Thursday, 29 September 2011

View from a classroom, part 1

After writing a post about Thomas J. Garza's university reader, The vampire in Slavic culture (2010), a commentator mentioned she was actually a student of Garza's course at The University of Texas at Austin.

What a golden opportunity, I thought. Would she be willing to write a guest blog about what it's like to be a student of his class? I figured readers would be interested in finding out what it's like taking a course on the undead. Thankfully, Jane (Little Socks) was keen on the idea.1

Our discussion was more fruitful than she intended: it made me think, why don't I interview Garza, himself? And I did. I was originally going to use Jane's guest blog as a companion piece to the interview with Garza—a, 'you've heard from the teacher, now here's one of his students!' kinda deal. If I hadn't decided to stop writing that blog, she would've had the distinction of being Diary of an amateur vampirologist's first guest blogger. Instead, she's got the distinction of being the very first guest blogger for The vampirologist. Well done!

I'd like to thank Jane, in advance, for sharing the reasons she chose the course, her background interest in vamps, and providing a thorough insight into the course, itself. Much appreciated. Without further ado, heeeeere's Jane!

Well, where to start.. I suppose a quick introduction is in order. I’m a senior in biological anthropology at University of Texas in Austin. I’ve been a casual reader of vampire stories since I first came upon Anne Rice in high school, and I’ve always loved scary and bloody movies. I enrolled in Professor Thomas Garza's "Vampire in Slavic Cultures" course last minute when another class of mine was canceled, and this one both fit the time slot and seemed like it’d be enjoyable. Part of my attraction to this class was a course on Tolkien that I "took" via podcast where I learned a surprising amount about the influence of folklore and mythology in literature, and how real history impacts myth. The vampire story (as Prof Garza says) has always seemed so ancient to me (although that might just have been because vampires themselves are portrayed as ancient), and it's great to learn about just how old the story is, and where it originated and under what circumstances. I enjoy writing and rarely do it, so when Mr. Hogg asked if I would be interested in writing a guest blog on what Prof Garza's course is like, I readily agreed. As a bonus to me, I'll probably ace the midterm exams for this class with all this extra review! This first entry will probably be longer than subsequent ones, seeing as how the class has already met three times, so there's more to cover. You’ll have to forgive the more unreliable nature of my notes from the first two lectures, as this was before any 'guest blog' idea had been forwarded. It's incredible how much more thorough I am when I have a potential audience.

Now to set the scene, I suppose. The class meets twice a week and is about 150 people. We're packed as tight as sardines into a sort of theatre/lecture hall in the late afternoon – and for those of you who don’t know, Texas is in the middle of a drought and one of the hottest summers on record, so late afternoon is about 105 F– or 41 Celsius. So having the sit almost on top of each other at this time of day is a little uncomfortable. However, for the three sessions the class has met for so far, I have yet to see any drop in attendance. I think everyone is as willing as I am to withstand the discomfort of crawling over people to get to your seat (I swear I'm hardly exaggerating) and then smelling them pungently until the air conditioning cools us off. Which is surprising, because there is a large number of freshman in the course and they typically drop like flies when comfort and class collide.

Professor Garza's teaching style is both familiar and unusual. Familiar is the lecture/power point setup – I feel that his spoken lecture is much richer than his power points, which tends to be mainly photos and key points, which he later posts online for students to have for review. He plays a vampire related song, typically Russian/Slavic, before the lecture while everyone is cramming themselves into their seat. So far he's shown at least three clips from movies. A little more unorthodox is his use of Twitter throughout the class. In order to better hear from his students throughout class, he created a Twitter account for the course and encourages students to log on during class to post comments, insights, or questions while he lectures. About two to three times throughout class he opens Twitter and reads over the comments/questions and verbally responds. I actually like this, because it means more time of listening to Prof Garza teach and less time listening to students stumble over their thoughts and questions. Although I had one weird one moment where both the people sitting next to me were on their smartphones during his lecture and my first reaction was outrage at freshman negligence and disrespect (how DARE they not pay attention!) – but I felt rather sheepish when I realized they were using the course Twitter page as encouraged – it seems I’ve developed a strain of the superior senior complex.

The first day of class covered the typical overview of the syllabus, how the course is graded and so on. While his two graduate students passed out syllabi to the class, the song "Gentle Vampire" by Nautilus Pompilius played, with the lyrics in Russian and English on the overhead. It's a pretty creepy song, and you'd have to hear it yourself to know how aptly it gives off a 'vampiric' atmosphere. After the song, Professor Garza introduced himself and covered how the course would be handled. He mentioned he plays a lot of clips from movies, both good and bad, and he warned us that some of the clips are pretty violent (apparently a big jock fainted in '99, which made for a good story and warning all in one). He clarified that his course is titled "Vampire in Slavic Cultures" to avoid any confusion with Asian vampire stories. He explained that they have an even older history and are just as fascinating as the Western vampire tales, but that the stories were quite separate and the Asian vampire stories weren't his area of expertise.

He also gave a sort of mini-lecture– this part I will "translate" from my notes. Western vampire lore originated in the Balkans, "where East meets West." Tales of Kali (blood-drinking goddess of death from South East Asia) took hold in this region to explain misfortune. He talked about vampires at this point not specifically being blood-drinkers (although that was often included), but being a force that ruins things – your crops, livestock, health, marriage, etc. Whenever bad things happened without explanation, blaming a supernatural nocturnal demon was the simplest course (and perhaps most logical, for the time). The word 'vampire' first came about 1047 – or rather, the word 'upyr'. In the 15th century the Carpathians and Transylvania became a hotbed for these stories partly on account of Vlad Tepes Dracula. At this point Prof Garza showed us a clip from the exposition of the film Bram Stoker's Dracula, which he told us to specifically notice that this film is not only entertaining but also neatly summarizes the origins of the stories about Dracula, not the true history of Vlad Tepes Dracula. And that was the end of the first class.

For the second lecture, my notes are almost as brief as for the first, although this was a whole 80-minute lecture. Professor Garza played the song "Bloodletting" by Concrete Blonde (in English this time) whilst we passed around the roll sheet. This song was a bit less outright-creepy than "Gentle Vampire," but it has a great baseline that totally makes me think of heathens dancing around a fire – OK, I'm getting a little carried away but the song just has a sort of primeval touch to it. Just listen to it. I also like it because it mentions New Orleans which automatically brings back fond memories of reading Anne Rice novels, and my own trips to there - by the way, if anyone ever has a chance to visit Louisiana, I completely recommend it, they have great food and the friendliest people ever! You might be able to tell, but I'm a total sucker for anything New Orleans.

For this lecture my notes are a bit scattered, but fortunately I also have Professor Garza's power point slides to refer to.  First I reviewed that the European vampire was influenced by Kali, and then went on to say that death was (obviously) considered a bad thing, but in religious thought death is the bringer of the afterlife (i.e. Heaven) and so is potentially a thing to look forward to as well.  Next I skip to the definition of  'revenant' – one that returns from the dead. Fairly straightforward, although I added in the margins "includes both vampires and zombies." After a brief note that shape-shifting is one of the oldest vampire traits, ahead of fangs and super strength, my notes becomes a little more cohesive. The origin of the word vampire stems from the "old church Slavic" (I’m not exactly sure what that is)2 word 'upyr,' which was used to refer to nasty, foul creatures in general. In Old Russian (I think), the prefix 'u' meant 'out of, out from' and the suffix 'piti' meant 'to drink.' Thus 'upyr' initially implied a nasty creature that "drank out of…" and you can fill in the blank. Over time the word morphed – 'u' into 'vam' and 'pyr' into 'pir' and henceforth we have the modern Russian 'vampir.' If I’m recalling correctly, at this point Prof Garza told us an anecdote about the oldest surviving text with the word 'vampir.' It was in an 11th century Russian newspaper that called a local priest, known for his avarice, a "wicked old vampire." Also, around this time Professor checked the class twitter page where someone made a crack at Rick Perry for being a wicked old vampire as well – for those not informed on Texas/American politics, you’re missing out on a pretty good joke.

Next we covered the question "What is a vampire?" using our readings as references. The readings were four different sources that define the word "vampire," from the dictionary to scholarly works on folklore. After discussing each individual definition - most of which included surprisingly specific details about traits of vampires. My favorite new vampire fact (although perhaps old news to those reading) was that one of their traditional traits was an obsession with order. One of the definitions listed 'scattering seeds on the ground' as a vampire deterrent – because they will have to stop and count them all! The obsession with order may have also resulted in vampire's strict code of only entering when invited. And I wasn't the only student who noticed the tidbit about counting seeds, as when it came to "twitter time" someone asked if the team at Sesame Street had this in mind when coming up with Count von Count – apparently they did.  Sesame Street just got a little darker and a lot more awesome in my mind. Now I’m imagining the song "Gentle Vampire" playing as Count von Count arrives… to count your final heartbeats!

Stay tuned for the conclusion of 'View from a classroom'!

1. Final draft submitted via e-mail ('Re: First guest blog', Tuesday, 13 September 2011 10:48:57 AM).

2. According to Wikipedia, it 'was the first literary Slavic language, first developed by the 9th century Byzantine Greek missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius who were credited with standardizing the language and using it for translating the Bible and other Ancient Greek ecclesiastical texts as part of the Christianization of the Slavic peoples.'

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