Milda Danytė: ‘Every Action Must Have an Effect’

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An exceptional, extraordinary personality. Such thoughts came to mind after a remarkably warm and frank conversation with a lecturer at VMU Dept. of English Philology, Professor Milda Danytė. The talk touched upon various subjects: the road to VMU, relationship with students, exceedingly generous donations to Vytautas Magnus University and its library, interests and views on life and people.

 

Indrė Sekevičienė, i.sekeviciene@vkt.vdu.lt
Martynas Gedvila, m.gedvila@vkt.vdu.lt

The interview began from the very beginning. ‘I was born in 1950. My parents had arrived a year earlier from the so-called DP camp, where they spent 4-5 years. They did not want to go back to Soviet Lithuania. Therefore, I was born in Canada. I first saw Lithuania only in 1989, so I could not say that I came back to Lithuania. Much like many other second generation Canadian Lithuanians, my parents constantly talked about Lithuania. Even when I was little, I was already marked as a Lithuanian’, Milda Danytė began the conversation.

Knew All About Kaunas Without Visiting It

Remembering her childhood, the professor said it was hard being a Lithuanian. The teachers wanted to call her other names, but she persisted in saying she was a Lithuanian and her name was not Matilda but Milda.

‘My parents were very active in the political struggle for the independence of Lithuania and constantly involved me in it. In my early childhood, I already knew quite a lot about Lithuania, Kaunas and VMU, where my parents studied. To me, VMU was a part of Kaunas. Mother never completely fit in in Canada – she often told stories about Kaunas: about members of student corporations, the Milk Bar and the rolls sold there, the Žaliakalnis. I had never been in Kaunas, yet already I knew everything about it. Sometimes my mother would even see a window somewhere while walking and say that it reminds her of the neighbour’s house in Kaunas. If she talked about Lithuania, she told me about the university, which to me was the main part of Lithuania that I imagined’, Danytė explained her first knowledge of VMU.

Did Not Leave Her Country

The interviewee said she always wanted to live in Europe, which is why she came to Italy, spending three years in Rome. ‘When the Sajūdis began, people could come to Lithuania much more freely. We knew a lot about what was going on in Lithuania. I decided I wanted to go there. But I couldn’t travel to Lithuania from Italy – I had to return to Canada and get a permit. I thought I could teach English at the re-established VMU, as I had acquired doctoral degree in Canada’, Danytė remembered.

However, Danytė couldn’t come during the time of the blockade, because she was blacklisted for the participation in various demonstrations. So, with only a month left until the beginning of the university’s academic year, she still did not have a visa. As soon as the news came that the black list was destroyed, Milda Danytė obtained the permit to travel to Lithuania and was at Vytautas Magnus University on September 2nd. ‘My goal was to remain in the country of my parents for the rest of my life. I consider myself an immigrant. Most do not want to be called that’, said Danytė. She did, however, emphasize that the difference between her and actual emigrants is that she never left her country.

A Stranger in Canada, Italy and Lithuania

According to the teacher, working at the university was not her main goal, but a means. ‘I came not with a simple tourist visa, but with a work visa, so I had to work. I knew it would be hard. I had lived in Canada, Spain and Italy. I felt that I was going to be a bit of a stranger. It is still so, even after 20 years. I am sometimes irritated when people — for example, taxi drivers — ask me where I’m from. I ask them too: ‘It seems to me that you are not a Kaunas native too – you have a dialectal accent’. The alienation becomes tiring. I felt like a stranger in Canada, because I wasn’t of British descent. In Italy I was a foreigner, and I am a foreigner here, too’, Danytė shared the details of how it feels to be an immigrant.

Sought to Create a Modern System

Talking of her work at the university, Danytė told that, when VMU was in need of a Head for the Dept. of English Philology, she took up the position for two terms. ‘Having decided to be the head of the department, I formed a team of professional lecturers. I had a strong desire that the students would be taught by professionals who know their job well. I strived for as many teachers as possible to get doctoral degrees. While heading the department for almost 10 years, I taught many subjects and sought to create a modern system, not to fall behind the modern study practice of the West. When my work as the head of department was ending, the Dept. of English Philology was the strongest one in Lithuania. Judging by the number of working teachers who have a degree, write articles, travel and participate in conferences, we significantly surpassed Vilnius University’, said Danytė.

But achieving all this was very hard. ‘There was a period of gruelling work. It was hard to administer everything, sort out everything very well. Sometimes I used to even cry going home’, confessed the professor. ‘Now everything is much better. We also attract large numbers of students: we receive over 60 student baskets and over 40 pay for studies’.

Working With Danytė Is Very Pleasant

Currently, Milda Danytė’s work at Vytautas Magnus University is very intense. For the BA students, she teaches Survey of British Literature, Short Story Theory and optional subjects – Canadian Literature and Culture and Children’s Literature and Culture. For the MA students, Danytė teaches subjects of Literature Theory, Ethnic Minority Literatures, Text Editing, Consistent Verbal Translation, Translation Theory, Literature Translation. ‘I read lectures together with other teachers. This is good because everyone makes a different contribution. Also, it is practical when you want to go to a conference’, said Danytė.

The current Head of the Dept. of English Philology at VMU, Ingrida Žindžiuvienė, shared her thoughts on Milda Danytė’s lectures and her universal influence on the university and its community: ‘Milda Danytė was my teacher for two thirds of my study courses and was the supervisor of the MA thesis. I have acquired a lot of information from her, pedagogic, literature methods of teaching. Her courses were especially beneficial. I still find it very pleasant to work with her: together we have taught some of the courses, for example, the Survey of British Literature. There is no other specialist of such a level in Lithuania’, explained Žindžiuvienė.

Donated Over 1000 Books to VMU Library

When the topic shifted to contributions to the university, Danytė told about the books brought to the library, which were and still are very useful for studies. ‘Earlier I would write letters to publishing houses, asking for textbooks. Together with my parents I have bought and brought over 1000 books on Anglistics. Such actions are less needed today, as currently the university is able to give it a lot of attention’, told Danytė.

Danytė goes to Canada at least twice a year, to visit her mother and help her sister, and, returning to Lithuania, still brings back books. The professor remembered the times many years ago when she carried the books in huge trunks. ‘When I had to put my trunk on the scale, I used to hide that I can barely lift it. I would be told: ‘Miss, you exceed the allowed weight by 20 kilograms’, and then I would reply: ‘Oh, how can it be? This trunk is as light as a feather to me’ (laughs). I have learned to pick out the airport workers who can let me go through with such trunks – it has to be a person of a specific kind. They do not ask to pay for overweight. Another important thing – you have to come to the airport very early, because the workers are not so demanding then. I would open the trunk and show them books, tell about the university, say that I am very thankful to the Canadian government.’ The professor used to even try to soften their hearts: ‘Sometimes I’d even shed a tear’, Danytė confessed, laughing.

Careful About Whom To Donate

On each trip returning from Canada, Danytė brings back roughly 100 books to the university. The teacher takes everything into consideration, even picking out books, so that the trunks would not be so heavy – she achieves this by buying paperbacks, which are lighter. In her carry-on bag, Danytė carries the heavier books – scientific literature is usually bound in such a way. To the astonished airport workers, gasping at the large number of books, the lecturer simply says she reads a lot…

Danytė donates books not just to VMU, but to public libraries as well. ‘There is one humble library in Aukštieji Šančiai. I have bought all of the Harry Potter books to them, detective stories, love stories. They need them, because they do not get many books that the readers need’, said Danytė, without showing any pride in her honourable activities.

Nevertheless, the teacher is careful about whom to donate and what to donate. She claims she never gives money to those who are begging on the streets. ‘I have eyes – it is a business. If there are kids standing, there is some old man who takes away the money they collect. I prefer donating something to ‘Caritas’ – they know who really needs support’.

Turned Envelopes Inside Out to Save Money

It seems paradoxical coming from a person who donates a lot, but Danytė confessed to being very frugal about everything: she does not have a car, as its maintenance is very costly and Kaunas has a good public transportation system; the professor also does not have a TV or a mobile phone. ‘I consider everything carefully, looking where to save money. Living in Canada, I saved a lot too. I even turned envelopes inside out and sent them again. After noticing this, my father got very angry and gave me 100 envelopes, so that I would stop doing that’, Danytė laughed. The teacher said she must save living in Lithuania, because trips to Canada are very expensive – she has to spend four of her salaries’ worth of money. But Danytė is not saving at the expense of other people – instead of buying possessions for herself or her home, she invests into young people’s education by bringing them books.

‘Sometimes I think that if I don’t take care of my flat, it might soon fall apart’, Danytė laughs. Returning to the subject of saving money, the lecturer revealed she counts every single cent. She claims that it is important to make notes about all of the expenses, even the smallest ones – it is the only way to understand where the money goes.

Staring at an Object Brings Out Art

‘I think about everything. It’s in my genes. I want to live the way I like. I don’t want to work in a job I don’t find pleasant. But I am an optimist by nature’, Danytė said. Taking a break from work, the teacher likes to read detective stories and take walks, sometimes even reaching Aukštieji Šančiai. Reading, looking for information are activities professor Danytė likes very much – sometimes she reads books even while washing dishes, and nothing brings her more pleasure than investigative work, hours upon hours spent at the library, analyzing documents and books. ‘If there were more bike paths, I would travel everywhere by bike’, said the lecturer.

Speaking of her dreams and aspirations, the interviewee disclosed that, if she had a lot of money, she would buy works of art, study languages, social sciences, astronomy. In addition to that, Danytė also wants to write at least two books, one of which would be about Canadian Lithuanians. The professor also spoke of her previous hobbies: ‘I used to write poems. Whenever I wanted to write, I would do Zen Buddhism exercises: I’d look at an object for about half an hour and then the poem would be born. Once I looked at one picture in an exhibition for three hours. Exhibition caretakers looked at me quite strangely’ (laughing).

Finds Time For Everything

Danytė finds work at the university pleasant. Arriving at VMU, the professor made it one of her main goals to work with young people and change their way of thinking. ‘I never talk about political views – only the scientific side. I never force any ideas on the students, but I want them to be tolerant’.

Danytė gives exceptional attention to the students and thinks it is very important: ‘If you are doing something, you must do it in such a way that it has an effect. When I correct a student’s work, there is as much red ink as the blue or the black one. Most students do not even see or read what I’ve written. Others make a photocopy, some 20 percent of them. So I do everything for the sake of those 20 percent – I mark the typical mistakes, provide examples. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it’.

The teacher’s students had only warm words to say about Milda Danytė. They claimed the professor is a true specialist in her field and a very warm person: ‘Her lectures were always interesting, so everyone did their best to come to them, even though lecture attendance is not mandatory. Since the lecturer provided the material very clearly and comprehensibly, there was no need to learn by heart and I remembered many things from the lectures. She was the supervisor of my Master’s thesis, so we communicated not only during lectures. As a supervisor, Danytė really did not hold back on the time for neither the consultations nor the corrections of drafts. If needed, she even consults on the phone (I know this from my former coursemates, though I did not consult her that way). If any difficulties arise, she never refuses to help. To be honest, I don’t know how she has time for everything: preparing for lectures, lecturing, consulting students not just on the consultation hours, correcting works, preparing presentations for conferences, writing articles and books, etc. Plenty of the books donated by the lecturer can be found at our university’s Central Lending Department and the Vaclovas Biržiška reading room. If I remember correctly, most of them are brought from abroad and are very useful for studies, but they aren’t available to buy in Lithuania’, Aurelija Daukšaitė spoke very highly of her teacher and Master thesis’ supervisor Milda Danytė.

Fourth year student Agnė Augulevičiūtė had Danytė’s lectures during her first and second year, when the professor taught Survey of British Literature. The student said there was not just hard work with Danytė, but laughing to tears as well: ‘When we used to meet to discuss the course paper, we’d spend long hours sitting and the teacher would always tell of all kinds of adventures, which happened to her, so there was laughing to tears. Currently I am writing my Bachelor’s thesis supervised by teacher Danytė. Nothing has changed – it is still very pleasant to work. I also like the lecturer’s ability to work productively, which nurtures both the responsibility for your own work and the ability to finish everything on time. In the spring semester, we will have the teacher’s subject Children’s Literature, which will probably be the most interesting lecture for us – we all can’t wait’, said Agnė.

Students Amaze Me’

Comparing former students with the current ones, professor Danytė revealed that she is working with very ambitious, strong young people. ‘Students amaze me. When I am asked to compare students, I say that earlier they used to be more shy. But there were some very interesting personalities among them. Now there are ‘little geniuses’, as well as slackers. But today there are many more strong and hard-working students’, said Danytė. ‘My connection to the students is quite good. At first I wanted them to fear me – there is dead silence on my lectures, because I send away those who talk from the room without warning. This is very surprising to the students. Students also cannot cheat by copying. I myself know some 100 ways to cheat, so during the tests the students’ eyes must be fixed only on the paper or the ceiling. If they are fixed on anything else – I take away the test. But I am not a strict teacher. I write too many high marks. In the Master’s studies, nobody is afraid of me anymore’ (laughs).

According to the professor, there are hundreds of ways to cheat. ‘Sometimes they try to circumvent my system, too, but it is not difficult to ‘manage’ that. As far as homework or course papers go, I am very strict about plagiarism and buying of works. I do not accept any work if it is not brought ‘piece by piece’. Sometimes I get works taken from the Internet. Even the address they copied from sometimes is left in, out of carelessness… It is easy to see if the work is not written by the person it was supposed to be by. Meanwhile, the Master’s degree students get assignments that nobody could dictate through the headphones. I myself should probably be sitting in that car’, Danytė shared the vast university teaching experience she has collected over the years.

Throws Bribes Out the Window

As the talk reached the subject of the students wanting to ‘circumvent the system’, the lecturer told of a time when a woman came to her, carrying a large and heavy bag. ‘She said that her son wanted to join the Police Academy, so she wanted to raise the mark of his English exam: purportedly her son definitely won’t apply for studies at VMU, but after passing the test at this university, there would be no need to take the exam at the Police Academy. In the bag, there were potatoes, home-grown by the woman. It was a bribe, which she tried to give me, but I said we could not do this. Of course, there were times when they brought boxes of sweets. Sometimes I threw them out the window or through the door and told them to go away (laughs). But noone ever offered money. If we accepted money, they would have to give no less than 10 000 dollars for it to be worth it (laughing). And it is indeed not worth it. If I get caught and expelled from the university, my career would be over, and I would still have many years to live. So I would need about a million’, Danytė said, laughing.

The Warmth of Contact Costs Nothing

At the end of this long but not overlong conversation, thanking for the precious time spent, professor Danytė wished for not just the members of VMU community but all people in general to communicate as much as possible. Not just during the time of the biggest holidays of the year, but every day: ‘Spend more time, or even a couple of minutes is enough, to talk with people who are in your environment: the custodian, the aunt, the lecturer. It will make both you and the others feel warmer. And it costs nothing’.

In the photo by Jonas Petronis (j.petronis@vkt.vdu.lt) – Milda Danytė and the picture of her parents, wearing the T-shirts of Vytautas Magnus University.

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