Archive for the 'Education' Category

Mémoire soutenu

Posted in Education at 17:20

Ouf! I defended my Masters thesis today at noon. It lasted an hour, all in French (naturally), so I was kaput near the end. Overall, the jury – my thesis advisor and another comparative literature and anthropology professor – thought my research was original, well-done, and well-reasoned; the main critique was on the multiple directions I took (it was indeed difficult to pull together consistently). The “note” (grade) was 14/20, enough for a “mention bien” which is equivalent to our American magna cum laude, or “high honors”. Highest in France is “mention très bien”, the US summa cum laude, to which can also be added “avec les félicitations du jury” (literally, “with the jury’s congratulations”, while a better translation would be “with distinction”), and plain “honors” are “mention assez bien”, the US cum laude.

“Mention bien” is acceptable for a PhD, French doctorat, if I so wish. I would very much like that! However I had a rough time getting my Masters pulled together in a single year while working full time, and the two professors also recommended taking time to think about and prepare for doctoral studies before officially beginning them. In France, a doctorate is required to take 3 years of study/research/thesis writing; a fourth year can be added, but only under highly exceptional circumstances. In order to be able to work on a doctoral thesis properly, I would need to find funding for it. There are some scholarships and PhD funding sources available, so taking time off will allow me to delve into that more.

As I just told a friend elsewhere – it’s a bit like a write your own adventure!

Heritage days

Posted in Education, La France at 21:17

Avenue Marius Raveu

Over this past weekend in France were held the journées du patrimoine, heritage days. Many museums and historical sites were open for free, and some had special tours. I once again sacrificed outings for my thesis, mainly because I’ve been to most of the places already, although I have yet to see the inside of the Villa Arson. Improving the French language in my thesis before printing it today was much more important, however! My defense is scheduled for next week – I am starting to feel more nervous, but also looking forward to talking about my research and writing.

After printing and binding my 155-page tome (volume), I went to deliver it, having taken the afternoon off to do just that. I got off a few bus stops too early, so decided to walk to the Université de Nice to deliver copies of my thesis to the two jury members’ mailboxes rather than take the bus. UNice, as it’s also known here (not spoken UNice, but written), has several campuses in Nice, as well as in Sophia Antipolis. For literature and languages, the faculté (college) is at Campus Carlone, located on a hill. I started at the Fabron musée d’art naïf and walked up a narrow road with switchbacks. It was nice, as it ended up being my own sort of heritage day! I had been unfamiliar with that part of Nice until now, and enjoyed visiting.

Above is a street plaque I crossed. I searched for Marius Raveu online, and found the best information gathered together in this French WWI history forum. Raveu flew bombing missions in WWI, was awarded the croix de guerre and continued as a civilian pilot afterwards, “beating several records”. He died in an airplane crash at the end of 1925.

I also passed a few beautiful villas, including one with gorgeous iris frescoes beneath the eaves (taken with my smartphone, so the quality isn’t great, but you can see their complexity by zooming in). I love these under-eave frescoes here.

Truth and evidence

Posted in Education at 14:52

One of the things that came up when writing my thesis was the immense amount of unsupported claims of goddess myths themselves being “unsupported”. In one case, Mircea Eliade went so far as to use a logical fallacy to support his claim that male gods had always ruled alone, and that women gods were secondary, if not entirely overestimated (emphasis is in the original): “we cannot deduce, from the presence of Paleolithic feminine figurines, the inexistence of worship for a divine male Being.”* It’s worth noting that this quote is in the context of a few meagre paragraphs brushing aside physical evidence of goddess worship, in the midst of Eliade’s book-long theory that male gods had reigned alone and supreme from the beginning of humankind. His statement is basically like saying, just because some people today worship a masculine god, doesn’t mean that a supreme spaghetti god doesn’t exist. But I digress. As a matter of fact, if I may be allowed a generalization that can be supported by reading any number of scholarly works on matrilineal societies from the Paleolithic to contemporary days, goddess worship went, and goes (it still exists), hand in hand with egalitarian values, in large part due to the idea of hieros gamos, sacred marriage between goddess and god. So yes, gods did exist, on an equal plane with goddesses. In all my readings, I have not yet found a single example of goddess-worshipping cultures that devalued or disempowered men. Every gender (many of these societies recognized more than two genders) was valued for its unique contribution to society. It was not utopia, but it was egalitarian.

There is a wealth of commentary that could be made on this; for now, I’d like to focus on two relatively simple factual examples that, in spite of their simplicity, dismantle two widely-held, widely-documented “truths” about the “evidence” for denigrating feminity (I specify “feminity” and not “women” because any man who has ever been targeted for “feminine” behavior knows that it doesn’t just affect women).

A statement you often hear when looking at goddesses (this is my paraphrase of a wealth of texts): “there may have been warrior goddesses and myths of warrior women, but there has never been an archeological find of women buried with war goods. Furthermore, there is a long history of women having lower status than men in warrior societies, so it seems their natural weakness prevails in historical fact.”

When you look at archeology, it so happens that in the vast majority of cases, bones are difficult to sex, and so archeologists revert to the rule of war goods equating to a man, and jewelry to a woman. Do you think that any women buried with war goods are ever going to be discovered that way? For a cite, look into Gender and the archeology of death, go to the preview and browse to p.90, in the chapter VIII article on “The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women” by Anne-Sophie Gräslund.

Thankfully we are in a world where things such as this are starting (just starting) to be questioned, and in July of this year (2011), the results of a study came out: Viking women buried with swords and shields. Some archeologists returned to a previously-excavated site where all remains had been sexed as male. They looked at the bones and… half of them were actually female. Women warriors existed, just as they exist now, in our own contemporary societies, where women are no longer forbidden from warfare. (I am not, by the way, endorsing warfare for either men or women. However, since it is so often used as an argument to “protect” women by reducing our rights, it is eye-opening to see that it’s based on smoke and mirrors – or rather, war goods versus jewelry.)

As for the “warrior societies” argument, in the cases I looked at, the statements all referred to Occidental societies in which women had been forbidden from scholarly education, independent careers, property ownership, inheritance – taken together, all of that equates to a state of having no wealth – and physical education. Any other cultures were ignored, such as the Iroquois, who were matrilineal, valued male and female contributions to society equally, and were warrior societies. (As a reminder, “Iroquois” is not a tribe but a league of first five, then six nations. There are also Iroqouian – linguistically related – tribes such as the Huron and Cherokee who shared similar beliefs and cultural characteristics.)

In essence, whenever you hear a “rule” about such-and-such category of people being “naturally” oppressed and having “no evidence otherwise”… look into the rules and assumptions that lead to those “truths”, because they are very often, if not always, biased and incomplete, whether by design or by ignorance. A few of the authors I read were clearly approaching their subjects with interest and a genuine desire to report what they found, but did not look beyond the findings, and so repeated information that had been deduced from faulty research methods.

*From Eliade’s “Mythes, rêves et mystères”, p.214. Translated from the French.

Tout va bien

Posted in Biographical, Education at 20:26

It’s been a long while since my last post. Thanks to all of you who patiently return to my site! As you can imagine, I’ve been busy working, whether at my job or on my Masters thesis.

I finished the bulk of my thesis a few days ago, and am now wrapping up translations of cites that were in English originally. Not an easy thing to do, since French is not my native language. I didn’t start learning it early enough to gain as much fluency as in English, beginning only at age 11. Just soon enough to have a good spoken accent, but not quite young enough to soak in an instinct for French phrasing. I really notice it in my French writing. Where in English I barely have to think twice, or when I do, it comes relatively easily and I know how and why, in French it’s a bit like pulling teeth. The demoralizing bit is that I can see that it doesn’t “read French”, but I don’t exactly know how to tidy it up.

My thesis defense will be sometime this month, in any case before the 30th since that’s the final deadline. Having picked a subject that I love, and having thoroughly enjoyed the research and writing, even when it gave me headaches, I’m actually looking forward to it. Oral presentations were my bugbear in youth, but having lived in three countries and fumbled around in several languages has served to wash away most of my embarrassment when speaking. Why worry about a subject I enjoy and discuss happily, when I can remember shopping in Finland on arrival and the only words I knew were “kiitos, kiitti, anteeksi”? (“Thank you, thanks, excuse me” respectively.) Why worry about mutual comprehension in a language I’ve spoken for decades when I can recall talking like a 2-year-old and entirely enjoying “discussions” I had in basic Mandarin Chinese with taxi drivers and artisans? Years of traveling have taught me the golden rule: try to speak their language, listen, and recognize that all humans know what it is to feel silly. Trust that they’ll relate, and the vast majority of the time, they will. Those who don’t, or who make you feel uncomfortable, are giving you valuable information – namely, to find someone else to speak with.

Life aside from my studies has been going very well too. I’m finally in a place where I’ve been able to start relaxing and enjoying the fruits of years of hardship and sacrifice. Where I can just sit in my adorable apartment with my adorable cat and enjoy life.


Posted in Education, Journal at 10:05

I originally posted this elsewhere, but after a good night’s sleep on the subject and more supportive feedback, I realized I wanted to post it here as well. Long-time readers may recall that, occasionally, I would comparatively analyze French and English-language news articles to show how facts were spun in order to support prevailing stereotypes on both sides, and the political implications of it, whether up-front or, most often, hidden. I stopped doing that, paradoxically enough, when I became more interested in the historical background of stereotypes and their use, and the effects still felt in today’s world. If you have a creative bent, you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon: there comes a point where it’s more about “gestation” than “birth” (expression), and the best thing you can do is let it all divide and grow and define itself until that mysterious moment when creator and creation both say, “ready!”

One of my courses for the Masters degree in comparative literature that I’m doing, is on image studies, literature and ethnology. Our main assignment for the course is an exposé, the French term for “oral presentation”, on one of the course topics. (Those who don’t want to give an oral presentation can turn in a 25- to 30-page paper instead.) I chose to do a presentation on the topic “The political use of stereotypes in America”. There will be a topic on the same in France. Originally, I planned to do a comparison of the French image of Americans, and vice versa, but… the more I read about Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, and the more links I found with that faction of the right that’s taking the USA back 100 years to trusts and robber barons… the more my presentation became an exposé in the English sense of the term (it’s also a meaning of the word in French).

It was a 45-minute, 15-page presentation (in French), so I won’t rewrite it here, but suffice to say that I was surprised by my own findings. I did not set out to discover what I did. It literally fell into my lap, “merely” because I was looking at related things, by chance, at the right time. I put “merely” in quotes because, nonetheless, I did have to put my lap there, so to speak, and it also depended on others’ awareness.

So, in brief (there is a great deal of other detail that’s just as pertinent): After successfully selling World War I to the US people, Edward Bernays was one of the key minds behind the coup d’état in Guatemala, 1954. The democratically-elected Guatemalan president Arbenz wanted to give unused, corporate-owned lands to Guatemalan farmers, and was going to compensate the companies whose lands were taken, with the same monetary value as they had declared on their taxes. United Fruit Company had declared $3/acre. Where was the problem? Judging from UFC’s reaction, it would seem they hadn’t given an entirely truthful evaluation of the land’s value on their tax declarations. In retaliation against Arbenz’ offer, UFC declared that the true value was $75/acre. Twenty-five times more! Without explanation! And they lobbied Eisenhower’s government to overthrow Arbenz’s government. Together with the CIA, headed by Allen Dulles, whose brother John was a key shareholder in UFC, Edward Bernays created a propaganda program to turn Guatemalan public opinion against Arbenz, by painting Arbenz and his supporters as communists. A similar propaganda effort was undertaken in the US, to drum up American criticism of Arbenz by using staged “proofs” of communism. Stereotypes. It succeeded. Arbenz was overthrown; a military junta took over Guatemala in 1954. From 1960 to 1996, the country was in civil war.

What does that have to do with today’s corporate interests meddling in politics? Absolutely everything. More than I imagined. First, two important bits of information: United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita. Also, Karl Rove, head of Bush’s strategy, now on his own, is a student of Bernays.

Recent news: Billionaires give 91 percent of funds for Rove-tied group. Note the donations by the previous owner of Chiquita, 90-something Carl Lindner. His Wikipedia article does not mention Chiquita, but United Fruit Company‘s does mention his ownership. While he wasn’t owner during the worst of it, it’s no less striking: Chiquita under Lindner has quite a shady history. In 2007, “the 29th Specialized District Attorney’s Office in Medellín called the board members of Chiquita […] to make statements concerning charges for conspiracy to commit an aggravated crime and financing illegal armed groups.” Back to Rove and current US politics: Rove Groups, U.S. Chamber Build Winning Record in Elections. “The group backed the victor in 23 of the 36 House and Senate races where a winner was declared.” Then of course there are the numerous ties to the Koch brothers’ influence (purchasing/funding) of the Tea Party, and their cold-blooded utilisation of stereotypes to fan up support. It’s classic Bernays, and has Cold War ties, which are directly linked to Bernays as well — he and Walter Lippmann were colleagues in the creation of that very term, “Cold War”, as well as “manufacture of consent”.

The Century of the Self is a four-part BBC documentary that discusses Bernays and his legacy. It’s excellent and will change how you see the world. Also, for the Rove-Bernays connection, Karl Rove and the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew. Bernays was “double nephew” to Sigmund Freud: Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife, and Bernays’ mother was Freud’s sister. (Freud’s obsession with a certain type of impulse and his own blindness to his personal weaknesses would be yet another subject. He had excellent ideas about projection, transference, et cetera, but it’s both fascinating and terribly sad to see that Freud’s denial of, rather than dealing with, his darker side, which he projected as a very dark idea of “human” unconscious, led to tragic results in his personal circle, and in the way his work lent itself to use on a wider scale. Anyone interested would do well to read what Carl Jung had to say about Freud, namely in Symbols of Transformation.)

How to counteract the overwhelming manipulation by fear and stereotypes? I chose “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Fire Next Time” (by James Baldwin) as examples of literature describing stereotypes, psychological projection and their terrible effects… and the heartening, personal lesson each of us can use to counteract it: love. Agape, philia love. Love for humanity. We’re all human, we all have our faults. It’s hard enough to know ourselves; how can we possibly pretend to “know” what an entire group of people is like? Humility. Taking the time to get to know others as individuals. Stopping, when we hear a generalisation, and taking the time to question it — because of that fundamental love for humanity.

Class cat

Posted in Cats, Education, Home improvement at 19:09


Yesterday, after I’d fi-nal-ly finished painting my big living room wall, was preparing to go to school twelve hours later, and wanted to mention how well Patches is doing with us now, I wondered how to bring it all together in a post.

Today I went to school, sat in a Bauhaus building classroom with gorgeous views of the hills of Nice, and in my second course, which is titled “Imagologie et ethnologie”, was greeted by Mister Smarty-Furry-Pants, as you can see above. So there you have it. Style, classes, and a cat.

Student desk on a budget

Posted in Education, Home improvement at 15:43

The free desk

Because the commission that validated my Masters application was held after classes began, I can’t say that “classes start this Wednesday” — they started nearly a month ago! I can, however, say that “I’ll be starting classes this Wednesday.” For the second year of the comp lit Masters, we take three courses: one is a required research seminar, the second is another research seminar that the student chooses, and the third is called a unité d’enseignement or UE, academic subject, which is also at the student’s choice. All are held one day a week, over a two-hour session. The second seminar I want to take is held on the same day as the required one, which is nice! I’ll be able to take that one day a week off work, and do the third course half electronically, half in person, since it’s held in the evenings (I would have to leave work early to get there on time).

I’ve spent the last few days hurriedly organizing things so that I have as much logistical support, so to speak, as possible. As always, I have a very limited budget, but I enjoy the challenge it brings, and often find that it helps streamline where you might not have otherwise.

First, I wanted a cheap, reliable way to keep on top of work, school, and personal emails, since a lot of my coursework will be done electronically. While a good solution might have been a netbook, which also could have been used for homework, I didn’t want one for two reasons: even a small, light one would be a pain to haul around on buses every day, and I couldn’t afford one anyway. I decided to upgrade my phone instead, and got a Nokia E71. It can use 3G and WiFi networks (among others), which is perfect since I’ll have free WiFi coverage at the university and at home. I got a barebone subscription with unlimited internet for 22 euros a month — that’s quite cheap for France, which has the most expensive 3G subscriptions in the world. You might be wondering why I’m happy to have free WiFi since I get unlimited 3G coverage… while it is unlimited, the connection is downgraded (slower) once you’ve used more than 500Mb of traffic in a month. That’s a healthy amount of traffic for a smartphone, but I’ll still be happy to use the free WiFi spots when I can, since they may well be faster.

Second, I wanted a dedicated study area. Growing older has further ingrained the importance of separating relaxation from work/school, so, if possible, I didn’t want to use my nice PC for studying. I’ve kept the laptop I got six years ago, and recently resurrected it with another stick of RAM and an installation of Xubuntu. With that, it runs nearly as fast as my more modern PC, and does everything I need it to do: word processing, email, and web browsing. The only thing missing was a permanent network connection for it — I’d been borrowing my PC’s Ethernet cable until now. I finally ordered a WiFi card for my Freebox, and soon will have my own home WiFi network. But I also wanted a desk to put my laptop on!

Above you can see the result of my repurposing. The desk itself isn’t very pretty, but it was free, as was the chair. I found the trestles and chair on the street, and the tabletop was hanging around in a cupboard when I moved into my apartment a couple of years ago. I’m happy with how everything turned out: I’ll be able to sync my calendar and email on the phone, laptop, and PC, back up documents over the home network I’ll set up, and take notes by hand (I prefer it) on my sunny little desk by the patio window. Bonus: when not in use, the laptop doubles as a bed for Kanoko.

A new chapter begins

Posted in Education, La France at 21:10

Circumstances and my own reserve about uncertain plans conspired for some very last-minute news: I’ve been accepted for a Masters degree in comparative literature at the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, starting this October.

Although the process began in April this year, I only received confirmation yesterday evening. For a couple of years now, I’ve wanted to go back to school in order to find a career better suited to my character. While I enjoy translations, as time passed, I realized that what I most looked forward to during the day was the time I spent reading and participating in discussions on meaning, and related cross-cultural and sociological issues that any discussion of “meaning” brings up once you start going into depth. At first, given my background in IT, I thought that librarianship might be a good path — I could use my literary, technological and analytical skills to help people in their own research at a library. I looked into other possibilities as well: certifications via France’s CNED (National Distance Education Centre) and at the University of Nice, in case anything caught my eye. Which is exactly what happened!

At my US university (the U. of Oregon) and the one I attended in Lyon (Univ. Lyon II), I had taken a few comparative literature courses, which I adored for their combination of foreign languages, anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, art, and, of course, literature. So when I saw that the UNice offered a Masters in comp lit that could lead to secondary school teaching certification or to a doctoral program, I read everything I could about it. Increasingly motivated by what I discovered about the UNice’s research groups and courses available, I decided to apply. Preparing my application was a test in itself!

To shorten what would be another long story, the process was complex, being 1. a non-EU-citizen foreigner 2. in France (not a foreign country) who had 3. studied at a French university 4. but never been registered in one (as an exchange student, I’d been registered at my US university while at Lyon), 5. was over the age of 28 (a cutoff age for French students who have been previously registered at a French university), and to top it all off, 6. needed to continue working full-time in order to support myself. The fact that I’d be working full time during the day wasn’t a problem, according to the program director — it’s possible to do the Masters as a “distance” program. As they say in French, je sais plutôt bien me débrouiller (I’m pretty good at sorting out chaotic situations), so I got through the maze and reached the final hurdle: I needed to prepare and submit a thesis proposal and statement of purpose along with my officially-translated transcripts.

At that point, I still didn’t know which comp lit Masters to apply for specifically. See, in France, Masters degrees can be just one year (called Master 1) or two years (Master 1 followed by Master 2). This is quite recent; the Master 1 used to be a maîtrise and the Master 2 used to be a DEA/DESS (roughly equivalent to M.A./M.S.). I thought a Master 1 would be good to start out with, to get back into the swing of university and help clarify whether I wanted to continue with an education-oriented Master 2 or a doctorate-oriented one. I was very interested in doctorate possibilities, but honestly didn’t know whether it would be for me. I decided to be honest about my uncertainty in my motivation letter, specifying nonetheless that I was excited at the possibilities available through the UNice’s research groups for doctoral candidates. I also tailored my thesis proposal for such an eventuality — for the research (doctorate-oriented) Master 2, a thesis proposal needs to have a statement for the Masters thesis, and the potential for directly-related doctoral studies; ideally even a subject area appropriate for a professoral career in comparative literature.

I sent in my letter and proposal at the end of August, knowing the evaluation committee would meet in September. They met last Friday, and I received notice in the mail yesterday: I was accepted into the Master 2 research program! The full French name, for those curious: Master 2 Recherche Lettres mention Littérature comparée. It’s really ideal: I live just a 15-minute bus ride from the campus, and it’s a public university, so will cost me only 271.36 euros for the entire year (there are no TA scholarships for Masters degrees in France, only for doctorates). Readers might be wondering if the decimal point is in the wrong spot or if I made any typos — nope, that’s two-hundred-seventy-one euros and thirty-six cents. I’m very excited to be able to do something I love!