Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology
Tomas finds the exchange he has with the University of Prague extremely rewarding. The teaching he has done abroad has not been included in the professional development plan in Lund, so it was basically done in his free time. However, he thinks that all the advantages outweigh this.
Hello Tomas. What is your department and your subject area?
I work as a senior lecturer in European Studies and Eastern and Central European Studies at the Centre for Language and Literature in Lund. Our subjects are among the most internationalised in the whole university, which both I and my colleagues consider a crucial prerequisite, but also a successful outcome of our work.
You have taught abroad on several occasions. You are particularly well established at a university in Prague. Tell us more about it and how the collaboration started.
Before 1989, I studied journalism at Charles University in Prague during what is known as the Perestroika period. I come from the Czech Republic, which was called Czechoslovakia at that time. Back then, during the Cold War, the idea that both students and teachers/researchers could move freely within academic Europe was absolutely unthinkable. During my four years as a student in Prague, I did not meet a single foreign teacher – not even from the former Eastern Bloc.
In 1991, I moved to Sweden and eventually started studying history in Lund, where I also wrote my thesis on the memory of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I have also worked extensively with 20th century history in Eastern and Central Europe, and with the Cold War in general. I was offered the opportunity to present my research in the form of teaching at an international conference by a colleague from Prague. Naturally, it was great to return to my old university, this time in a new role as a guest lecturer and teacher. It was a bit unusual – the teaching was in English, and the students were not only from the Czech Republic but from a number of other countries. Since then, I have been there several times and established a good collaboration with my Czech colleagues.
You have also been on a teacher exchange in Germany. Tell us more!
It was at the University of Regensburg which, like us, also has a Master's programme in European Studies. My German colleague was also with us, and he is coming again – we have started to develop our collaboration, as both our institutions have found it useful.
Has it been difficult to apply for Erasmus+ teaching staff mobility on these occasions?
Not at all. In fact, our international departments have always helped us a lot with everything that was needed. The application process is not very difficult when you are clear about what you want. Within Erasmus, I also taught in Bratislava, Slovakia, and in Moscow, Russia, and the experience has been the same – now, of course, the road to Russia is closed because of the state's barbaric war against the neighbouring country, and new money that we received to further develop the collaboration with Russia will be used for a new collaboration with Ukraine instead.
However, I would like to say that my experience with both teachers and students from the Faculty of History at Lomonosov University in Moscow was positive and interesting, and not at all the same as with the Putin regime in general.
What course components have you taught at the host university? What were the student groups like and how do you think it worked?
I worked with components that I have developed the most in my research – for example, analyses of different, especially post-communist, historical cultures and their relation to important political processes and changes, different attempts to create a common "European" historical culture in the EU, dealing with memories of traumatic historical events and development of significant and relevant memorial sites, and the Putin regime's "patriotic" use of history and its relation to the memory of Soviet communist terror.
My experiences have been very positive, and I feel that my participation in the Erasmus system not only developed what I already knew but also forced me to sometimes leave my comfort zones and adapt to the teaching needs of the other institutions. The student groups were varied – sometimes it was students from the same country with the same student background, while other times it was students from different backgrounds studying just one course together. Sometimes there was also a research seminar with researchers, doctoral students and master's students. On some occasions, my lectures were open to the public.
In Lund we have a Swedish Bachelor's programme in European Studies and two international Master's programmes – in European Studies and in Eastern and Central European Studies. We also have two different SASH courses (on the history of communism and on the development of European integration) for a wide variety of international students. Therefore, having to adapt Erasmus teaching to the needs of foreign institutions is usually not a problem.
Do you usually teach together with colleagues? Have you ever been visited by a colleague who has come to Lund? Teacher exchanges are something that we like to see in the Erasmus programme, even though it can often be difficult to organise.
Teacher exchange is my fundamental goal, and I like to develop it as much as possible. I usually teach in the courses my colleagues are currently offering, and they teach in my/our courses in Lund. Both sides feel that this enriches the teaching of the courses concerned, and it is also very easy to administer such work – I relieve them at their university, and they relieve me in Lund, which means that our staffing plans do not have to be changed at all and the additional work is not too demanding. A joint teaching session is usually an exception – we mostly teach individually but the other is still in the room because we are interested in each other's lectures. Then we both participate in the final discussions. Strictly speaking, this is really time that you do not get paid for, but it is during this time that we learn from each other and adapt to different perceptions and needs that we can later discuss. If you only want to count hours in your staff plan, maybe you should not go via Erasmus because you do not get any extra time from it. But then you miss out on what I consider to be the most fun and the most useful aspect: challenging yourself, getting to know new academic environments and developing through that.
Looking back on your recent exchanges, do you find any particular differences or similarities with your teaching in Lund?
Not really much because, as I already mentioned, we have students from almost all over the world, including the countries I usually visit. I enjoy discussions with our foreign students about educational systems in their home countries, and therefore know a little or even more about these issues even before I leave. Regensburg required a bit more preparation because it was my first time there, while for Prague it was my third or even fourth time and I knew better what to expect. Generally speaking, the students I meet in Eastern and Central Europe are quite often not as interdisciplinary orientated as our students in Lund, so I adapt my pedagogical attitude to that and try to show them the benefits of interdisciplinary research.
On some occasions you have really managed to get a lot done in one mobility, not only teaching but also research, presentation of new publications, networking and other things, if we have understood correctly. Tell us more!
I must admit that I almost never travel with the sole purpose of teaching. In my planning, I always think about the added value of the trip for my own professional development and research So I usually also visit relevant museums, memorials, archives and events. This is more than welcome compensation for any extra work involved in the Erasmus trips. I rarely teach more than two hours per day, and some days I have completely free, as allowed by the Erasmus rules. This allows me to engage in archival research, for example. In addition, I usually attend interesting lectures at target faculties, debate evenings at institutions like the Memorial in Moscow or the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague. Since Regensburg is close to Munich, I had time to visit a very large and interesting exhibition on the birth of Nazism in this city and on conflicts between the German Nazi and Communist movements just after the First World War, see various memorial sites such as the building where the Munich Agreement was signed in 1938, and also meet historians and researchers outside of my Erasmus programme. During free weekends in Moscow, I travelled to some memorial sites of the Soviet terror, since I was writing an article about them. In Bratislava, I even met a former Slovak Prime Minister, who we invited to Lund for a guest lecture on EU enlargement and who actually visited us. You never know what will happen when you travel, but you know for sure that nothing like that can happen when you just stay at home. I actually learned this attitude during my previous career as a journalist and thanks to it, I have been surprised quite a few times.
What do you think you have gained from these exchanges and collaborations, in terms of research, teaching and personal experience?
Both in terms of research and as a person, they have opened up new horizons, perspectives and opportunities. For example, we have now developed a new Erasmus collaboration with a university in South Africa on the similarities and differences between transitions between dictatorships and democracy in Poland, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic and South Africa, on leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa and their political movements. Without Erasmus, we probably would never have dared to do it, because my colleagues and I will first teach these aspects and then see if it can lead to some joint research. As teachers and researchers, we have quite different backgrounds. It will be an interesting challenge. And it is these moments that require you to evolve as a researcher, educator and human being. The freedom to even think in this way is fantastic.
What has been the best part of your Erasmus periods?
Without a doubt, the discussions with a variety of curious and interesting students.
What has been the most challenging?
Not disappointing those very students.
You are also a supervisor and have contact with doctoral students abroad. What has this led to?
I am the second supervisor of a doctoral student in Prague, and there I made a very interesting contact with both the doctoral student in question and her first supervisor. Now another foreign doctoral student that I do not supervise will visit Lund within Erasmus, and I will help and also try to find some useful contacts that this student could utilise. I still have some contacts with doctoral students who attended my research seminars, as they are interested in the same topics as I am.
Do you have any plans for further trips, excursions in the future?
Yes. In addition to South Africa, we are establishing a similar contact with a colleague from Maastricht, and I will go to Germany again. Then there are other plans that have been delayed due to the pandemic, and last but not least, my colleagues and I will plan how to use the already mentioned funds to help our colleagues from Ukraine.