Reflections on Teaching American Literature in Bergen

I have now spent a third of my life, maybe the best third of my life, teaching literature to college students. Whether I want to or not, I enter the classroom with certain assumptions about what literature is good for. They are optimistic assumptions, I admit, but not uninformed. I assume, for example, that literature can train us in the art of paying attention. I assume that literature invites us to experience new emotions and to process new knowledge with an attitude or receptivity and empathy. Wandering in literature is like wandering in a new city; if we remain alert, there are unexpected beauties to be found.

Preparing to begin my Fulbright year in Bergen, I did not know whether my students would share these assumptions or not. In fact, I did not know what to expect of my students. I had never met anyone from Norway, much less anyone from Bergen. I cannot now describe any cultural expectations that were overthrown when I arrived because I did not know enough to have expectations. Happily, I found that my students in Bergen do approach literature like good fellow wanderers. They expect to find in their readings some valuable experience to carry with them. Their ability to attend to formal and cultural details within literary works varies. Some of them have not had much practice, but after I help them hear the one poet’s sonic playfulness they recognize it in another. If we question together the cultural assumptions in one novel, they can do it on their own in the next. They are brave fellow travelers, willing to venture into research on their own, but they are also humble. During individual tutorials, I asked eighteen different undergraduates to describe to me the strengths and weaknesses of their research papers. All eighteen described weaknesses first.

This humility, I am told, is a national trait. The only thing I have heard a Norwegian brag about is the beauty of the country. And it deserves their high praise. As an American, and native braggart, I now brag constantly about Bergen. Ringed with seven mountains and sloping into the sea, this city sets the standard of beauty against which others are measured. It’s spring here now. The last snow has melted in Ulriken, and the gardeners have planted swaths of pansies around Festeplassen. Couples are squeezing chairs onto tiny balconies to feel the rare and precious sunlight. The gift for appreciation I find in so many of my students here might, like their humility, reflect a larger cultural trait. Norwegians are given to enjoyment – not riotous enjoyment, but a private, cultivated enjoyment of sunlight and mountains and people. Sipping my cortado at Det Lille Kaffekompaniet, I watch Norwegians of every age and complexion stride up Mt. Floyen. My boys are climbing a jungle-gym nearby, but I don’t watch them very closely. They’re happy. Norwegians honor children, and Charlie and Sebastian have flourished amid the kindness to which they have now become accustomed.

Like them I have flourished here, and my work has benefitted from that. The Norwegian work schedule is much healthier than what I am accustomed to in the states. I have taught three classes this year, whereas the standard load at my home university is eight. As a guest, I have been given very little committee work to do but have still enjoyed full participation in departmental decisions related to my courses. Two of the courses I offered, I designed specifically for this year, which allowed me to draw on previous teaching while also incorporating books I don’t usually get to teach. This fall, I taught a masters course on Identity in the Modern American novel and shared the teaching for the first year bachelors Survey of American Literature, giving several lectures and leading two seminar sections. Team teaching helped me familiarize myself with the department’s interests and expectations. Now, I am finishing a more advanced bachelor-level course on the Literature of the American South.

The reading load for each class was heavy, but right in line with other comparable classes in the department. In contrast to the US, here students do not complete regular assignments during the semester. Evaluation for most courses depends entirely on one final exam or paper. That means that professors can only evaluate student performance mid-semester based on discussion. It is up to the students to keep track of whether they are learning or not. The expectation seems to be that students are here to learn. If they want to learn, they do the reading and come to class. Since there is no attendance policy, students do not come to class if they feel that they are not learning. For me, attendance in this student-dependent system has provided more natural and immediate feedback on students’ impressions of my courses than end-of-term student surveys ever could. I have to help students learn new material, recognize their learning and see the value of that learning or they don’t come. Period.  I have enjoyed the atmosphere of mutual accountability that this has created. Thankfully, teaching a smaller number of classes has allowed me more time to creatively prepare lessons that help students see value in the literature we study.

A gentler teaching schedule has allowed me time to perform research as well.  By the end of my Fulbright year, I will have spoken at four conferences in three different countries. I will have sent two articles off for publication and advanced far enough in a book about why we read literature to propose it to a publisher. In just a few days, I will travel to Budapest to offer lectures there as part of Fulbright’s Inter-Country Lecturing Program. Most of these projects are not brand new work, but projects that I had previously planned to do or had begun and veered away from as more pressing demands arose. Here, an absence of pressing demands has allowed me to surpass the writing goals I had originally set for my Fulbright year.

I don’t like to think of my year here coming to an end. As the months have progressed, the pleasure I take in the city has become more intimate, which has lured me to feel at home. Green Løvstakken is still there, and I still admire it. The roofs in our neighborhood are still a lovely red and the boards Nordic white. Every morning when I look out my window there is still the sea. But now I pay more attention to the small things – the window shade pulled just below the tops of orchids in a kitchen, a lady watering grass in a scarf, moss. My hope when I go back is that I will take with me the Norwegian habit of enjoyment. I hope I can transfer my skill at expecting the unexpected in literature to my expectations in reality. Maybe I can even clear more time in my harried American schedule for the unexpected to happen. While it is probably true that I won’t get away with wearing slippers to meetings the way they do here, and while I probably cannot talk our university president into a week-long holiday at Easter, I can at least slow down and have a coffee like this more often. My optimistic assumptions about teaching literature have not changed, but I have realized the extent to which American academic culture can work against the mindset that literature helps us cultivate. American academic culture is a behemoth that I can’t tame, but the Fulbright program invests in individuals because of the belief that individuals are where cultures begin to change. I can be that beginning.