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To Poland and Beyond: A Personal Account of How Teaching Enhancement Grants Impact the Classroom

Dr. Larson Powell  reporting on his experience with the TEG Grant – Dec. 2011

In spring 2010, I applied for a TEG grant to support development of a new interdisciplinary cluster course with Dr. Andrew Bergerson (History), titled The Other Europe: History and Culture from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  This course was, for me, an extension of a previous course on Eastern European Cinema (also supported with a TEG grant and a Friends of the Library grant), and made use of some of the materials from that course in a new context.  Both Dr. Bergerson and I are trained in German studies, so this was a learning experience for both of us.  My TEG grant allowed me to make my first trip to Poland, which was a crucial place for the course, as a crossroads between East and West and a hotly fought-over terrain between Germany and Russia.  Among the museums I visited during my week-long trip in June 2010 were the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which commemorates the heroic stand of the Polish Home Army against the Germans in 1944, the Jewish Historical Institute, and the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature.  I also visited other commemorative sites like the Umschlagplatz, where Jews from the ghetto were put on trains to the camps, or the Palace of Culture and Science, a Stalinist skyscraper from the 1950s typifying the official architecture of the immediate postwar period.  At the museums, I acquired teaching materials for our class.   I was also able to observe firsthand some of the political tensions still informing Polish society today, especially the battle between the conservative Law and Justice Party and the more Western-oriented Civic Union.

All of these visits would prove relevant to our class, since all of them linked to important topics in the course, from the political role of literature in Eastern Europe to questions of national memory after 1945 and especially after 1989, during post-Communist transitions.   Having real materials from museums made historical questions that might otherwise have seemed abstract come to life for our students.  In addition, some of the students had family connections to this part of Europe, and Dr. Bergerson and I asked them to present some of their family histories in class, especially how World War Two is remembered.  We had a large group of about seventy students enroll.  Not only the topic, but also our methodology was new to them, since we pushed them to think in an interdisciplinary way from the start, comparing historical texts to literature and film.  By the end of the class, we were receiving adventurous student papers that compared Hungarian folk elements in the music of Bartók to the musical presence of the Ottoman Empire in a Yugoslav film, or a Czech novel from the 1920s to an East German Holocaust film from the 1970s.  The historical witness of survivor testimonials was also compared with artistic and fictional reworkings of the same experience.  As I told the students, I was myself surprised by some of the insights that emerged from their papers, and gained new perspectives myself from working with them.   The approaches of the two professors nicely complemented each other: Dr. Bergerson’s larger historical and structural overviews, with territorial maps showing how this cultural and political region was affected by the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires were filled in by my in-depth discussions of films, poetry and music from the area.  As the course went on, and the unity of the subject became clearer and clearer to them, students became more active participants in discussions.  We also encouraged them to draw links to current events, such as resurgent ethnic nationalisms in the area or the crisis in the European Union.    Several guest lecturers came to the course as well, from Dr. Fran Sternberg of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education to Professor Timothy Snyder from Yale University, who gave a lecture at the National World War One Museum (with support from the Bernardin-Haskell Fund), showing students how our topic is a matter of broader public interest outside UMKC.   For me personally, the course was an especial learning experience thanks to the collaboration with Dr. Bergerson, who has taught more broad survey courses (such as World History) than I.  When teaching a survey course, one cannot assume any prior knowledge on the students’ part, and must be extremely didactically clear in spelling out all knowledge.  Teaching a more specialized subject like German, one tends to build on previous courses and works within a limited context of one national history and culture.  I think I myself became a more effective communicator through the teaching collaboration.  In addition, materials that Dr. Bergerson and I had previously only worked on in a specifically German context acquired different meanings when related to Eastern Europe.  One of the most interesting discussions we had was of a famous essay by philosopher Theodor W. Adorno on how Germans should work through the burden of their guilt-ridden past after 1945.   As it turned out, this essay was very much applicable to the way Eastern European countries have had to work through multiple historical traumas, not only after 1945 but also after 1989, when the end of Communism meant that many previously taboo subjects could now be more openly discussed.  Old heroic narratives of national resistance to Fascism had to give way to more complicated and nuanced perspectives where it is no longer so clear who is victim and who is perpetrator; a Polish Home Army soldier who had heroically resisted the Nazis might also turn out to be an anti-Semite.  In addition, our course continually stressed that history and collective memory are continually renewed and revised undertakings.  As I was able to see in Warsaw in June 2010, thanks to my TEG grant, new museums like that of the Warsaw Uprising have allowed the Poles to reshape their own past in public commemoration of events long taboo under Soviet domination.

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