Studying Poland in Cambridge
Poland’s rise in importance over the last decade has only very recently brought to light our alarming ignorance of its culture. This brand-new awareness of a need for up-to-date perspectives on Poland has led to several promising Polish studies programmes, the latest of which is an ambitious initiative in the making at the prestigious University of Cambridge.
Logically, Culture.pl has taken upon itself to discover as much as one could discover about Cambridge’s Polish programme short of actually registering. Through faculty and student interviews, as well as a modest peek at course materials, we have put together an overview of Poland as it will be presented in the world’s fourth-oldest university.
Why study Poland?
Whether on this side of the Iron Curtain or the other, there are decades of Cold War to undo in our education system. Most of students in the Americas or in Western Europe are taught a history and a culture that stops at Germany’s easternmost border, if that far. Individuals desirous to get to know Europe farther than this invisible border are directed towards Russian history and culture, which still has many academic strongholds inherited from Soviet times. Taking into consideration the degree to which Central Europe has integrated its western counterpart, one wonders why most academic curricula fail to acknowledge one of the keys to its entirety.
Admirably, a few scholars of Central and Eastern Europe are actively fighting back. At the forefront of this wave of enthusiasm is Stanley Bill, the heart and soul of the new Polish Studies Initiative in Cambridge.
Speaking to him, one quickly becomes convinced that he treats his topic seriously, and that he does not set the bar low for students eager to unveil the mysteries of Polish culture. He describes his approach as language-based area studies. In answer to whether the Polish language is necessary to conquer the country’s culture, he answers uncompromisingly: without speaking Polish, external analysts are condemned to a superficial understanding. Fluent in Polish himself, he has been hailed by the Polish press as a quasi-mythical figure: an Australian fascinated by Poland.
What is there to study?
When it comes to the study of Poland, this language-based approach is unprecedented. In terms of approachability, the Polish language undoubtedly has one of the worst reputations in Europe, and as a result few people make the effort to learn even the most basic rules of pronunciation, obstinately butchering household names like Lech Wałęsa and Czesław Miłosz. It is therefore an welcome development to encounter endeavors to demystify a tongue that has been tabooed for so long.
Cambridge Polish Studies uses language as a tool rather than an area of focus. The curriculum itself covers an ambitious range of topics, most of which will be completely foreign to British students. Currently the programme only offers a minor, but Stanley Bill is determined to offer a three-year programme, therefore a full major, in a few years down the road. He is certainly on the right path; student sign up increased by 100% from the first year to the second.
The programme is built around a core course entitled Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture of Poland, and the lecturer is none other than Professor Bill himself. It covers 7 modules: the first six are historical eras starting from pagan Poland and ending with the EU years, and a seventh module is dedicated to Jewish culture in Poland. While most history fanatics are relatively knowledgeable about the Second World War and Communist periods, earlier modules will introduce the lesser-known times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a non-national state whose very existence defies many geopolitical beliefs widely held to this day.
Who signs up?
Who, then, are the brave souls willing to tackle this enigmatic land? One may be tempted to believe that such an initiative will attract exclusively students with a pre-existing interest or a family background in Poland, but in fact this is not the case. Of this year’s cohort, only one student comes from a Polish family. The overwhelming majority of students are people who came into contact with the U.K.’s considerable Polish minority and whose curiosity was piqued: in short, people intent on widening their horizons.
Looking at Emily Larcombe, it seems the programme does wonders at sparking a genuine interest in Polish culture. A mere year after embarking on her Polish academic journey, Emily has already moved on to winning a three-week stay in Kraków as a prize for her translation of Polish poetry into English. She registered for the course looking for a way to challenge her perceptions of Europe, aware that she knew next to nothing about Central European history.
In her eyes, Professor Bill’s language-based approach is absolutely justified. She even goes as far as to say that she was ‘quite ignorant’ before she began taking the course. Ms Larcombe is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the standard definition of ignorance. On top of English and Japanese, her two mother tongues, she knows French and Spanish. However, she told us:
It wasn’t really until I went to Poland and started learning Polish that I realized that here was a culture with its own language, its own history, its own way of life. It made me realize that I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought I was. To live the language, to connect with the people really gives you a different perspective than following the news in England. Here people may be prejudiced against Eastern European countries because of the Cold War and the iron curtain. There still a subconscious mentality that Europe means Western Europe.
She adds that learning Polish was a considerable but rewarding challenge:
Never having done a Slavic language before, I remember hitting walls, the numbers for example, but once you understand the grammar it was a very interesting experience to test my ability to learn a new language.
Finally, when asked what she would recommend to those wishing to get started on Polish culture, she half-jokingly suggests the unmatched purity of Polish wódka, and the writings of the unequalled Czesław Miłosz, all in all quite a tantalizing combination.
Edited by Lea Berriault, Autumn 2015
For more information, visit the homepage of Cambridge Polish Studies
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