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A Fulbrighter’s letter to his Congressman

JohnStifler

January 18, 2010

Rep. Richard Neal 2208 Rayburn Office Building Washington D.C. 20515

Dear Richard Neal:

I have been meaning for many weeks to write you this note of thanks – thanks for your support, and for all of Congress’s support, for the Fulbright Program.

Last year, I spent eight months as a Fulbright scholar in Sri Lanka, where I taught at a university, led writing and editing workshops, and studied contemporary Sri Lankan writing. Not only was it one of the best personal experiences of my life but it greatly increased my ability to be an effective teacher back home at the University of Massachusetts. I am very proud to tell you that, from what I have seen, Senator William Fulbright’s vision of such an opportunity for exchange between Americans and inquisitive citizens of other countries is as bright as ever.

Thanks to the Fulbright grant, between early January of 2009 and the end of August I lived in the ancient former capital city of Kandy and taught English literature and writing skills at the highly regarded University of Peredeniya. I met and worked with wonderful professors and other colleagues who themselves have spent time in the United States on Fulbright teaching and research grants. I also spent a good amount of time in the modern capital, Colombo, where, with assistance from the U.S. Embassy and the Fulbright office, I led writing and editing workshops for Sri Lankan novelists, poets and journalists, plus a workshop for professors of business management to help them effectively write and edit materials they are composing for on-line and distance-learning graduate courses in management. In other available time, I followed the news and history of the now-ended civil conflict, observed amazing fauna and flora in many different environments, and met occasionally with other Fulbright grantees, sharing experiences and learning from each other. I also participated in the annual South Asian Fulbright conference, held last year in Calcutta, where I was further impressed by the extraordinary range of backgrounds, interests, intellectual styles and ages of the Fulbright participants.

Attached, for anyone who might want to read it or keep it on file, is a portion of the longer report I filed last fall with the Fulbright commission and its agency, the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) in Washington. As I wrote in that report, in Sri Lanka I felt constantly that I was really wanted: that people there wanted what I could teach, wanted my views on writing, communication, self-expression; and wanted someone from the West to talk to, and with, on these and other cultural subjects. I felt that there was real work for me to do, as much work as I possibly could handle. It was all well worth the time and effort.

When I received this grant, you were kind enough to send me a congratulatory letter, and so I am doubly thankful. Those words from you increased my already strong sense that the Fulbright grant was a special opportunity. It is also an outstanding example of how the United States Congress makes possible one of the most useful and exciting international exchanges I have ever seen. I trust that many more Americans will be able to have such an opportunity to represent their country and their culture abroad, and that our country will continue to give similar opportunities to people from other countries to visit the United States.

With best regards,

John R. Stifler 12 High Meadow Road Florence MA 01062

[email protected]

January 18, 2010

The Fulbright grant that took me to Sri Lanka provided me with one of the greatest experiences of my life. In teaching university students, leading writing and editing workshops for writers and journalists and economists and management professors, and even simply in hanging around talking to people everywhere, I felt constantly that I was really wanted in this place; that people wanted what I could teach, wanted my views on writing, communication, self-expression; and wanted someone from the West to talk to, and with, on these and other cultural subjects. I felt that there was real work for me to do, as much work as I possibly could handle. I loved being there.

The university classes were generally delightful, the excursions were enlightening, and the creative writing workshops in Colombo were as exciting as any I have participated in, anywhere. Even more than I had hoped I might, I found that I could get easily into the main literary circles in the country, share ideas, read and listen, make suggestions to writers and publishers, and understand some of the challenges they face in their work. I also think it was very helpful for my Sri Lankan students to get some exposure to a North American classroom style, in which the professor lectures less and spends a bit more time asking the students, "What do YOU think?" (Many of them were not ready to speak up, but just the fact that they were being asked seems to have been worth a great deal to them. One day during a discussion of T.S. Eliot, when one student was smiling in class so broadly I thought her face would stretch, I asked what was going on. She said, "Sir, our classes are not usually so entertaining!")

One particularly valuable experience, I think for the participants even more than for me, was the two-day workshop I ran for journalists. Held at the Fulbright offices in Colombo, this workshop brought together some junior and some senior writers and editors of widely ranging ability and experience. The least experienced were young editors whose main job seems to consist of fitting some text into a space on a page. Editing skills that would be standard in an undergraduate journalism class in the United States, never mind a real daily paper, are unknown to them. Moreover, even though they are working for English-language papers, their understanding of English is haphazard, and they sometimes did not understand what others in the room were saying. At the other end of the spectrum were a couple of mature, experienced people whose English is as good as anyone’s, whose ear for good prose is well-tuned, and who can quickly find and correct stylistic errors and weaknesses. Significantly, both these kinds of people, as well as everyone in between, got very actively involved in the exercises and discussions that formed the main part of the workshop, and they were obviously excited by the opportunity. I was flattered by their response, but I really felt more like an agent than a creator of the messages and the lessons that reached them during these two days.

Everyone knows that in Sri Lanka nearly all the content of the newspapers is controlled by the government. One message I tried to convey in these workshops is that, regardless of who is calling the tune, you can play that tune well instead of badly. In other words, while I certainly had no intention of trying to persuade Sri Lankan journalists to push the boundaries of what their government will allow to be published, these journalists will be doing themselves and their country a service if they will strive for a higher professional standard in such basic areas as orienting the reader to the story clearly in the first paragraph, defining unfamiliar terms, avoiding unnecessary repetitions, and so on. They seemed to understand that message. At the end, the oldest participant spoke for the group, saying to me that, as far as he could tell, all of them had been working for years in this profession without ever having anyone provide them with any of the kind of training these workshops were providing. I believe he was in tears by the time he finished saying this. I was, and I remain, quite humbled by such a sense of appreciation, and of the need for things someone in my position could bring to this country, this environment, these dedicated people.

I have spent a couple of hours writing this. I hope to spend a couple of thousand hours writing more about these experiences.

Thank you.

John R. Stifler – Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Economics, Univ. of Massachusetts/Amherst

12 High Meadow Road

Florence MA 01062-2625