Monday, December 06, 2010

"Metropolitan" marvels

Yes, it is hil-arious that some people do work in coffee shops. Some people, ahem, do work and don't (just) check Facebook, do get paychecks for the work they do, but don't have offices, or have offices that they share with 100 other grad students and those grad students' own students. Some people's apartments contain such things as couches and beds, not to mention televisions and different shades of nail polish. Different skirts bought in different thrift shops over the years that could be tried on with different pairs of ballet flats. Old New Yorkers and Vogues begging for another glance. Some of us can resist the temptation most of the time, but will occasionally need a chance of pace.

The library, you ask? The NYU one, unless it's summer, is continuously packed - taking the train to a library where I'll have to spend 45 minutes just  looking for a seat isn't a great option. The neighborhood one, meanwhile, makes no claims of being anything other than a day-care center. The wheels on the bus, they have a way of going round and round, round and round. I like that it's a casual enough place that I can bring coffee without fear of getting yelled at (no BNF, the BPC NYPL), but lullabies and dissertations - unless it's your own child that needs to get to sleep - don't mix. I still tend to choose that over the nearest coffee shop - both because that coffee shop is too dark for reading books in, and because $3.25 for an iced coffee is a bit steep for a non-foam-containing caffeinated beverage. But sometimes, coffee shops win out.

Anyway, shout-out to Aaron Tugendhaft - knowing someone mentioned in the article kept me reading till the end, which is about right for a section that serves as a local paper within a national one. And there's apparently such a thing as a "freelance astrophysicist." Intriguing!

There'd better be some such thing as a freelance French Studiesist, the way things are going. I should consider myself lucky that I even have work to do in coffee shops. (Actually, I do consider myself lucky, not just for the ability to pay rent, but I get to write about French Jews. It's awesome.) Aside from my entirely subjective reaction - but I study French, I don't want French departments to disappear - some thoughts.

Note the picture accompanying the article. Who takes French? Women. If there was ever a subject boys were turned off to, French would be it. French is pretty much the subject that plays to female students' strengths, is out-of-reach for many male students, and that can be cited as an example of how anything women dominate is probably frivolous, anyway - where there's French, there are fashion poodles. Without any admissions-tweaking by gender, schools can eliminate foreign languages, French especially, and even things out. I can't imagine that's played no role in this.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the heights of achievement possible with an undergrad degree in French under one's belt: my friend and former "Situer Sartre" classmate Lauren Shockey, who's now a food writer for the Village Voice. Since she's having the most fabulous career of anyone I went to college with, I'm going to have to count this as a victory for French.


lauren said...

why thank you, phoebe, for your kind words. indeed, i couldn't have gotten to where i was without french. ha, that's only about 30 percent true. but french did let me work in french restaurants, which in turn formed part of my book. so yes, go french!

i'm hoping my fluency in french literature will also nab me a husband soon, because i feel all trophy wives should speak francais, no?

PG said...

A conservative friend who takes a strong "college is for learning useful skills and getting an accreditation that employers want" view (in overt opposition to the Prof. Bainbridge universities are for the joy of knowledge view) nonetheless declares that his foreign language major was extremely useful. It got him his first job (with one of the largest corporations in that foreign nation); helped him get his second job with a company that had lots of clients in that nation; won him a law school grant paid by a large law firm in that nation. Admittedly, it's a more obscure and difficult-to-learn language than French, and his program came with a demanding set of courses in which he had to learn both classical literature and modern economics of the country. I expect that Arabic and Chinese are currently being deemed of similar usefulness.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Admittedly, it's a more obscure and difficult-to-learn language than French, and his program came with a demanding set of courses in which he had to learn both classical literature and modern economics of the country."

A French degree, at least in my experience, comes with that kind of "demanding set of courses." Literature, every aspect of contemporary France, French history, etc. If this comes across as defensive on behalf of French majors, it's because when you mention having majored in French, there's a common assumption that this means you got a BA in conjugating the verb "to be" in a second language.

And if French itself isn't Arabic or Chinese - and I'll grant anyone that, having taken a language without the same script as English, that alone makes a world of difference - I think it's unusual for a language major to be content with just the one. Even if no other language is required, more are taken, if not to the same level.

Also, I'm not sure if, on average, your friend aside, the level of undergrad language mastery of more difficult languages comes close to that of French, Spanish, German, Italian. Anecdotal evidence: a whole lot of college students learn a new script and a few words. Whereas with French, etc., it's hard for even the most apathetic student not to emerge knowing more.

PG said...

The requirements are probably different at different universities. My alma mater requires French majors to take upper-level courses, but doesn't mandate that students take any classes outside the areas of language and literature. The entire Spring 2011 undergrad course offering is on literature, cinema, aesthetics, language, etc. I don't see anything about, say, French economics. There's only one class that looks useful for analyzing France politically (French Society & Civilization), which is the most advanced course offered. There's no history course other than "history of the French language," and the courses about France's former colonies are just about their literatures.

Then again, UVa may have a particularly arts-focused undergrad French program due to the strengths and interests of the professors. Similarly, the Economics department has little on leftist economics (despite being the most popular undergraduate major with about 600 BAs each year) because it's dominated by conservatives. I have a degree in economics yet know almost nothing about Marxism as an economic theory.

I think non-Roman-script languages are taught beyond just the script itself. When I was trying to do a history project on the Sudan's brief communist coup and ran into the problem of much of Khartoum's communications being in Arabic, my professor suggested that I pay a 4th year Arabic major to do the translations. This presumably would have been impossible if majors only learned the script itself and wouldn't be able to recognize a reasonably broad set of words.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

You're right - it varies by university. At UChicago, there weren't many French majors, so it was more that we were allowed to take the major in just about any direction we wanted, as long as we fulfilled the lit requirements and wrote our papers in French.

"I think non-Roman-script languages are taught beyond just the script itself."

Yes, of course! But I think it's unrealistic to assume the comfort level you reach in a language via college courses is the same, all things equal, for, to stick with these examples, French and Arabic. (There are exceptions, of course. Some people are truly gifted with languages, truly dedicated to getting past these barriers. Or, if your native language is Hebrew and you're struggling with English, you'd perhaps have a better time with Arabic than with French.) But unless your theoretical Arabic major had some prior knowledge of the language, I do find it hard to picture fluency. Translation, with a dictionary, isn't fluency. (I took a summer course on how to do this from German, so presumably four years could get someone to that point in Arabic.)

So there's the question of whether it's better, career-wise to know some of a much-sought-after language or more of a less-special one. My guess would be, it's a toss-up. There's also the question of whether, when "rigor" of various majors is being measured, getting to translation level in Chinese or Arabic versus getting to fluent speaking and literature analysis in French, Spanish, etc. This matters... not really so much in terms of getting a job, but in day-to-day interaction.

I suppose I long for a world in which it isn't necessary to spell out to acquaintances, dentists, etc. that I don't, in fact, have a degree in whether it's le or la pomme. But I'd settle for one in which French departments continue to exist.

Matt said...

and I'll grant anyone that, having taken a language without the same script as English, that alone makes a world of difference

There's certainly something to this, but I'd guess it varies a lot from language to language. Essentially none of the problems I've had with Russian over the years are related to the use of Cyrillic, for example, but a good friend of mine (who learned Russian fairly easily) tells me that she's struggling mightily to be minimally literate in Chinese. Arabic is probably in between, though it sure looks hard from sight.

As for coffee shops, the only time I oppose people working in them is when space is tight and there are not enough seats. Often enough, that's not a problem, but in certain coffee shops it is, and I must admit being annoyed by people nursing coffees for hours and using the coffee shop as offices when there are lots of people who would just like to sit down to eat their food.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The coffee-shop space issue was addressed in the article - it's actually profitable for the place to be too-crowded-to-sit, even with the sitting customers nursing their coffees. "“People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd,” [the proprietor] said. “They think ‘Hey, this place must be good if I can’t even get a table.’ ”

I found this intriguing, at any rate, because there was just another article about how cafés in NY are scrapping wifi and even chairs, so fearful they are of the café-as-office customer.

My own feeling is, if I want to use the café as an office (and my dept only gives offices to grad students who are teaching, which I'm not this year, and the library's alleged "Dissertation Writers' Room" has yet to open), I'd rather it be quiet. If I've come with a friend, I'd rather not get glares from people who've obviously never heard of a library. And of course, if I want to eat a muffin, I'm annoyed at the people who finished their coffee hours ago and seem furious I want to share their precious table. If I'm working at a table, and someone sits across from me with a steamy bowl of chili they're oh so excited to slurp down, I'm not pleased. In other words, the ambiguity of the space lends itself to self-righteousness in all directions. I'm self-aware enough, I guess, to realize how silly and contradictory my preferences are, and to work harder at snagging the good spots at the library.

Britta said...

As a Chinese major in school, I agree with Phoebe that I came out of my major at a much lower degree of fluency in the language than a comparable French, Spanish, or German major would have. In part, this was because I started from the beginning, whereas many French majors had already studied French for 4 years in HS. It is also because Chinese is simply a much much harder language to reach comprehensive fluency in, between the tones, the writing system, and the ridiculously large lexicon. It is also true in China it takes children longer to reach literacy than in places with a phonetic alphabet--Chinese kids start learning to read around age 3, but (according to my friend, who might just be trying to be nice to me), most kids don't get to a newspaper level of literacy until around age 14. I think a part of it is, once you are literate in your native language, it is very easy to become literate in a similar language--in French class in HS, the idea that we would spend a month just learning to speak before we saw any French words in a textbook would be strange. Also, with French, once you get some of the idiosyncratic pronunciation/orthography down, it is fairly easy to sight read a word you have heard before but never seen written. In Chinese however, it is totally possible to not recognize words you know. It is true that the more characters you know, the better you become at figuring stuff out/guessing, but it's still pretty difficult.

There's also a "use it or lose it" aspect with characters, where unless you are frequently writing a word, it's very easy to forget exactly how, which I don't think is as true with phonetic alphabet languages. There's also a greater disconnect between recognition and recall, which I guess kind of exists with spelling in alphabet languages.