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Sasha Panaram

Sasha Panaram is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences pursuing a major in English and minors in Education, Inquiry, and Justice, and Theology. Though originally born in Fargo, North Dakota, she grew up in the Bronx, New York. During the Fall 2011 semester, she is studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. While in this part of the United Kingdom, she will primarily concentrate her studies on Scottish literature and Celtic literature to grow in her understanding of how texts produced in Scotland helped contribute to the strong literary culture present in this country today. Eager to be a part of JYAN, she looks forward to sharing her own insights and also learning about different countries and cultures from fellow participants.

The Heart of Edinburgh: St. Giles Church

November 6, 2011

On any given day, hundreds of people enter in and out of St. Giles church located in the center of the old town of Edinburgh. This historic church, which welcomes 400,000 visitors each year, is located between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. With its spires stretching into the sky, the Church seemingly looks over Scotland, appropriately so, since it has been in the same location for over nine hundred years.

The first parish church in Edinburgh called, “Edwinsburch,” dates back to the year 854. This church was likely served by a vicar from a monastic church located in England.

At first glance, the outer appearance of St. Giles suggests that the church fought an unending battle to remain afloat over the years. It is not that the church is unsightly, because this certainly is not the case. However, its elaborate towers, fading color, and tainted windows reflect its antiquity in a part of town that thrives in modernity and bustles with commercialism.

In 1384, a group of thirty Frenchmen arrived in Edinburgh with hopes of convincing the king of Scotland and Scottish barons and knights to attack their greatest enemy, the English. The French were not only on a mission to set Edinburgh at war with the English, but they were also willing to aid the Scottish in this crusade.

The king of Scotland declined the French offers, but the barons, who found the offer more appealing, met in the church of St. Giles to plan their attack on England without the king’s approval. Soliciting the help of the French, the Scottish barons and knights sent fifteen thousands men to the countries of northern England. Though these men returned successfully to Scotland with many prisoners and plunders, the English soon sought bitter revenge.

One year later, in 1385, the English army invaded Scotland under the guidance of Richard III. With troops fueled by hatred of the Scottish, Richard III pushed his men to the capital, Edinburgh, located in central Scotland. So much of the capital was subjected to fire in the forceful attacks of the English. Abbeys, houses, and local businesses – all made of wood – quickly went up in flames. The only building that survived, though with very visible damage, was St. Giles.

Immediately after the English raid, the houses were rebuilt within a matter of months. The church required more time to be restored, because while the Scots desperately wanted to display a church worthy of being in the capital, St. Giles endowments were very, very small.

In the years that followed additions were made to the church including pillars, altars, and stained glassed windows. The most practical building advancement was that the church with rebuilt with stone instead of wood.

In 1460, the church received an armbone of St. Giles as a relic. This armbone belonged to a saint who was popular in Catholic countries including France. It is likely that St. Giles church was named after a French saint due to ancient ties that existed between France and Scotland, especially between the eighth and tenth century.

History suggests that St. Giles was accidently injured by a hunter in search of a hind. After his death, many hospitals and shelters were dedicated to him for beggars and cripples in need of protection and support. St. Giles is usually portrayed as rescuing a hind from an arrow – an image that is proudly displayed over the church doors in Edinburgh.

Shortly after the church received St. Gile’s relic, another major change took place when in the 1460s, St. Giles was deemed a collegiate church instead of a simple parish church. Scotland’s recognition of St. Giles as a collegiate church meant that it was pulling away from the monastic orders that long influenced its existence until this point and now operating under a dean or provost.

Now St. Giles could primarily look to private investors to support their growth instead of solely relying on church orders to provide what amounted to limited funds. What the switch from parish church to collegiate church most signaled was the growing divide between religious and secular communities.

Eighty years later another event, the Scottish Reformation, more forcefully demonstrated the split between the religious and secular, especially when churches tried breaking away from the Papacy in Rome. John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, greatly influenced the styles of worship and administration necessary to oversee those styles of worship in Edinburgh.

Apparently, during this time when the celebration of Catholic Mass was forbidden and Protestantism was growing, the church of St. Giles faced many physical changes as well as spiritual changes. St. Giles church was divided so that the congregation could worship in one area of the space and the other parts of the building could be used for other purposes. What followed in the next three hundred years was St. Giles serving as a religious sanctuary in some sections and fire station, police station, and coal storage center in other sections. At one point the Scottish guillotine was even housed in the church and used for awful offenders of the nation.

It was only in 1665, when William Forbes became the first bishop of the diocese of Edinburgh, when St. Giles became a space for solely worship again and has remained so ever since. Now refurbished to its original state, the church attracts larger amounts of followers than ever.

St. Giles, which stands on High Street, has not only watched Scotland’s development through history, but it has been a part of many of the significant events that took place. When people walk through the church doors – whether to pray, to rest, or to observe – they behold a building rich with history deeply venerated by the Scottish. They engage with a structure that proudly tells of the culture of Scotland as much as any Scottish native could do. They connect with the Mother Church of Presbyterianism, the sanctuary of the Scots, and the heart of Scotland.

Edinburgh, the City of Literature

December 4, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

Having now studied in Edinburgh, Scotland for three months, as a bibliophile, I can say with complete assurance that I chose the ideal place to spend a semester abroad.

In 2004, Edinburgh was named the first UNESCO City of Literature. Recognized for its strong literary culture and support of the arts, Edinburgh is said to compel authors to write. The city itself has been the subject of many stories including Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley collection, Robert Burns’ ballads, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Kidnapped. More recently, internationally acclaimed author, J.K. Rowling, based Hogwarts on several gothic buildings scattered throughout Edinburgh. Similarly, best selling author Ian Rankin – the James Patterson of Scotland – uses Edinburgh for the setting of many of his books of the Inspector Rebus series.

The statement, “The stories are in the stones,” rings true in this part of the United Kingdom. A quick stroll down the Royal Mile – a succession of streets from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace – provides people with opportunities to connect with Edinburgh’s rich literary history and witness the enduring legacy it gave to the world.

This deep appreciation of the arts so strongly promoted in Scotland inspires an empowering way of teaching and learning in classrooms.

My two English courses, Scottish Literature and Celtic Literature, have taught me that the Scottish – both professors and students alike – value the culture of evidence. No statement is uttered in a classroom without sufficient facts to support the claim. I have seldom experienced a lecture in which I was not directed to further secondary sources to supplement my understanding of primary texts. Extra reading is not a mere suggestion, because in almost every case it is expected.

This concept of supporting what you say and owning your thoughts is even reflected in the grading scale unique to the United Kingdom. Unlike the United States system of grading in which points are deducted from assignments when students make errors and present faulty reasoning, in the United Kingdom students are rewarded with points for those things done correctly. Whereas in the United States, students start with 100 points and lose points during the marking process, in the United Kingdom, students’ start with 0 points and work their way up.

This method of allocating points arguably further encourages students to showcase their knowledge, offer thoughtful critiques of scholarly works, and make substantial connections while taking intellectual risks.

Professors demand a lot of their students, especially in an academic setting where independent, self-guided study is the norm, because educators hope that their students will acknowledge and accept their roles as active thinkers and doers in society.

As my divinity professor of my God in Philosophy: Plato to Hume class exclaimed on one of my first days of school, “A certain boldness and magnificence is required of you in this course and in life.”

Here at the University of Edinburgh, like at Georgetown, research is taken very seriously and professors motivate students daily to think new thoughts and ask tough questions. Recognizing that not all learning can occur in the classroom, professors advise students to make use of the city around them. Whether it is visiting an open lecture at the National Library of Scotland, viewing an adaptation of a Scottish novel at the Lyceum, exploring the Writers’ Museum, attending book-signing events, or celebrating Robert Burns Day, educators think it is worthwhile to engage with a city bursting with opportunities.

All professors, not only English professors, expect that students will use the material learned in classes and the experiences provided by the city to begin a lifelong, reflective process that will allow them to discover what academic subjects ignite their deepest passions.

There is certainly an emphasis on learning at the University of Edinburgh, but some might suggest that there is an even greater emphasis on cultivating passion.

Though some of the professors I have encountered while abroad – and I have had over twenty different lecturers since in Scotland – have a tendency to get trapped within their scholarly work and fail to constructively convey information to students, most of the professors I witness in action passionately promote their academic areas of interest.

Many of my English professors chose professional occupations in academia that grew out of interests stemming from childhood encounters with fictional and nonfictional stories. When these educators supplement their lectures with anecdotes from their pasts and demonstrate how they acted on strong interests and created lives based on their passions, it is impossible for me not to question what academic interest ignites the same passion and vigor within me. It is impossible for me not to ask the question, “What do I believe in?”

And that is exactly what the University of Edinburgh professors think effective teaching should do: cultivate the mind and the heart. The University of Edinburgh, again like Georgetown, has shown me that any academic institution that engages both the intellect and the emotional has the potential to offer learners a well-grounded and well-rounded education that can only serve them positively in the future.

Here in Edinburgh, literature and language permeate every part of Scottish life. Learning is not only a task for the young. And living is best done with great love and deep reflection.



Your letter describing the role literature and language play in developing a sense of identity and self struck a cord with me. Here in Tajikistan, poetry is among the preferred means of expression, even in every day life. At weddings, presentations, celebrations, and even in class, it is not uncommon for people in Tajikistan to randomly burst into poem.

However, unlike in Edinburgh, this passion for a literary form does not seem to translate into a strong education system that encourages independent thought. While most young Tajiks are shocked that I do not have a repertoire of at least twenty poems memorized, they are equally shocked at the concept of long, independently driven research papers. In many ways, your letter made me crave the intellectual atmosphere of Georgetown.

However, it also forced me to think about the intersection between literature and creativity, and reevaluate some of my perceptions about Tajikistan's education. After reading you letter, I wonder whether the Tajik passion for poetry is simply another way of “cultivating the mind and heart” in a society with an increasingly broken education system.


Sasha, thank you for your letter on intellectual life at the University of Edinburgh. I hope to complement your piece with two observations from the University of Oxford.

The first concerns, as your describe it, the distinctive grading scale used at the University of Edinburgh. Likewise at the University of Oxford, students begin with a mark of zero and gain points only by putting forth clear, cogent arguments or solving problems concisely and creatively.

Interestingly, a “first class” grade at Oxford constitutes anything greater than or equal to a mark of 70. Occasionally, a student will earn a mark in the 80s, but it is almost unheard of for a student to surpass 90. As explained by my Academic Director in my first week, a student ought never to approach a mark of 100; it would be impossible for him or her to know everything after merely eight weeks of study.

The second concerns the call to action delivered by your divinity professor: “A certain boldness and magnificence is required of you in this course and in life.” At Oxford, there is a mark, called an ‘alpha gamma’, which I have made it my mission to earn before leaving in June. It describes a brilliant mistake, an essay or a problem set, which shows ingenuity and prowess, but is completely wrong.

This mark is prized at Oxford, because it fulfills the demand of your professor. Of course, we would all like to be bold, magnificent, and correct; but the University of Oxford, like the University of Edinburgh, would rather that we be bold, magnificent, and utterly incorrect than shy, banal, and correct.


April 17, 2012
Circles, Commitment, and Conversations