Dr. Paul Vincent has received Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant to teach as a visiting professor for spring 2015 semester at Jagiellonian University’s Centre for European Studies. CES students were lucky to have an opportunity to participate in Dr. Vincent’s Nazi Germany: A political and Social History class.
We met with Dr. Vincent on a sunny afternoon in April to talk about Poland, Krakow, CES, students, life in general and also share knowledge on best food places in Krakow…
What brought you to CES?
To answer I must go back a few years to the point where we created an exchange relationship between Keene State College and Jagiellonian. That was largely triggered by Jolanta [Ambrosewicz-Jacobs], who I had contacted in December 2010. She told me that I should connect with somebody at the Centre for European Studies (CES); indeed, she helped make that connection. For an
American academic program focused on Holocaust Studies, Poland seemed like the right place for our students to study. I’d already been to Poland a few times. Well aware that the Nazis carried out the bulk of their mass murder in Poland, I believed an academic exchange program in Krakow made a great deal of sense. Jagiellonian University was perfectly situated. That was the beginning.
After formalizing the exchange relationship, JJ [Justyna Jochym] visited New Hampshire to attend one of Keene State’s international studies fairs. She sat in on one of my classes—I think this was in September 2012—and said later over coffee that “we should get you to teach at the CES.” From the moment she spoke those words I knew I wanted to turn that idea into reality; I really wanted to experience teaching for the Centre. So JJ and I started to exchange notes on how to bring me to Krakow as a visiting professor.
Ultimately, I used official letters-of-invitation from both Professor Mania and Professor Mach to land me the Fulbright Scholarship—an award that ensured I wouldn’t need to sleep on benches in the Planty while teaching for the CES. With the Fulbright, everything fell into place and worked out beautifully. I have absolutely no regrets.
Do you still like Krakow the same way as you expected to like it?
I like it better every day; from day one, it’s been wonderful. When I arrived in January, Christmas trees and the Christmas market were still in the city. There was about an inch of snow on the ground and the city looked magical. Indeed, ever since those first days I’ve thought of this place as magical. It’s a delightful place to live.
Also, right from the start, people at the Centre were just so welcoming; they treated me so well. Without Sylwia [Sylwia Boryka], for example, I’d never have figured out how to operate my SIM-card cellphone. I’m a dunce when it comes to cellphones and she ensured that I could use one that works—actually walking me to a shop on Karmelicka to get the help I needed (I now go there often).
I have no doubt—this is now my favorite city in the world! It’s overriding importance for me rests, however, in the incomparable opportunity living here has given me to both touch and analyze Polish sensitivities as these relate to the Second World War and the Holocaust. This is the chief blessing I’ll take away from my months in Kraków.
Speaking of teaching, do you have a teaching philosophy?
I am a historian and, as a historian, I think the main principle I bring to the classroom is an insistence that, when studying the past, a student must forget that they know what will happen. To truly appreciate history, it’s crucial—as much as is possible—to put yourself back in the moment that you’re studying, without unwrapping what will happen between that moment and now. If you’re unable to do this, I don’t think you can appreciate decisions that were made or responses typical human beings had to the realities that they faced. I believe that every historian must embrace that philosophical principle; I certainly do.
Beyond that, I want my students to think for themselves. In my role as their professor, I can provide them with the basic facts. On quizzes, I ask them to identify the what, where, who, how, and why related to fundamental questions. Of course, “why” is sometimes a difficult question to address, but it’s important for them to grapple with “why.”
Has your approach changed since you started teaching at CES?
Well, my CES audience is different. I used that to evolve a special assignment. I told my students early on about a writing assignment, one that I unwrapped today in class—they’ll actually do this in a couple of weeks. I told them that I wanted them each to write about their country’s experience with Nazi Germany. That’s a broad concept. Beyond that, however, how did the Nazi era impact the region or city where they come from, and, digging even deeper, how did it impact their family or people who were close to their family. In other words, I’m looking for some personal detail. These are not questions that I can ask in America—or, if I ask them, they won’t likely lead to answers that are very meaningful. But the answers of my European students will likely be very meaningful to me. In a sense, this has also changed me. I am getting used to the fact that I am teaching students whose families were affected by the Nazi regime in far greater ways than is true of Americans.
Whether here or in the States, I know that I can always learn from my students. With respect to history, but also with respect to various other courses, professors can all learn from their students. Regardless of how long we’ve been on the professor’s side of the lectern in the classroom, we are all ultimately students until the day we retire.
What was most surprising for you when you started teaching at CES?
I am not going to say that it was a surprise, but I recognized something I needed to get accustomed to. The issue is not just limited to CES; it is broader than that. I needed to accustom myself to teaching at Jagiellonian, in a Polish environment—maybe to some degree, a European environment.
I’m the product of a higher education system that puts a terrific emphasis on office hours. But I didn’t have an office here at CES. I knew there was a point when I, because I’m an American, had to have office hours and so I needed to find a place for them. I picked the Bunkier Café. But until last week the only students who came to office hours were Keene students, and they weren’t even taking my course. Ultimately, it became more about “let’s go see Professor Vincent at the Bunkier” than it was about anything to do with coursework. Then last week, for the first time since February, two of my MA students showed up and talked generally about the course. It was delightful—albeit, a bit disconcerting for the Keene students.
I’ve been told that office hours in Poland are designed more for administrative purposes, not to continue the conversation from the classroom. I hope that I’ve transformed some thinking a bit. For me, it’s really important to be available beyond the classroom for my students.
What was especially unique about teaching CES students?
All of my students are European. Some of them have better language skills than others, especially when they are stand-up comedians in local clubs where they speak in English—an unusual circumstance that’s a clear advantage. They are quieter in class than American students. But that may have something to do with English not being their first language. Of course, that’s a good reason for an American professor to have office hours. It will be a fine memory having that; it will be hard to find it back in America.
Speaking of students, maybe you have some interesting story that was striking, surprising to you, that you think would have never happened back in the US?
One thing that really did shock me, quite honestly, occurred early on in the semester. I was going on about something in class when suddenly I looked at my watch: I had kept them 10-15 minutes beyond the end of class time. Nobody had said a word. They simply sat there, taking notes and listening to what I had to say. I was so apologetic. I could never do that in America; everyone would be talking and pointing at the clock. If it’s time for the class to end, it’s better for the professor to shut up and let them go. That was not the case in this instance and it really surprised me. Their silence may have been out of respect, I don’t know. But it left a very positive impression on me.
Your advice to Keene students who consider coming to study abroad at CES?
As a historian, I often say that we are separated by time and distance from what we study. We can change the variable of distance, but we’re not able to change the time variable—nor would we likely want to. My sense is that if you have even a remote interest in the Holocaust and learning more about it, nothing will have a greater impact than visiting and studying in one of the places where it happened. There is just something special about standing on the ground where the event happened.
Krakow is such a delightful place; I would return to the city in a heartbeat. For a start, you’re surrounded by students. By and large, they are reasonably well behaved and self-controlled. I am increasingly impressed by the maturity that I experience in Krakow and know that it is valuable for American students, whether or not they’re studying the Holocaust, to see and appreciate that one can grow up as an undergraduate in this environment in a more mature way.
“Don’t anticipate that you’ll come to Krakow and lead the princely lifestyle that you’re able to lead at Keene State College,” I would advise, “because residence halls here are not hotels, such as at KSC.” But that is not among the purposes of studying at Jagiellonian. “Your goal,” I would say, “is to experience something different and exciting—and you will experience something different and exciting.”
The last thing I would advise is “learn a little Polish.”
How is your Polish, Paul?
Oops, you got me there! I was doing okay for about six weeks. Then the invitation arrived from Prague to speak before the Senate of the Czech Republic. There was no longer time for Polish—no doubt, my biggest regret. Dziękuję bardzo.