In The News

On the record … with Amy Levin

This article orginally appeared in the DeKalb MidWeek

DeKALB – The Road Scholars Speakers Bureau, a program of the Illinois Humanities Council, deploys more than 30 speakers on a variety of topics to give talks around the state. Northern Illinois University professor Amy Levin is on the bureau’s roster for the second time.

Levin was among the first class of speakers when the humanities council began the program in 1996. At that time, Levin, a professor of English and director of the university’s women’s studies program, lectured on small local museums and led book discussions.

“After five or six years, it was time to give someone else a chance,” she said. “Then last year, when they sent out the call for people who were interested, I thought, ‘I would like to do this again.’”

The first time, Levin said, she had just moved to Illinois and used the speaking engagements as a way to get to know the state – she may speak one day in Springfield and a few days later in Chicago. This time, she is excited to share her experiences of Myanmar, where she did a one-month Fulbright exchange last February.

Levin sat down with MidWeek editor Dana Herra to talk about her experience.

MidWeek: How did you end up in Myanmar?

Amy Levin: I’m a Fulbright specialist. It’s different from a regular Fulbright program in that it’s short term, usually only a couple of weeks. You go on a list and people in different countries apply to host you.

In this case, Fulbright put out a call that they wanted someone to go to Myanmar and was anyone interested. The call came at a bad time for me; I was at this huge conference and the deadline was only a few days away. So I sent an email saying since NIU has had a Burma studies program for so long, I would be interested, but I couldn’t meet the deadline. They said they would hold the deadline open for me.

What I wanted to do with the students there was what I was doing with my spring classes here, working on women writers, but introducing minorities as well.

MW: Had you ever been to Myanmar?

AL: No. I had been to Asia, but not to Myanmar. I lived in Tokyo for a year and a half as a kid. I visited Indonesia once for a few weeks and made a very short visit to Thailand and the Phillippines.

My parents went to Myanmar, though, in the 1950s. I had the letter my mother wrote her mother about it.

I was the first U.S. scholar in almost 30 years to be at a public university there. The country is changing daily. I was at the university in the capital, which was where Obama gave his big speech in November. Before that, foreigners had not been allowed on campus. And because traditionally the things that the government saw as problems, the demonstrations and things, began on campus, they did not like having reporters on campus.

The embassy told me it was likely reporters from Myanmar would want to talk to me because it was a big deal I was there, but I shouldn’t try to bring them on campus. So when a reporter called me, we carefully planned to meet outside the gates so she could get a photo with the campus buildings in the background. The next day, as I was leaving to go meet the reporter off campus, who is sitting by the front door and has been admitted? That reporter. I told the folks from the embassy about it and they said that hadn’t happened in years. Things are literally changing daily.

MW: How long did you stay?

AL: The standard visa is 28 days, so that’s how long I stayed.

MW: What are your road talks going to be about?

AL: The talk is about this experience, but also how using literature opened conversations of the changes going on in the democratization of this country. For example, we read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet. She’s writing about returning to Jordan and not speaking Arabic, and there’s a line to the effect of, “until you speak Arabic you will not understand pain.” I told my students, I want you to take that line as a prop and write to me about what I will not understand until I know Myanmar. One student wrote, “Until you speak Myanmar, you will not understand freedom.” To me, that was really moving and in many ways, accurate. You gain a different understanding of freedom when you are in the process of becoming more free every day.

I had to explain to my class one day what a jury trial was. They had never heard of such a thing. Some of them thought we still had slaves. I really had to brush up on my U.S. history and government to answer all their questions.

I have a lot of photos, so hopefully it will be an entertaining talk.

One day, Desmond Tutu upstaged me. I was supposed to give a talk on African-American writers for Black History Month, and he was in town suddenly, so I had to give up my time so he could speak in that room at that time. I was not upset. It was very inspirational and awe-inspiring, because I gave a talk in the same place, in the same seat, about 20 minutes later.

MW: Are you using this experience in the classes you are teaching now at NIU?

AL: I used it more last semester after I came back, because we were covering the same topics. I would say, “My students in Myanmar reacted this way to this poem, what do you think?”

Their learning environment is so different. They still stood when I came into the room. They still recite a lot. They’re not used to being asked for their opinion a lot, so I had to nurse them along with that. But they loved it.

I think the teachers were more nervous than the students, because there are all these things they had been told for so long not to do, now they’re being ordered to do. One thing that made the teachers most nervous was a course evaluation, because they don’t have those there and I made them do one. If you go to an American university, it’s such a given, that you evaluate the course at the end. The students were less nervous, because they didn’t feel they were the ones being judged.

MW: How did the students in Myanmar respond to your material, on literature by women and minorities?

AL: They were so excited. There were so many things they had never talked about. One day we ended up talking about U.S. fair housing laws, because it was mentioned in a poem and they had never heard of such. One day we talked about how important the kitchen table is in every culture and compared family roles, because we read a poem about the kitchen table. One day we talked about gender roles.

There are a lot of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) there. One that talked to me was a Muslim women’s empowerment group. At first they were really shy, but what they really wanted to talk about was LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues, because they had no one else to talk to. They felt if it were more accepted, it would lead to more gender equality for everyone.

They also wanted to talk about the similarities between Jewish and Muslim women, which I thought was interesting. I am Jewish. I thought it was fascinating.