- Czech Republic, Slovakia
K. Murphy, Ph.D, British and American Studies Program,
Philosophical Faculty, Presov University, Presov,
My arrival in Presov, Slovakia in the fall of 1997 came shortly after Presov University had just recently undergone a name change. Formerly the Presov campus of the Kosice - based and widely respected Safarik University, newly named Presov University was now a separate campus and university. Local reaction was mixed, with feelings of pride commingled with resentment. (As a result, many students and Presov residents to this day often adhere the old university name.) The university provided me with an apartment, which I found to be quite satisfactory, with views of both the historic downtown and the scenic foothills surrounding the city. I found the town itself to be pleasant and attractive - a place that was certainly underrated by much of the regional travel and tourist literature. Presov was then and continues to be in a state of flux, with much construction and renovation underway. It is perhaps best described as a mid-sized city with a small town feel.
I found the English Department to be very welcoming to me upon my arrival; the first challenge that awaited me was learning how to work with limited and often unreliable technology. I was also surprised to learn that nearly all of the students in the British and American Studies program were female, as were most of the departmental instructors. This, I was informed was typical for all academic areas within the philosophical faculty.
The staff comprised an interesting generational and ideological mix as well, and I soon learned that the department itself possessed its own rich history, which reflected in a microcosm the very disruptions, changes and realignments that the greater Slovak society has experienced in recent years. Significantly, the department granted considerable academic freedom to its teachers, allowing for methodological experimentation in the classroom - a process that proved invaluable to me.
Perhaps my biggest surprise upon entering the social and academic community of the department was the high caliber of students in the British and American Studies program. However, I soon recognized that, although students possessed strong speaking, reading and writing and memorization skills, that they lacked familiarity with critical skills, reasoned argumentation and intellectual pluralism. Their understanding of the learning process was comprised of dutiful classroom attendance, mechanical note-taking, memorization of 'facts,' and regurgitation of these materials on tests.
In the classroom, I perceived initially a kind of academic passivity that I tried first to identify and understand, and then to overcome. What I discovered was both profound and multifaceted; yes, the students were the products of an older system of often autocratic educational techniques, but equally valid were the students own internal divisions, based on a number of factors, including social cliques, religion, region of residency, and most importantly, English language ability. Perhaps the single most important pedagogical lesson that I learned in Presov was a deep respect for peer relations within the classroom. This is particularly important to recognize when teaching in English to non-native speakers. It is an aspect of the class dynamic that, in many respects renders the teacher as mere observer, as the classroom community responds to its own inner 'social logic.'
Since my arrival, I have had ample opportunity to meet and interact not only with Slovaks, but with numerous Americans and other visitors who comprise the expatriot community in Slovakia. From their example, I have witnessed various styles and strategies of cross-cultural exchange, both in and out of the classroom. Such models include those who show militant patriotism for their country of origin, those who demonstrate a detached, almost anthropological curiosity in the region, others who carry a missionary, evangelical zeal into their work, and some who view their goals in philanthropic terms. For myself, I have found several strategies to be remarkably adaptive and constructive. The first of these is the empowerment of students - to allow students the ability to take risks, make choices (and mistakes) for themselves, and to disagree with both their instructors and 'the official story.' This generation of Slovak university students are smart, sophisticated and realistic - and they are quite accustomed to the both the presence and the relative strengths and weaknesses of foreign lecturers. To treat students otherwise may not be a constructive exercise.
Outside of the classroom, I have devoted much of my time to various development or 'outreach' programs. These efforts are intended to improve the quality of university services and education. For example, in the spring of 1998, I arranged practical work placements (often called internships in the west) throughout Slovakia for my fourth-year students.
The internship experiment - the first of its kind in Slovakia - was highly successful, aided in part by British, Slovak and American NGOs, political organizations and news agencies. In fact, these volunteer positions have subsequently turned into full-time, paid professional positions for students in at least two instances. The practical work placements have been instrumental in enhancing the confidence and professional aspirations of my students, and the results have been evident both in and out of the classroom.
For the past two years, I have been involved also in the Novicius teacher training program, sponsored jointly by CEP and the Jan Hus Foundation. My first "mentee," Patricia Langova, is currently completing her masters degree in International Relations at Central European University, and my present mentee, Tomas Kosiak, is completing his Ph.D at Presov University in Political Science.
I have longed believed that the most important feature that a university has to offer is a quality library. To this end, I have made the enhancement of our departmental library a top priority over the past two years. Recently, I have enlisted the assistance of the Higher Education Support Program (HESP) to provide specialist consultations to our departmental library, with special attention to collection preservation, security, cataloguing, and technology management. Related to the matter of library management and systematization is the vital issue of resource procurement. In attracting book and other resource donations to our Resource Center, I have been aided by numerous organizations, including the Sabre Foundation, the Darien Book Source, USIS, SAIA and CEP, along with various other organizations and private sources. Our efforts have, over the past two years, enhanced the holdings of the departmental Resource Center by well over 600 books.
I will be sorry to leave Presov University. Conditions are improving, and they will continue to do so. I am proud to have been a part of the process of shaking up standard teaching methodologies, providing the impetus for alternative academic options, and delving into the complexities of cross-cultural exchange in the classroom environment. I wouldn't trade it for anything - in fact, I have learned far more from my students and colleagues than they ever could have hoped to learn from me.
Jiri Sedivy, Charles University, Faculty of Philosophy, Institute of Political Science, Czech Republic
I am honored to give this account of my nearly two-year experience as a Civic Education Project Local Faculty Fellow. I joined the program in 1997 when I was teaching International Politics at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts at Charles UniversityAt the time, I also worked part-time for the Institute of International Relations (IIR) in Prague. I received my MA . in War Studies from Kings College, London in1994. Before that I studied Anglo-American Studies and Politology at Charles University in Prague.
Frankly speaking, when I joined CEP, my images of the program were rather nebulous. I soon discovered that CEP has many charms. The program is much more than a support group for young academics. It is a regional information network dedicated to informing young scholars and their students of various educational and support schemes and programs, as well as in extending our existing knowledge about study abroad. I am proud that three of the ten Czech/Slovak students who qualified for this year's International Students Conference in Budapest, are from my classes. Several of my students have also used CEP sources for obtaining useful information about study abroad and relevant funding. I should not forget the many books I was able to buy for our departments library, thanks to CEP.
During the past two years, my own career has grown. In 1997 I was offered the position of Deputy Director for Studies at the IIR, and in the spring of 1998 I became the Director of this Institute. Despite the amount of work related to this job, I kept my position with the University. For me, working with students is by far the most rewarding professional activity. This wearing of two hats also enables me to involve my students in the activities of the IIR. Students are not only permitted to use our library and participate in our public events, they are encouraged to publish in the IIRs periodicals (two excellent seminar essays and one book review written by my students were already published). Furthermore, two of my students joined our research teams as research assistants. In addition to the modest earnings, these students receive hands-on involvement in practical academic research, which can be a strong incentive for studying even harder and, hopefully, for remaining in the academic field after they finish their studies. I am sure that some of the best of them will one day join the IIR as full-timers.
Looking back over my two years with CEP, I can honestly conclude that it was a happy and successful period for me and, above all, for my students. I will miss the CEP spirit, the dedication and care of Zora Vidovencova, our country Director, as well as the CEP e-mail traffic. I am sure that as a CEP alumnus I will not lose touch with the projects future development, in which I am prepared to offer my help and advice.
WHAT I GAINED DUE TO MY PARTICIPATION IN THE NOVICIUS PROGRAM
As a result of the lack of Slovak instructors prepared academically to lecture the courses within the recently introduced British and American Studies program, at Presov, the department has joined the network of other academic institutions in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In this way the department hopes to take advantage of the professional preparation of prospective full-time academics being carried out through Novicius project.
I participated in the Novicius project during the 1996-97 academic year under the leadership of Professor Arthur H. Pitz, a CEP lecturer on leave from Black Hawk College, Moline, Illinois, USA. My field of specialization was American Studies.
My cooperation with Professor Pitz has helped me considerably in preparation for my career as a university teacher. I realized the significance of this contribution especially when I assumed full responsibility for handling the courses.
Throughout the academic year, I regularly attended the classes of Professor Pitz, meeting with him prior to the session to consult on the main points and concepts of the topic to be dealt with. After the class, our discussions concentrated on the assessment and analysis of the session and the methodology used. In the course of the academic year, I was involved in many different activities, each of which gave me an opportunity to undergo a complex preparation for my future work with students.
The weekly attendance of my mentor's classes inspired me. It made me aware of how important it is for students to understand the essential concepts, forces and factors that have shaped US history, culture and character. I appreciated the emphasis Professor Pitz placed upon the interrelations between individual problems, paying attention to the causes and consequences. It has taught me how to combine the general concepts on the one hand and particularities on the other, to facilitate the students' understanding of a given theme and encourage them to look for further information on their own. I was inspired by the example of leading the students to comprehend that history is not an irrelevant past but a part of our present and future, and that it can, and should, be used and worked with actively as a material to learn from.
My cooperation with the mentor also helped me to realize the importance of how intercultural and comparative/contrastive studies assist the students in better understanding the other culture as well as their own. It also sharpened my awareness of the relevance of certain problems and issues of US society to our own country. This contributed much to the students' knowledge of themselves, thus preparing them better to become members of the world community.
The classes were especially rewarding for me as far as the methodology is concerned. This is probably one of the essential tasks the CEP lecturers try to accomplish at our universities to assist in their revitalization after all the years when memorizing was the principal method of acquiring knowledge. My Novicius cooperation with Professor Pitz gave me a powerful stimulus to serve as a facilitator for students' development and maturing as complex personalities, providing enough space for them to develop positions and opinions on the issues being dealt with. The role-playing activities in particular offered many an opportunity for critical assessment of the problems discussed. The individual, pair, and group activities assisted the students in developing their analytical and creative-thinking skills, thus making them better prepared to implement their knowledge and abilities in practice.
Another experience I acquired working with Professor Pitz, as well as with another CEP lecturer, Professor Louis Petrich, concerns how the interdisciplinary approach makes the classes more interesting, inviting and motivating for students, enabling them to make connections and use their analytical thinking skills. It also makes the learning process more effective.
My cooperation with my CEP mentor provided me with an opportunity to participate in the International Conference on Learning Strategies in Higher Education, an annual event held in Szeged, Hungary. This introduced me to the international community of scholars, another rewarding experience for me.
In sum, my participation in the Novicius-Junior Faculty Development Project has been enormously rewarding. What I expected at the start was mainly an opportunity to learn facts in particular, the information to be shared with students later in the teaching process. However, I acquired much more than that. My Novicius training proved to be a complex and multifaceted experience, vital for my teaching since it has provided me with a multitude of invaluable suggestions. It has been a "concert" of various methodological approaches and student-centered activities serving as a fruitful inspiration for me. I am much obliged to Professor Pitz and the Civic Education Project, as well as the Jan Hus Educational Foundation. The worthwhile example, set by a CEP lecturer, of encouraging students' critical thinking, argument build-up, and analysis of the facts is being continued. The seeds Novicius sowed in Presov are beginning to sprout. I have learned not only how to satisfy students' curiosity about the field but also how to spur it.