МАГ/The International Association for the Humanities     ЖУРНАЛ МЕЖДУНАРОДНОЙ АССОЦИАЦИИ ГУМАНИТАРИЕВ | Volume 5, Issue 1 (34), 2016.

Colloquium Vilnense: A New Step in Interdisciplinary Discussion in Vilnius (Lithuania)

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Журнал “The Bridge-MOCT” уже писал о “Виленском коллоквиуме”, который организовал директор Центра немецких исследований Европейского гуманитарного университета (беларусский “университет в изгнании” в Литве) Феликс Аккерман. Ниже – новый материал об этом проекте.


4 - Colloquium Vilnense 1The humanities in both Lithuania and Belarus today are struggling with a set of challenges, which are to be seen in a broader trend. A very high degree of specialisation within the humanities, the felt loss of social relevance as compared with the sciences and the ongoing capitalist commodification of higher education are intermingled processes, we can observe also westwards from Vilnius or Minsk. Specific challenges derive from the Soviet legacy of State run universities, which are bound to strong hierarchies not just in their inner structure, but also in the everyday interaction between administration, faculty and students and the way how knowledge in the humanities is produced. Both in Minsk and Vilnius it is still rather common to hand over ready-made canons of knowledge from a hierarchical position above from professors via lecturers down to students. Furthermore we can observe that the social practices of the production of mutual trust do function only within tiny circles of people bound to each other by academic kinship or strictly institutionalized hierarchical dependencies. Thus, loyalty is a key social asset, which is ensured either by academic kinship structures or by fulfilling academic duties – again something known also in the West. The outcome in Lithuania and Minsk is more relevant, because a single loyalty within the academic system does not ensure economic stability for the single scholar yet. It is impossible to survive on a single job – even in a well doing university. Thus, everybody needs at least another source of income, which makes time an even more valuable resource. To put it more straight forward: Many of my Lithuanian and Belarusian colleagues would rarely attend an academic event, if it does not serve their loyalty and kinship networks and is not connected to the insurance of income. I have learned over time that this is not an expression of a lack of interest in something new, but rather an expression of the state of mind of the humanities in the region in general. And it sets the context, in which I try to organize with partners from Belarus and Lithuania a regular research colloquium on changing humanities issues in a transnational setting.

4 - Colloquium Vilnense 2The framework is changing and transnational because the host of the Colloquium Vilnense itself is in constant transition. European Humanities University is a Belarusian university, founded in 1992 in Minsk and forced in 2004 to leave Belarus. In Vilnius EHU found a new temporary home with support of the Lithuanian government, the European Commission, Nordic Council of Ministers and U.S. Aid. After almost a decade in Vilnius EHU faces right now a challenging passage from a politically supported project towards an academic institution trying to survive at the same time economically. This process broke up a broad range of internal conflicts about the distribution of power, the mission of EHU in exile and the question, how the stakeholders of this project are to be included into the decision making process. I myself came to EHU in 2011 in the framework of an evaluation on behalf the German Academic Exchange Service. After obtaining a position as visiting associate professor for Applied Humanities I became also the founding director of the EHU Center for German Studies. Apart from the challenge to find new academic links with Germany in my understanding of the situation it was most important to create a regular forum for the exchange of ideas, were academic discussion would be held on an everyday basis and regardless all the outlined above challenges and conflicts.

In the search for potential partners I felt the need to cooperate with local partners and to somehow narrow down the question to make it possible to create a meaningful frame of discussion. Thus, I convinced the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, the Institute of Lithuanian History and the Lithuanian NGO to join the initiative and start a series of discussions on Urban Studies in the region. This did not solve the problem with rather specialized audiences, but was a starting point to create a new space for shared interdisciplinary discussion on issues related to the past, present, and future of the region. In 2012 it focused on cities as shared and contested spaces. We invited colleagues from Belarus, Lithuania, Germany, Poland and Ukraine to European Humanities University for a weekly Monday colloquium to develop a deeper understanding of the theoretical framework of our work on the production of urban spaces. It discusses recent research projects and gives feedback to those working on them. The colloquium explicitly provided a forum for scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, cultures and generations.

After the positive start on Urban Studies Colloquium Vilnense turned to Memory Studies as a field of interdisciplinary research. With this change also the place and language: We moved with the Colloquium from EHU to Vilnius University’s History Faculty and from mainly Russian to mainly English. With this change it became even more visible, that Vilnius is special as a space of intersection of both – Anglophone and Russphone – academic discourses – it was interesting to obverse how the colloquium changed over time once switched from Russian as main language too English as lingua  franca of the joint discussion. At EHU Russian worked fine, while it excluded younger Lithuanian colleagues from the discussion, in Vilnius University English works better as a shared language, but still puts a certain barrier to older academic staff, which is more fluent in Russian.

The Colloquium session on transnational perspectives on Memory showed that memory is not just a metaphor for story telling and some virtual context of social constructs referring to the past. As phenomenon having an impact on the way, how we relate ourselves within certain groups and how these groups create shared ideas about themselves. I learned much about differing concepts and approaches how to frame the way how individuals and groups communicate on these issues. This second edition on Memory was very fruitful in particular because it did not refer to memory just in terms of warfare, conflict and violence. These makes some sense in specific contexts especially addressing WWII, but is not the only key to understanding the usage of history as dimension of self-determination in the presence – also in Vilnius today. As a positive outcome of this session of Colloquium Vilnense we trained a very simple technique which is still rather uncommon in Lithuania and Belarus too. After short papers given by two or three persons, we asked a local scholar to comment all papers from his own perspective to open the discussion. This had in general a very positive impact, because it changed a bit the rather hierarchical position between visiting scholars and those from Minsk or Vilnius. The sessions on Memory also showed, that the lack of institutionalized memory studies in the region brought a high degree of flux to the different sessions of the colloquium. Often we would sit in a changing constellation each seminar. This brought some unexpected energy and ever-new participants to the project, but also made it harder to uphold continuity.

As a result of this mixed experience the next session was planned with new partners within Vilnius University on Jewish Studies. And together with Jurgita Verbickiėne on behalf of the Center for the Study of the History and Culture of East European Jews we decided to narrow down the issues addressed to different approaches “Towards a cultural history of Jewish Everyday Life”. This decision had a twofold impact: On the one hand for the first time we had a group of people devoted to Jewish Studies in Vilnius attending the Colloquium on a regular basis. On the other hand many colleagues from other fields would show up rarely, presumably because for them, Jewish history is too specific, and by many it is not perceived as an inherent part of Lithuanian or Belarusian history either. This effect was especially strong, when questions about Jewish experiences in Central Eastern Europe were combined e.g. with Gender Studies aspects. Both fields in Lithuania today are perceived as highly peripheral. As an result, we would welcome rarely any local professors at the Colloquium and the audience would be predominantly female – partly because professors in History in Lithuania and Belarus as a rule are male. Anyhow the way, how we were able to discuss the issues addressed by our speakers and the quality of the discussion was had a positive impact for the local Jewish Studies network and beyond. Highlights as the presentation of Cecile E. Kuznitz’ (New York) new book on the history of YIVO founded 1925 in Vilnius or conceptual paper given by Moshe Rossman (Tel Aviv) as well as a lecture on Divorce and the Happy Jewish Family given by Shaul Stampfer (Jerusalem) invited to change perspectives and to discuss up-to-date research questions as well as methodology indepth. To reach a broader audience even given the narrow focus of the colloquium we organized jointly with Vilnius University and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum an exhibition with contemporary art by Ewa Pohlke and a concert with works of Jewish composers of Litvak origin, which reached out to new groups.

Concluding this report I would state, that a single colloquium cannot solve structural problems of academia in the region, but makes a certain difference in the local setting. It shows, that it is possible and fruitful to create a space for join discussion on academic issues on a regular basis, but it also shows limitations such as the lingua franca problem with Russian loosing this role and English not yet fully playing it. It became also clear, that in order to address an academic question in a meaningful way gathering specialists and present excellent ongoing research, one has to limit the scope, what will exclude potentially interested. I personally feel that the time spent on organizing all these discussions is well invested, because I learnt myself a lot and I am convinced that the links created this way will have an impact on future research activity both in Lithuania and Belarus. For the next semester I set up a co-operation with Tomas Balkelis from Vilnius University to discuss the social impact of violence in the XXth century. And for spring 2015 Olga Sasunkievich of EHU and me are planning to discuss jointly with our colleagues how to carry out Belarusian Studies in the XXIst century. I look forward to any proposals for future co-operations.


Felix Ackermann, Ph.D., Visiting DAAD Associate Professor of Applied Humanities, European Humanities University (Vilnius).


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