Review: Summer School 2011

Published: 26 August 2011

Held at New York University, Prague, Czech Republic, Theme: The Politics of Language

5th CRCEES Postgraduate Research Methodology Summer School

New York University, Prague, Czech Republic
Theme: The Politics of Language
11 – 20 July 2011

The Fifth Annual CRCEES Research Methodology Summer School for postgraduate students on the theme ‘The Politics of Language’ was planned and run by members of the organising committee in Glasgow in cooperation with the staff of New York University in Prague.

Twenty postgraduate students participated in the Summer School which addressed theoretical and methodological aspects of research in relation to the theme ‘The Politics of Language in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe’. Students came from CRCEES UK-based institutions as well as CRCEES partner institutions from across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and the Caucasus. Students from Germany, Scotland, Poland, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Serbia, England, Russia and elsewhere took part.

Fifteen teaching staff contributed to the seminars, master classes and workshops during the ten-day Summer School. The summer school was organised by Jan Culik and Mary Heiman and Jon Oldfield. The teaching staff came from the following institutions: University of Glasgow; University of Strathclyde; University of Edinburgh; University of the West of Scotland, University of Nottingham; New York University, Prague; Charles University, Prague; Masaryk University, Brno; the Regulatory Council for Radio and Television in the Czech Republic. Professor Peter Haslinger of Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, Germany, gave the keynote lecture on ‘Language and Nation:  Concepts, Legal Dynamics and the Question of Agency over Collective Identities in Habsburg Central Europe, 1820-1914’.

The Prague Summer School deliberately scheduled plenty of time for interdisciplinary discussionNews story - Review: Summer School 2011 - some of the participants  and debate among the postgraduate students and tutor participants as well as for formal research presentations.  Discussions were extraordinarily dynamic, creative and stimulating.  It soon emerged that among the most common methodological problems encountered by participants in the Summer School were how to 'translate' from one culture to another; how to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western historiographical traditions; how to work with competing nationalist narratives across the region of Central and Eastern Europe; and how to understand and work with post-Communist state-sponsored narratives and new national mythologies as promoted by various regimes and governments across the region.  Debate on these themes were also encouraged through visits to several Prague museums -- including the Museum of Communism and Czech National Museum  -- which offer implicit or explicit narratives of contemporary Czech history.

The first two days of the 5th CRCEES Summer School in Prague were developed by the Glasgow-based AHRC Research Networking project ‘Translating Russian and East European Cultures' and explored different methodological approaches to issues of 'translation' and associated understanding.

Katja Frimberger (Postgraduate, Glasgow) opened the summer school with a stimualting attempt to find 'a pedagogy of Verfremdung: Intercultural Education Research Through Restorative Arts Practice', introducing themes which were to be taken up in discussions stimulated by later postgraduate presentations about Polish immigrants to Glasgow by Emilia Pietka, rural Polish women's artisan crafts by Anna Sznajder, and Roma living in Glasgow by Jitka Perinova. 

Dr Elwira Grossman moderated the following session focussed on the practice and theory of the translation process (Jill Bates, Nottingham), which included a survey of the many problems inherent in translation, and pointed out some challenges that the hegemonic role of English plays in various scholarly discourses.   Dr Grossman exemplified her points by referring to Gender Studies discourse as a travelling concept affecting methodologies developed in many Central and Eastern European countries.  She illustrated the importance of verbal and non-verbal languages by using Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Report to an Academy’ as a starting point.

In the evening, the Summer School participants visited the Tranzitdisplay gallery for a presentation by the Estonian artist Rael Artel in conversation with Dr Katarzyna Kosmala (UWS).  Rael's ‘Public Preparation’ presentation questioned contemporary nationalism and pointed to the problematic nature of currently prevalent national discourses.  This theme was taken up in many subsequent sessions of the Summer School, which analysed the problematic nature of hegemonic discourses in various post-communist countries.

News story -  Summer School Review -   Evan McVicar telling his ‘tall tales’  Day 2 of the AHRC Research Networking project included a session on 'Body language' (Prof Cynthia Marsh, Nottingham) and its relevance for intrcultural dialogue, which participants found refreshingly different in its pedagogic approach, followed by an afternoon session on 'reading' the post-socialist city (Drs Chmielewska and Kosmala.  Lukas Vacek also conducted a tour through the Old Town of Prague, pointing out instances where post-communist urban designs falsified the architectural past as well as those where a sense of cultural heritate was fostered or preserved.  Later on, the Scottish Storyteller, Ewan McVicar, hosted an enjoyable evening of story-telling performances in tandem with Tom Zahn and other Prague-base American story tellers at Sir Toby's. 

Over the next eight days (13-20 July), participants in the Summer School explored, discussed and debated methodological and thematic questions related to the following topics: Narratives, Sources and Methods; Post-Communist Politics and Economics; Belonging and Exclusion; Gender, Culture, Language and Nation; and Reinterpreting Cultures.

The section on Narratives, Sources and Methods opened on Wednesday 13th July with an examination of ‘East-West narratives’ and ‘Historiographical differences’. The session was run by historian Dr Mary Heimann from the University of Strathclyde, the author of a recent history of Czechoslovakia in the 20th century (Yale University Press, 2009; 2011) and included stimulating presentations on the concepts of ‘Balkanism versus Orientalism’ by Aleksandar Pavlović and ‘Czechoslovakia’s 1989 revolution’ by David Green.  

The problem of Ukraine’s relationship to the former USSR was brought out by Oleksandra Gaidai’s talk on the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States as the Last Phase of the USSR’s Disintegration’.  Differences in East-West narratives and conceptions of the nation were also underlined in discussion surrounding a talk on ‘Nation-Building in the Republic of Kazakhstan’ by Azamat Zholmanov.

The presentation by the former Czechoslovak dissident and underground artist Milan Kohout, which took place on Thursday 14th July, became a source of passionate debate over about the nature and meaning of underground dissident culture, whether in post-1968 ‘Normalized’ Czechoslovakia or contemporary Boston, where Professor Kohout, a former signatory of Charter 77, now lives and teaches.

Debate over Milan Kohout's understanding of art as a form of dissent, and related questions surrounding the problem of ‘collaboration’ or ‘resistance’ to authoritarian regimes offered a stimulating background to detailed assessments by Paul Vickers and Petr Andreas of the multiple possible meanings of films, novels, diaries, newspapers, journals and memoirs produced during the periods of normalizace in Communist Czechoslovakia and mala stabilizacja in Communist Poland during the second half of the twentieth century. This was followed by a detailed presentation about the Polish Sociological Memoir Movement in Rural Communist Poland by Paul Vickers.

On Friday 15th July, the Summer School concentrated on Post-Communist Politics and Economics, beginning with an analysis by Jack Sharples of contemporary Russian energy policy.  Presentations and a panel discussion on the theme of ‘Politics as Business’ in Central European post-communist countries were led by Dr. Jiří Pehe, Head of New York University Prague; Václav Žák, the Czech political commentator, politician and member of the Czech regulatory Council for Radio and Television; and Dr. Bohuslav Binka from Masaryk University in Brno.

Professor Martin Myant of the University of the West of Scotland gave a comparative presentation on the current state of the economy in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe while Dr. Jan Drahokoupil from Mannheim University talked about the current social welfare policy in Central and Eastern Europe.

News story Review Summer School 2011 On Saturday 16th July, there was a field trip to Terezín in North Bohemia, infamous as the site of the town-sized Nazi ghetto and concentration camp for Jews Theresienstadt and also the ‘Small Fortress’ run by the Gestapo for Czech political prisoners.

Summer School participants were accompanied on their tour of Theresienstadt concentration camp by the eminent Czech historian Toman Brod, a former inmate of the camp.

Mr Brod gave a lecture about his experiences as an inmate of both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau, together with his reflections on the inherent dangers in thinking about human beings in collective terms, whether nationalist, religious, racial, linguistic or ethnic.   Mr Brod’s talk about his own and his family’s experiences, a film about the history of the town of Theresienstadt and the tour of the concentration camp were followed by an official guided tour of the Small Fortress.

Later group discussion included reflections, not only about historical details of the Holocaust and the Protectorate, but also about the post-war transfers and forced expulsions of German and Hungarian speakers.

There was a lively discussion of the whole problem of transition from authoritarian regimes and of post-Communist historical narratives and constructions of the Second World War as promoted by state-funded national museums, exhibitions and institutes of national memory.

On Sunday, 17 July, there was a second day trip, this time to the medieval town of Český Krumlov in South Bohemia, where the participants were accompanied by a well-known Czech Art Historian and had the rare opportunity to visit a unique Baroque theatre. Lively discussions about post-Communist narratives and discourses followed.

The field trips to both Terezín and Český Krumlov were organised extremely efficiently by New York University in Prague, which provided expert guides for both excursions.

On Monday 18th July and Tuesday 19th July the Summer School focussed on the problems of Belonging and Exclusion, and focussed in particular on Gender, Culture, Language, Minorities and Nationalities

Jan Matonoha opened the session with a clear exposition of ‘gender invisibility’ in Czechoslovak discourses during Communism and after. Susanne Sklepek followed with an analysis of constructions of gender during Normalization through the prism of films created by Czech director Vĕra Chytilová.  Mary Heimann gave a presentation about ‘three kinds of anti-Semitism’ as expressed in the statute-books of three different Central European states on the eve of the Second World War. Iain Ferguson offered a broad, conceptual critique of bipolarity in international thinking about conflict and peacemaking. Anna Sznajder shared a micro-study of traditional craftsmanship in Bobowa as a means of gendering identity and power in rural Poland.

Presentations and discussions of contemporary culture ranged from political interpretations of Balkan rock music by Aleksandar Pavlović through Scottish translations of Eastern European poetry by Stewart Smith and a critique of official accounts Czech contemporary culture by Petr Bílek, ending with presentations and a panel discussion about the contemporary Czech media led by Jiří Pehe, Jan Čulík and Bohuslav Binka.

The last day of the Summer School, Wednesday, 20 July, focussed on the Czech Republic, the host country, before drawing together general reflections on the theme of the ‘Construction of the Past and Present’ both in the Czech Republic and throughout contemporary Russia, Central and Eastern Europe.

The session included talks by Dr Josef Šveda on the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes as a case study of state-sponsored collective memory; by Hanka Tomšů and Jitka Peřinová on the Reconstruction of Cultural Models using Readers’ Responses to Literature; by Pavla Červená on the phenomenon of ‘Czechtek’; by Albín Sybera on the Czech post-Communist generation and their Identity Issues; and by Jan Čulík on the Construction of the Past and Present in Czech television serials.

Student feedback forms, which were completed anonymously at the end of the 2011 CRCEES Summer School, were uniformly positive in their evaluation.  Many singled out for praise the good organization of the Summer School, the intellectual stimulation provided by staff and student participants, the outstanding facilities provided by New York University in Prague and the opportunity to practice and perfect presentation skills.

The 5th CRCEES Summer School in Prague was felt to be a success by all who participated in it.

Postgraduate research can be a lonely business. A student in pursuit of new, original insights and struggling with methodological and conceptual problems, often exacerbated by problems of translation and cultural difference, can feel isolated and uncertain.  The 5th CRCEES Summer School provided a unique opportunity for the postgraduate participants to discuss their methodological and other difficulties, as well as to share their latest research findings and developing theories, with others, from universities across Europe and from a range of different disciplines, who are fascinated by similar research questions and wrestling with similar intellectual, methodological and research problems.

The emphasis of the 2011 CRCEES Summer School was upon developing the research skills of the postgraduate students and creating for them a friendly but intellectually stimulating environment in which postgraduates and established scholars across a range of disciplines from across Europe could exchange and explore ideas, methodologies and research findings. 

Proposals were made at the end of the Summer School to establish an informal research consortium to allow the participants to remain in touch. A Facebook page for the 5th CRCEES Summer School in Prague was spontaneously created by the participants.

We hope to continue to collaborate with all the Summer School participants.

First published: 26 August 2011