Monday, June 30, 2014

We Make History, Part 2: History Professor Michael Hickey on his Fulbright Senior Specialist fellowship in Smolensk, Russia

Students stand up at their desks when the professor walks in to the classroom at the start of a lecture at Smolensk State University in the Russian Federation.  They then wait until the professor says “good morning” to be seated.  It is an old practice, a nineteenth century holdover no longer common in Russia’s main metropolitan centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg, but indicative of the strength of traditions in provincial Russia.   And yet the classrooms there are nothing if not modern, equipped with “smart boards” and various other computer technology.  It is one of the many contrasts one encounters in teaching at Smolensk State University—or SmolGU—one of Russia’s oldest public institutions of higher education.  SmolGU is the largest of the two dozen universities, colleges, and technical institutes in Smolensk, a city of about 300,000 people that this year is celebrating its 1,175th anniversary.
    Since the late 1980s I’ve spent so much time in Smolensk working on research projects that the assistant director at the regional historical archives jokes about my being a member of her staff.  I’d given public talks at SmolGU and occasionally sat in on the courses of friends who teach there, but I’d never formally presented a series of lectures there.  That is, until this May and early June, when I had the honor of being a Fulbright Senior Specialist at Smolensk State University.

Courses at SmolGU meet twice a week, for 90 minutes per session.  My hosts at the university organized my schedule so that I could sandwich lectures into my daily research visits to the region’s historical archives.  I presented two sets of lectures on very different topics to students in two very different programs—history students studying in the faculty of History and Law, and English language students studying in the faculty of philology and foreign languages.  Each lecture was followed by a long and spirited question and answer period, which sometimes had to continue in the hallway so that students and faculty in the next period’s courses could use their classroom.

In courses for the Department of History and Law, my talks focused on English-language historical writing about modern Russia.  These were divided into presentations on three different themes:  the events of 1914-1921 (World War One, the 1917 Russian revolutions, and the Russian civil war); the collectivization of agriculture and its consequences in 1929-1934; and the origins of the Great Terror of 1936-1938.  I presented these talks for students enrolled in “special topics” history courses, with about twenty students in each course.  Inevitably, students’ questions led to discussions of US-Russian relations during and since the Cold War.  After my first lecture, two students in particular pushed me to explain and defend what they described as “aggressive” and “inappropriate” US policy towards Russia during this year’s crisis in Ukraine—a moment that tested my ability to construct precise diplomatic Russian sentences.   After I explained that President Obama rarely calls me on the phone for advice on policy matters, the mood lightened considerably (and I faced no subsequent questions on the topic).  As a rule, students asked excellent questions about historiography and historical methods and sources, and were particularly interested in my own research.  More than anything, though, they wanted to know why an American would spend his entire adult life studying not just Russian history, but the history of their home town….

The second series of lectures, for students studying English, had a very different tone.  These lectures were open to all students, with the result that the room—which held 75 students--was packed past capacity for each session.  Since the students were studying English, I was asked to speak in English (which, frankly, was a great relief).  And because the students were preparing for general examinations that include sections on the American and British educational systems, I was asked to focus on education in the US.  I organized my presentations around three interrelated themes:  ethnic, racial and cultural diversity as a defining aspect of US culture; the constitutional division of power between federal, state, and local governments in the US; and the organizational and funding structures of K-12 and higher education in the US.  These talks led to very lively discussions in which students asked me, for example, to explain what is distinctly “American” about American culture.  Most of all, though, students wanted to know about college life in the US and about the relationship between their own experience and the experience of students at Bloomsburg University.

During my visit, BU and SmolGU began discussions towards setting up a new student exchange program.  So perhaps in a year or two, students from SmolGU can learn firsthand what life is like here in Bloomsburg—where they will find that students do not stand at attention when the professor enters the classroom.  And BU students will have the amazing opportunity to study Russian language and culture in the beautiful ancient city of Smolensk.

Michael C. Hickey
Department of History

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