November 25, 2008

History professor sharing his expertise in Poland

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Theodore R. Weeks, Southern Illinois University Carbondale history professor, is also a 2008-2009 Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the Studium Europy Wschodniej at the University of Warsaw, Poland.

Weeks, whose specialization is East European studies, has been in Poland since May, but his Fulbright term actually began in mid-September. Prior to that, he was in Poland (and Berlin, Germany and Lithuania) for research, he said.

“I am teaching at a special part of the University of Warsaw set up about 10 years ago to sponsor studies in Eastern Europe,” Weeks wrote in an email from Warsaw, noting that, in this case, the broad definition of Eastern Europe includes Russia, the Caucasus and even Central Asia.

“There are stipends here for students from the former USSR, and in my class there are students from a number of countries,” he said.

While in Poland, Weeks teaches a graduate course on nationality and nationalism during the Hapsburg Empire and in the Russian Empire and the USSR. He also teaches a course on historiography (the study of the way history is written) on nationality and national policy, mainly in Russia and the USSR, he said.

“I hoped I’d have a small enough class to have a real discussion seminar,” he said. “But 50 students showed up, so I’ll have to figure things out.”

Weeks teaches in English, at the request of the university there, though he does speak Polish, he said, and sometimes uses it, or Russian, in class.

“I encourage students to use whichever language they find easiest at the moment,” he said. “The students are very interested in improving their English -- maybe even more than in learning about history.”

One big difference Weeks noted in teaching in Warsaw instead of in Carbondale is in classroom organization. Simply, classrooms don’t necessarily look like classrooms. Weeks said there are no chalkboards, and there aren’t desks either.

“In one class, the students are sitting on plush chairs -- but they have to write on a book or something because there aren’t desks,” he said. “It’s a little weird for me. One thing I like is that both the students and the faculty and staff at the center where I am affiliated are all very nice to me -- they tolerate my bad Polish.”

Weeks noted that the economic development of the past 20 years in Eastern Europe reminds him of the economic climate of the United States 20 or 30 years ago.

“Things are really hopping here,” he said.

Michael Batinski, professor emeritus and former chair of the history department at SIUC, noted that sending SIUC scholars abroad as part of the Fulbright program not only benefits the research efforts of individual scholars but also their students when the professors bring that experience back to the classroom.

The University of Warsaw dates to 1816, and is the largest university in Poland. The university includes several centers for specific areas of study, including the Centre for Europe, where Weeks teaches.

Weeks returns to SIUC next fall after two semesters in Warsaw. The semesters there do not exactly coincide with the semesters here, and that was another adjustment, Weeks said. At SIUC, he teaches courses on Eastern Europe, Polish and Russian history with a research interest in nationality and ethnicity, especially as related to Eastern and Central Europe.