, is what happens when you're making other plans. While at Cornell, she met another Indian grad student, Shankar Subramaniam, a mechanical engineer whom she eventually married and with whom she had daughter Shivani, now 3-1/2 years old. And while she was undergoing changes abroad, change was continuing apace at home.

"I went back in the middle of my Ph.D. work and tried to find a job," she says. "But the university system is changing rapidly in India, and I had been away from it for a while. Here in the U.S., I was in the pipeline; I went on the job market, and after a few years I found a position at Kenyon."

Kapila found she loved teaching at a liberal arts college. However, as so often happens with academic couples, there was nothing close by for her husband. They kept their eyes open and finally a pair of positions opened in relative proximity: a slot for her at Grinnell, a slot for him at Iowa State University. Grinnell's status as one of Kenyon's peer institutions made the move an easy one, at least in concept.

"The reasons I got into the study of English are also the reasons I'm happy as a teacher at a liberal arts school," she says. "What's most exciting for me is when I'm able to talk about these connections and produce a moment in the classroom when everyone is able to see how language and social movements are implicated in each other. When I teach post-colonial literature here, I'm always talking about culture, politics, society, literature and difference -- as in how we structure our world."

Kapila's scholarship is one more extension of this life spent connecting things together -- continents, peoples, histories, languages, and literatures. Her main project now is to finish the manuscript for Educating Seeta: Family Romances of British India.

In more concrete and personal terms, Kapila's interest in various enclaves of people -- religious groups, racially distinct groups, gender, classes, caste -- and their interactions, positive and negative, is leading her to study the literature of the Indian partition, which emerged out of the political convulsion that severed the subcontinent from the British empire, creating India and Pakistan in the process. Kapila's mother's family was displaced during a the forced resettlement of Hindus and Muslims during this period, which cost around a million people their lives in what amounted to a bilateral genocide. Her grandparents arrived in New Delhi after having been displaced from what is now Pakistan, arriving penniless, and with little children in tow.

"The body of literature that has come out of the partition is large, and since the '80s and '90s, even more has been coming out," she says. "It's almost as if after 50 years, people feel comfortable talking about the major trauma of the subcontinent."

Kapila sees her changed status at Grinnell and changes in the world arena as helping her to press on, 17 years after she left India.

"What's made me happy recently is that, after a very long time, with globalization, the links and possibilities of travel and collaboration are greater," she says. "If it's possible to keep my feet planted on two continents, that's what I want to do."

Continuing in the Family Business

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)


For Erik Simpson, English is more than a discipline; it's the family business.

He grew up in Olean, N.Y., the son of an English professor at St. Bonaventure University. His mother, too, is in academe, running the learning center at the local community college. His parents met -- as did he and his wife, Carolyn -- in an English graduate program. Simpson's father teaches the British Romantics; so does he.

That said, Simpson stresses that he never felt any pressure to walk the same path his parents walked. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"My parents encouraged me to explore other options so that I didn't go into English thoughtlessly," he says. "There's no question, however, that my upbringing made it easy to imagine life as a teacher, and that my parents knew how to give me books that would interest and challenge me."

Simpson says his decision to study British Romantics arose from "a fluke" rather than parental influence.

"When I went to the University of Virginia to do my undergraduate work, Jerome McGann, a titan of Romantic studies, had just redesigned the introductory course in English," he says. "To see how it worked, he taught a section of it my first semester; the rest were taught by graduate students he was supervising. When my father heard that McGann was teaching one of the sections, he told me that was the one to take. It was a magnificent course. At the end of that semester, I declared my English major with McGann."

Simpson says he considered other options along the way -- physics, law, music, consulting, computer programming -- but always circled back to English again. But though it's third on this list of other vocational possibilities, music has always been more than a passing fancy for him. He is, as was his father before him, a serious jazz saxophonist, and while he was an undergraduate at UVA, he was known first as a musician -- playing in Virginia's jazz band and working with musicians such as Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Bob Moses, and "some of the guys from the Dave Matthews Band, which was then playing in Charlottesville most Tuesday nights for a $5 cover."

When he moved on to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, music had to take a back seat to his studies.

"I have never again played music regularly," Simpson says. "I still love playing when I find the time and opportunity, as I occasionally do in Grinnell."

No surprise, then, that Simpson found a way to combine his love of music with his study of English: his dissertation topic -- literary representations of minstrels and improvisers -- when he remarked in a grad school paper that the compositional process of Byron's The Giaour had something in common with a jazz solo.

The professor suggested that I should look into what British writers were saying about improvisation in the 1810s," he says. "When I did, I discovered two things: that the language of improvisation had just entered the English language at that time, so writers were in the process of deciding what it meant; and that they largely defined improvisers as Italian figures who represented an alternative to British and Irish minstrels. Those minstrels, I discovered, were simply everywhere in the writing of the time, and in my dissertation I set out to figure out why."

Simpson is busy with a book on the idea of the mercenary in British and American literature from about 1750 to 1830. It's a project that has developed alongside another compelling project he's launched with his wife, Carolyn -- namely, their son Pete, who turned 2 in January. Simpson is quick to say that the effect on his work has been salutary.

"Academic work tends to make one feel that one should be working nearly every waking minute, and often some of the sleeping ones, too," he says. "Ours can be a guilt-driven life. Having a young child creates boundaries: if I'm at the playground or reading a book with him, I can't be grading another paper or reading another book. I can and must clear my head and pay attention to the demands and wonders of Pete's rapidly expanding world. (I don't know how many experiences can match that of watching a human mind come into language.) Contrarily, knowing that I'll be spending evenings and weekends with Pete has given me a newly intense kind of concentration during the days and nights when I'm working. I've enjoyed the clarity of this separation between my work and family time. Fatherhood has focused my professional life in many unanticipated ways."

One can't help but wonder, too, whether a third-generation English prof isn't getting his start in the family business. -- Mark Baechtel

Springer Field

Springer Field is the Grinnell women's and men's soccer competition field. Grinnell was one of the first Division III schools to have separate practice fields for the men's and women's programs. The field meets maximum NCAA specifications and terraced and berm seating is available for spectators.

Roberts Theatre

The Roberts Theatre semi-thrust stage, seating 450, was renovated and restored under the design of Cesar Pelli and Associates (New Haven, CT). The project was completed in 2000.

For more information about the Roberts Theatre please call the Technical Director at 641-269-3130.


Flanagan Studio Theatre

This theatre was built in recognition of Hallie Flanagan Davis's (class of 1911) work. Ms. Flanagan was national director of the Federal Theatre project, among many other wonderful commitments to the theatre world. With a catwalk and tension grid combined with flexible seating and stage arrangements, the Flanagan is our most versatile theatre. The space usually seats up to 126; however, some productions require smaller seating numbers.

Print and Drawing Study Room

Prints, drawings, and photographs in the Grinnell College extensive art-on-paper collection may be viewed and studied in the Print and Drawing Study Room which is under the auspices of the Faulconer Gallery.

The facility houses over 3000 works on paper, including: John L. and Roslyn Bakst Goldman Collection of German Expressionist Prints and graphic art by William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, and William Kentridge as well as photographs, drawings, and examples of all types of printmaking. The Print Room is located on the lower level of Burling Library.

Call Kay Wilson, Curator of the Collection, at 641.269.3371 for more information or to make an appointment.

Smith Gallery

This brand-new gallery features student art year-round. Located in the Rosenfield Center, next to the dining hall, the gallery gets a lot of foot traffic. Any artist can submit a proposal for the space and use it to exhibit his or her work for several weeks.


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