I sat in my first Irish lit. course here at BC tonight. The class is titled Irish Heroic Fiction in Modern Translation. Now, this class is actually way more nerdy than it sounds, and I’m afraid that some of the Education MA students who are taking it will discover that. But if you know me (and let’s face it–almost all of you do), you know that I’m even more excited about it because of that.
So, the professor went through his introduction to the course and talked about all of the various translations (mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries) we’ll be reading this semester, commenting on barely-known Irish authors and mentioning seminal works of criticism and seminal critics with astounding fluency–and I say fluency because it was clear to me that his intention was not to impress anyone with his breadth of knowledge (as if he would need to do that; he’s one of the most published scholars in this area), but rather a natural result of his studies. I was thrilled to listen, jotting down book titles that will soon be on my Amazon wish list, names of authors, and little tidbits of information.
And sometime during class, I thought, He’s speaking my language! He was speaking my very favorite academic vernacular–Irish lit. I’ve read or know of most of the critics he mentioned, most of the works he talked about. Shoot, I already happened to own about half of the books on the book list (seriously). I’m familiar with the historical events he mentioned, the political figures he never even stopped to explain, the progression of Irish literature from medieval times to present. I was in my element listening and understanding everything he said, and feeling pleased with myself and oh-so prepared for the coming semester. Which is not to say that it won’t be challenging or difficult. It’s really more that I’m not sure he could have a more excited, receptive, already-grounded student than me. Unless it’s the other Irish studies students in the class. And I’m pretty excited about them too, because (presumably) they speak my language also.
But even as I was relishing this experience, I was vaguely aware of the handful of students in the class who are not Irish lit people, some of whom are not really even lit people (they’re education people). I wonder if it felt as intimidating for them as it felt encouraging for me. I wonder if they felt at moments as if they needed a translator. If they looked at the reading list with eyes big with anxiety rather than eagerness. If they felt as out of their elements as I felt in mine.
And that’s when I was sure that the language metaphor I’m using here is really very appropriate. Once you get into higher-level coursework, the particular way that professors talk about their field really is almost it’s own language, and for the non-Irish studies students in the class, it’s almost like being non-native speakers in the classroom. They surely understood enough to get the gist of what was going on today, but they won’t have understood all of the specific things that were said. They don’t, probably, know that the word táin sort of rhymes with coin, or who in the world Declan Kiberd is, or (gasp!) some of them might not even know who Cúchulainn or Fionn mac Cumhail are.
See what I mean? Different language. One of my favorite languages. If I had any remaining doubts about whether or not I belong here, they’ve been laid to rest.