Special Web Features

Beloved on the earth: An interview with Lynette Rummel, politics professor

Lynette Rummel was visited by sophomore Shannon Haaland to talk about international development in Africa, the Arab Spring, and “that community thing” at Marlboro College. 

Shannon Haaland: So, how long have you taught at Marlboro?    

Lynette Rummel: Oh dear, don’t ask that question, because it’s been forever. Once you get to heaven you don’t want to leave—that’s the point. I moved around a lot before, but yeah, since I’ve come here I’ve been a pig in shit. You’re going to clean this up, right?    

SH: I don’t know.   

LR: I can’t be saying all these ‘bad’ words.   

SH: Anyway, where did you teach before?   

LR: Well let’s see. I taught at UCLA while I was finishing my Ph.D. there. And as a teaching assistant I was chosen to be the teacher of TAs. I started at Virginia Tech and taught for three years before I went to Tunisia, and taught at the university there for three years. Then I came here. So that adds up to lots and lots of years.   

SH: I’m not doing the math. How has your work in development affected your teaching?   

LR: Well you should be able to answer that—you’re in all my classes.   

SH: Pretend I know nothing.  

LR: So when I started in the field of African studies I had assumed I was going to go into development as a career path. But as I learned and gained insight I realized that a lot of the problem was really how Americans think about Africa and about the “Third World.” I felt my bigger task, the more appropriate task for me, was to teach Americans how to understand Africa and let African development be a more indigenous undertaking.

I do feel that my commitment to research in the field, and time on the ground, has compelled me to go back as often as I can. And I find, and I think that you could verify the fact, that all of my experiences in the field help me to be a better teacher in the classroom. I try to use those experiences, and those stories, as a way of bringing the abstract, theoretical complexity—that sometimes becomes a little bit of a mind blow—into focus. To make it real, make it simple, make it understandable. To bring it to life and have that human dimension.   

SH: Is there a recent class that has inspired you?   

LR: Well I loved teaching Arab Springs, because I have spent so much time in North Africa. Ironically, when I interviewed for Marlboro so many years ago, my talk was about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that was starting to take root in Tunisia. I was attempting to help Americans understand this new movement, and that it wasn’t about religion as much it was about independence, and identity, and authenticity, and indigenousness. North Africans needed to find their own culture and identity, and this is where their embracing of Islam comes from. But what are you going to do when you are under an authoritarian regime? To overcome that is overwhelming, and it is scary and preposterous to dream about.

And then it happened. In the aftermath, I gave it a year or two to find some clarity on the ground. I was able to teach the Arab Springs class on the five North African countries: Tunisia where it started; and then Egypt where it went next; then to Libya; and then to Algeria—why did it or did it not go there, or had it already; and then what about Morocco. Those are the five countries that I know the most, so it was a thrill to teach about them to that extent. Unfortunately the result of the Arab Springs—the fallout—has not been as promising and as hopeful. We are back in difficult times of power and repression.   

SH: When did you teach that class?  

LR: Not last spring but the spring before, 2013. Now, this spring I’ll teach about the Maghreb, which refers to the three northwestern countries—Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—where I’ve spent the most time. I say the word “Maghreb” and most people don’t even know that word. But I love all my classes—I just love to teach.    

SH: Have you had a student who has changed your opinion or your mind on something?   

LR: I love when my students jar me, and they do all the time. That’s the lovely thing about being a teacher; I am still a student. I am still learning. In the end, when they become juniors or seniors, they go off and do a plan and they become the experts. I’m just hanging around, benefiting from their knowledge and their insights. Even as freshmen and sophomores—the untrained mind that has not been put into boxes—they say the best things. Usually they are very revealing and very insightful. Sometimes that insight is so honest—we usually have too much of “the academy.”   

SH: Favorite quote?  

LR: Well, right now I have a poem I could read to you. The background to this story is that my father was dying this past summer, and I was sitting by his side and wanting to talk to him, and wanting to know what was going on in his brain. And after many days of silence—he had brain cancer, so he was having a hard time communicating—one day when I was saying, “Dad, talk to me,” he looked up and said, “I know I am loved.” Which is the most beautiful thing anyone can say. 

On the day of his funeral, I am waiting for the funeral to happen—which is a really bizarre place to be—and I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book called Traveling Mercies. I turn the page and—boom—there is this poem called “Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carter, and it goes like this:   

“And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.”    

Isn’t that lovely? And I have to tell you that the flowers I got from my students in my dedicated hour group were so incredibly beautiful—I felt loved. I had had a difficult summer, and I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to come back. All of a sudden I got this incredibly touching—it was just beautiful—bunch of flowers delivered to my door. I went from “I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back, I’m not ready to face the world” to “I cannot wait to come back, I can’t wait to see you all.” And I felt beloved, as I love my students. I know it’s sappy but it’s true.

It was lovely because I had planned to do these “words to live by” in my Dedicated Hour group, and, given my summer, my first adage was going to be “practice kindness.” But y’all had already done it. The flowers from my students—you couldn’t get a more Marlboro story than that—it epitomizes what I love about this place, why I’ll never teach anywhere else. It’s that community thing.

SH: Do you have a recommendation for people who want to be more informed on the political source?  

LR: Try to follow news that is outside the country. It’s a pillar from that structure itself. We have to understand the world in non-American viewpoints. Even The Economist, since it’s out of London. Al Jazeera, that’s a better news source for us to realize we have very narrow documentation.    

SH: What is the best part about working with students on Plan?   

LR: I learn, I grow, I’m challenged. It’s not easy—it keeps me on my toes. That uncomfortable zone, it’s a good zone, but it’s tough. It’s so much work for the student and a lot of pressure and they have such high hopes. It’s not always pretty, I’m learning. I don’t know half of what my students end up writing about. I’ve had so many interesting Plans; I’ve had a student who went to Albania, one who went to Senegal, another who went to Panama—all over the world. They become my eyes and my ears, another way for me to travel. And I love them all—I wouldn’t want anyone of them to think they are not my favorite.