Hello, everyone, and welcome to our installment, “Acts of Reading and Writing: Faculty Profiles.” This week we feature Dr. Serafima Gettys, Lewis University Foreign Language Professor. Lewis student Migle Giedmintaite interviewed Dr. Gettys. The mini-interview, that the Jet Fuel Review editors are also partaking in for the “Meet the Editors” series, is located after the profile.
Dr. Serafima Gettys is a professor at Lewis University where she is serves as Director of the Foreign Language Program. She has been teaching at Lewis for ten years, and is originally from Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he was born and raised. She attended the University of Leningrad before she and her daughter immigrated to America in 1990. Prior to coming to Lewis, she taught at Stanford University; however, when she saw an advertisement in the newspaper that Lewis University was hiring for positions to start new programs, she decided to take the opportunity because she felt that she could do a lot more. Gettys states that when she was at Stanford, “People who were teaching languages were not as important as people who were teaching literature, so I was never able to do what I thought was right.” When Dr. Gettys came to Lewis, there was no foreign language program; now, Lewis offers up to nine languages, including Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, German, French, and Italian.
Since she began teaching, she has observed the level of knowledge that students around her had. She started out in Russia and was an English professor there for many years. She noticed that students in Russia had a high level of knowledge; they were pushed by their teachers to the limit. This made them feel obligated to know everything. Even when she was a student she was always expected to know more. For example, if someone asked her if she had read a certain book, and she hadn’t, she would be embarrassed; whereas, here in America, people often say “I hate to read.” For someone to grow up in the Russian culture, not reading a certain book would be the same as saying, “I’m an idiot.”
According to Professor Gettys, the level of general education is not the same in America as it is in Europe. For example, Europeans do not question their teacher’s knowledge or their teachers’ authority. Dr. Gettys says that in Russia, “The amount of knowledge and the quality of knowledge is really profound.” Russians are tested on factual knowledge: dates, people, and events. They are pushed to the extreme because it is not as democratic as it is here. The teachers are stricter and they expect more from their students; in return, the students feel obligated to know the material. The emphasis is on knowledge, on knowing.
I agree with Dr. Gettys that the level of knowledge is not the same in America as it is in Europe. I came from Lithuania to America when I was nine years old. I attended school in Lithuania for three years and had an understanding of the educational system. When I traveled here, I had completed 3rd grade, and because of my level of knowledge, I skipped 4th grade and went straight to 5th. In Lithuania, my teachers pushed me to know and learn as much as I could. They did not reward their students for anything they did not deserve. They were strict and to the point. Gettys observes that in America, students are often verbally rewarded for something that does not deserve to be rewarded. This can cause students to feel good about themselves when it isn’t necessarily deserved: “Students are often told ‘good question’ when it really isn’t; or, ‘turn to your partner and discuss,’ when students should actually be using their own heads.”
Professor Gettys is not saying that encouragement is wrong, but that it has to have its limits. She also discusses students being oblivious to world events. For example, she asked a student about the recent Philippines typhoon and the student didn’t know what she was talking about; whereas, “If something like that happened in Russia, everybody would know.” But here, she feels as though students are resistant to putting a little bit more information in their heads; it is as if they are safeguarding their memory.
Because she worries about students not having enough knowledge, Dr. Gettys is happy to share her knowledge. She frequently mentions good books to students, that they are unaware of, so that they may go and borrow them from the library. She says students are often grateful for recommendations. They need someone to direct them, to say “you have to go and read it.” Without that directive, they are often lost, so she continues to share her knowledge, especially when it comes to languages, as she strongly believes that people who speak several languages, no matter what language, are simply smarter. Research supports her idea, showing that people who speak two languages have more gray matter in their brain. Additionally, people who speak multiple languages have a later onset for Alzheimer’s disease. Their brain is a lot more active because it operates several systems at the same time. As she points out,
“When people say language makes you richer, up in here (points to her head) it is absolutely true. . . It’s like knowing math. It makes you a better learner, a better student, and a smarter person.”
Ultimately, what Professor Serafima Gettys is saying is that having knowledge is the most significant thing that a person can acquire. Without it, you can’t get anywhere. By having knowledge, not only do you yourself benefit from it, but you can also share it so that other people can benefit from it as well. However, in order to gain as much knowledge as you can, you have to be pushed to your limits.
Acts of Reading and Writing: Meet Serafima Gettys
Q: What book might we find on your nightstand right now?
A: Right now it is David Sedaris, very funny.
Q: If you had the chance to co-write with one author, who would you choose? Why?
Q: Describe your perfect reading atmosphere.
A: Before going to sleep in bed.
Q: What might your personal library look like?
A: It’s a whole huge library brought from Russia.
Q: What piece of literature can you read over and over again?
A: “All families are happy in similar ways but unhappy in different ways.”–Tolstoy
Q: If you were invited to have coffee with any fictional character, who would you most like to meet?
A: Pierre Bezukhov
Q: What influenced you to be a professor?
A: My mom who was also a professor.
Q: How does American literature compare/contrast to Russian literature?
A: Two very different cultures, two very different literary traditions. What appeals to me in Russian literature most is perhaps its realism and humanistic value, its depth. Although I very much like American literature, I would not dare to do any comparisons here.
Q: Can you share your top five favorite pieces of writing (anything included)?
A: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Pushkin’s Eugine Onegin; Austen’s Sense and Sensibility; Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Dog.”
Thank you, Dr. Gettys!