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Lucia Otrísalová: Teaching keeps me alive as a social and sociable being.
LUCIA OTRÍSALOVÁ has been teaching at the Department of English and American Studies since September 2007. She holds a Ph.D. in Anglophone literatures. She is actively involved in Canadian Studies. Since 2008 she has been the country representative on the Advisory Board of the CentralEuropean Association for Canadian Studies.
What was your life ambition as a university student and when did you decide to become a teacher?
When I started studying at university – it was back in 1995 and I was doing British and American Studies in Prešov then – I had no particular ambitions. Like most teenagers, I was like a particle of cosmic dust roaming in the space with no obvious purpose. I wanted to be as far away from home as possible, but once I ventured that far, I terribly missed it. I felt lonely, and I hated the school. Finally, I dropped out in the first year. Nobody could understand my decision. My high school teachers thought I’d gone crazy. I was lucky to have got a job offer from one elementary school which needed a substitute for a Physics teacher who’d got injured in a car accident. The job was quite a life-changing experience: it gave my life a purpose again. I guess it was then that I made the decision to become a teacher. I applied for Comenius, got admitted, and here I am (smiles).
Why or rather what didn‘t you like about the university in Prešov?
Well, I hated Phonetics classes there. I’d had only Canadian and American teachers in high school, so my accent was more North American than anything else. And suddenly, someone wanted me to speak like Queen Elizabeth. The teacher made me feel quite incompetent; she put me down whenever she could. My self-esteem was in shambles. I’d always been good at everything, so it was hard to swallow a defeat like that. Yet now, I don’t think it was a question of like and dislike. Distance in time sort of gives greater clarity to past events. Now I believe that I simply wasn’t mature enough to be so far away from my family and friends.
What is it that you like about teaching?
There are a lot of things that I like about teaching, but the single best thing is to be privileged to watch students – their personalities, talents, skills – evolve over the course of time. I love the daily contact with my students. I love the moments – however rare they are – when students enter into a dialogue with me and the energy the conversation generates in the classroom.
What is your goal as a teacher?
I am trying to get students to think about the world differently. I would like to see them think more critically about whatever they read and whatever they are told. I would like them to have some perspective on issues and topics they are concerned about in their daily lives.
What do you think about Oscar Wilde´s quote: "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught"?
I partially agree with it. It is true that teachers can only teach you to read, write, speak foreign languages, count, but they’ll never teach you how to love, for example. On the other hand, I think that all these things are worth knowing. Let’s take reading as an example. If you can’t read, you are more likely to become a victim of oppression. After all, most dictators keep education back. If people don’t read, they don’t get ideas, and if they don’t have ideas, they don’t instigate rebellions. Books give us ideas that prevent us from nodding passively in approval to everything, from becoming hoards of rats following a pipe’s sound.
Speaking of books, what are some of your favourites?
Already as a teenager I had a passion for Jack Kerouac. I particularly love his Visions of Gerard. It’s unique among his novels: incredibly tender and sensitive. It tells the story of Kerouac’s brother Gerard who died as a nine-year-old boy. Kerouac portrays the boy as a saint, who loves all creatures and instils this love in his four-year-old brother Ti Jean. I love the scenes when Gerard berates his cat over the killing of a mouse or attracts a flock of birds to his bedroom window when his terminal illness confines him to bed. It’s a movingly beautiful book about the meaning of life and the fragility and precariousness of human existence. On the other hand, it’s quite unsettling. There are of course other books I love returning to: Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, Like a Novel by Daniel Pennac, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien...
Talking of books and reading, another question has come to my mind. How would you persuade your students to read in this hyper-technical world?
This is a tough one. I guess a teacher must find ways to help students identify with something in the book – a character, a theme, an action that has consequences... I think the love for reading should be developed at a very early age. Parents are instrumental in this. As Daniel Pennac says in his book Like a Novel, you shouldn’t put pressure on children to read because it takes the pleasure out of the activity. He says that the enjoyment of a good story should be a central motivation for reading.
What do you think is the function of literary studies today?
The reasons why study literature are always the same: to benefit from the insight of others, to explore other cultures and beliefs, to question “accepted” knowledge, to see things differently, to know you aren’t alone, to refine your judgment, to develop empathy for those who are different from you, to expand your vocabulary...
Do you believe that contemporary literature possesses aesthetic quality and an ethical message?
Definitely yes. I can’t see much difference between contemporary literature and the literatures of earlier periods.
If your job wasn’t that of a university teacher, what would it be?
I would probably be a high school teacher (laughs). Seriously, I would have to have a job that involves teaching or communicating with people. Otherwise, I would turn into the socially awkward, introverted weirdo I used to be when I was a teenager. Teaching keeps me alive as a social and sociable being.
What or who inspired you to become involved in Canadian Studies?
Dr. Huttová did. If it hadn’t been for her courses on Canadian literature, I would probably be doing something else now. As it was a new academic discipline at that time – and it probably still is – I was attracted by the idea of being a pioneer.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished my cooperation on the CEACS international project Diaspora whose outcomes are going to be published in the summer. Dr. Gazdík and I are about to start working on a new CEACS project on the translation and reception of Canadian literature in post-Communist countries. I quite look forward to it because it will involve meeting and working with people from a lot of different countries.
Interview: Mária Slezáková Photo:Katarína Koreňová