Santa Fe Parents
Fall 2010 Letter Home
Patricia Greer: East Meets West
A week before the start of fall semester, St. John’s tutor Patricia Greer was making her way through the Coffee Shop, her progress punctuated by hugs and welcoming words. Like the students who would soon be filling classrooms and dorms, Greer had that familiar feeling of butterflies fluttering in the stomach associated with returning to school. Unlike most of the students though, hers had been an absence of two years – a sabbatical preceded by a year teaching in Iraq.
Her time away from the Santa Fe campus would come to no surprise to friends and colleagues: she had spent about 20 years of her adult life in India. Not long after college, she had embarked on an adventure that would take her overland, traveling in a converted hearse with friends she had meet in Istanbul, through Iran and Afghanistan and over the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. When she arrived in India, she felt instantly at home, she recalls. After living in Delhi and other northern cities, she eventually wound up in Tamil Nadu, in a place called Auroville.
This community was actually an experiment of sorts, attracting many foreigners, especially French men and women, to build an international town -- an effort supported by then President Indira Gandhi. Greer started out planting trees and doing construction work, and then as schools were established, she eventually headed up an international high school. “It was such an inspiring project and it’s still going on,” Greer says. Here, too, she met her husband Alain Antoine, now a teacher at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe.
Greer’s thoughts about possibly taking a sabbatical during the 2008-2009 academic year were short-circuited by an email from St. John’s Past President John Agresto. In Iraq since August 2003, Agresto first worked with the Coalition Provisional Authority as senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. It was in his subsequent capacity as co-founder and chancellor of an American University there that he issued a “call for tutors” to teach in the newly established school.
“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Greer recalls. Thus it was that she and her husband, who would be setting up a video studio at the university, arrived in the Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniya in the fall of 2008. Because they lived on the outskirts of town, a driver would transport them via SUV to the university every day, where at the checkpoint they were greeted by friendly although armed young men who would cheerfully wave them through the gate once their vehicle had passed the routine inspection.
“We felt quite safe; we’d walk into town and go to the bazaar,” Greer says. (In one of the blog entries she wrote while in Iraq, she describes the local naan in such vibrant and aromatic terms that one’s mouth waters – “the bread is to die for.”) The people too were friendly, inviting Greer and her husband into their homes. Aesthetically, however, the place was a mess – structures half finished, plastic bags and bottles everywhere. The university was one exception. While some classrooms were located in trailers, the planned campus, well along to being completed, will be beautiful, Greer says.
With the not-surprising support of Agresto, Greer attempted to introduce a bit of St. John’s style. She took the rows of desks and arranged them in a rectangle and then said: “We’re going to talk.”
Unfortunately she soon found that the students –- as eager, bright, and hardworking as they were -- were severely hampered by their past education. “It was rote learning, and they’d never been asked to give their opinions or to question,” she explains.
In addition, even though the students had received English language instruction, many had very weak reading and writing skills in English, which made teaching composition and literature especially challenging. In her Western civilization, Greer discovered that the students couldn’t read maps and had no real sense of their own geographical location in terms of the rest of the world. At the same time, she recalls, these students were excited and enthusiastic. “They are the generation that is going to change things,” Greer says. (The Kurds are the largest ethnic group – around 30 million people – without a homeland, Greer points out, and the potentially volatile political situation is going to require judicious minds.)
While Greer was working with her students, her husband was also engaged with these young people, interviewing them and making a series of short documentaries about aspects of life at the university, for general informational purposes as well as for use in raising funds and recruiting students and staff. (Tutor David Carl’s wife, Melissa, came the year after Greer. A recent graduate of the Graduate Institute, Melissa Carl teaches at Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School, a new public charter school in Albuquerque with a conversation-based curriculum.)
During school vacations, Greer and her husband took advantage of the direct flight from Sulaimaniya to Istanbul. “We fell in love with Turkey,” she says. They also traveled to Dubai and to India, where they visited family in Auroville. “But, I’m glad to be back,” Greer says now. “A year was enough.”
The following year, Greer took her postponed sabbatical – during which time she did some traveling in the States, participated in a faculty study group on Schopenhauer, and delivered a lecture on the Mahabharata at the college, among other things. She then jump-started her anticipated return to St. John’s by co-leading, with Annapolis tutor Eva Brann, a Summer Classics seminar on Daniel Defoe and also teaching a preceptorial on The Tale of Genji for graduate students in the Eastern Classics Program.
Greer had always thought she should have gone to St. John’s as an undergraduate, she says. Instead, she attended the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1966, and then earning a master’s degree from John Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars program. She was studying towards a doctorate in English literature and linguistics at the University of Southern California when she decided to travel in Europe and the East for what she thought would be only a year’s break.
It was during one of her regular trips home from India to visit her parents, who live in Annapolis, that she noticed a sign for the Graduate Institute. Both excited –“St. John’s has a graduate program; I didn’t know!” -- and also feeling it was time to return to the States, Greer applied. “I thought that to get my feet back in the West, it would be good to read Western philosophy,” she explains. She received a her master’s degree from St. John’s in 1995, but having been immersed in Indian culture for so long, she felt the need to delve more intellectually into the great philosophical and religious texts of South Asia and to study the Sanskrit language in which most are written. So, she was on the road again, this time journeying to the University of Virginia, where she studied Eastern classics and earned a doctorate in history of religions in 2002.
Before joining the faculty of St. John’s in 2001, she had appointments at the University of Virginia and at Sweet Briar College, as an instructor in the history of Asian religions and a lecturer in the Sanskrit epics, respectively. Lately, she has been able to teach in the Eastern Classics program – a way of tying her earlier life in India with her later academic pursuits.
Greer also speculates that because she feels so enriched by her life in the East she can bring additional perspectives to discussions. And she enjoys juxtaposing cultures and credos -- her master’s essay was on the Bhagavad Gita and The Republic. This year at St. John’s, she’s looking forward to teaching Sanskrit in the Graduate Institute, and she’ll be teaching undergraduate French. So, once again, east meets west.
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