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Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

Krista M. Brune ’06

Ph.D. candidate in Spanish and Portuguese, University of California–Berkeley

When I entered Princeton, I had a vague notion of my concentration and academic plans. I wanted to continue improving my Spanish, yet I did not envision that department as my future scholarly home. I imagined myself studying Latin America through a focus in politics, history, or sociology, rather than in literature and culture. Yet my initial experiences with those large departments left something to be desired. Sitting in McCosh Hall as I listened passively to a politics or history lecture, I looked forward to my Portuguese language class and my literature seminar. In those more intimate settings, I became more engaged as I tested out my evolving language skills and engaged in dialogue with my colleagues. I was somewhat surprised to find myself anticipating these courses. While I had always enjoyed Spanish class in high school, I had never considered myself a “literature” person. The thought of discussing literary works in another language scared me and also seemed a rather impractical task, or at least that is what the conventional wisdom of the market had led me to believe. 

As I dove into coursework my freshman year, I began to change my mind. In language courses, my professors not only reviewed key grammatical concepts but also incorporated literature, culture, and criticism. Studying language, literature, and culture emerged as another way to study the history, politics, and people of Latin America. A freshman seminar on the “Cultures of Spain” similarly revealed the possibilities of an interdisciplinary approach grounded in literature for the study of a country and its peoples. Not only did I find these courses engaging and intellectually stimulating, but I also discovered a sense of home in the department. 

New challenges and adventures

In the cozy confines of East Pyne Hall, I would discuss readings, paper topics, and research possibilities with professors during their office hours or over a cup of coffee. As an undergraduate, I felt fully integrated into the life of the department as I attended lectures, film screenings, and other events. I was encouraged to take courses outside of the department that complemented my interests, to consult graduate students for advice on research and writing, and to study abroad. My advisers guided and challenged me as I embarked on my independent work. Their suggestions and questions sharpened my critical thinking, improved my writing, and further sparked my intellectual curiosity. While I would have honed my analytical skills in any department, I also learned a new language, Portuguese, and strengthened my abilities in Spanish. 

I left Princeton as a critical thinker able to engage in discussions and scholarly work in three languages. Thanks to encouragement and recommendations from my professors, I was able to continue pursuing independent research upon graduation. I began life after Princeton as a ReachOut ’56 fellow with Voices UnBroken, investigating arts and education programs in correctional facilities across the United States. As I traveled across the country visiting programs, collecting materials, and interviewing artists and participants, I drew on the skills gained during my thesis year. Even though the subject matter and goals of my ReachOut project differed from my undergraduate thesis on a Chilean song movement, I followed a similar research procedure in both as I conducted fieldwork, interviewed, gathered archival materials, and synthesized bibliographic information in order to create a final product. Whereas my Chilean research generated a scholarly manuscript, my prison arts investigation resulted in the more utilitarian products of an article, website, and resource manual. 

After concluding this investigation on arts in prison, I headed to Brazil on a Fulbright grant for another yearlong research stint. My Fulbright proposal would not have been viable without the support of my advisers. My thesis adviser, Professor Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, provided critical comments on my application that transformed me into a more attractive candidate and made my intended research more feasible. My Portuguese professor, Pedro Meira Monteiro, provided me with initial contacts at universities in São Paulo and Campinas. He helped ease my transition to Brazil by helping me practice my Portuguese prior to my departure and by giving suggestions on the most mundane, but necessary, components of daily life such as housing and transportation. 

Thanks to this intellectual and emotional support from my professors, I was able to expand my knowledge of the language, peoples, and cultures of Brazil. My research comparing Brazilian music to the Spanish American music of the 1960s and 1970s emerged from my senior thesis. While social scientists and historians often draw these parallels across Latin America, I wanted to put Brazil in dialogue with its neighbors in the realm of music to further my comparative understanding of culture, history, and politics in the Americas. 

Finding inspiration

These research experiences convinced me that I wanted to continue my studies. Currently, I am a third-year graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California–Berkeley. The courses and independent work I undertook while at Princeton continue to serve as a touchstone for my academic work. The abilities to pose questions, to delve into bibliographic resources, to formulate hypotheses, and to articulate arguments remain staples of my daily life. My undergraduate professors trained me well to become a scholar, mentor, educator, and colleague. As I transition between being a student and a professor, I remember my language classes with Pedro. I consider how those classes inspired me to learn the nuances of the Portuguese language and the complexity of the Lusophone world. For me, the answer lies in the nexus of language, culture, and society. Pedro taught Portuguese not through grammatical rules and rote memorization, but rather via song, film, literature, and cultural criticism. 

In my Portuguese classes for my students, I hope to inspire a similar interest in both language and culture. I want my students to understand grammar and to be able to communicate effectively, but I also want the material to be meaningful for them. As I incorporate songs, film clips, and short literary texts into my language classes, I follow the model of my Princeton professors with hopes of engaging my students in a similar fashion. Now that I am at Berkeley, where a “small” department has nearly a hundred undergraduate majors, I more fully appreciate the privilege I had as an undergraduate concentrating in Spanish and Portuguese. I worked with eminent scholars in my field and received personalized attention and support. My professors continue to mentor me as I progress academically. I look forward to the day that I will be able to call them my colleagues.