Exposing Students to a Variety of Approaches to the Environment

09/10/2012 20:41

Photo: Czech Canada

In the summer Masaryk University in Brno hosted the Czech Canada Summer School in Telč, Czech Republic. The summer school was a week-long event sponsored by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies (CEACS), the Government of Canada and Masaryk University. It was the first summer school ever organized by the Young Canadianists, a youth wing of the aforementioned organization. Its aim was to bring together students interested in Canada from CEACS member countries, as well as professors involved in Canadian Studies, of both Czech and international background, and to tackle the issue of the environment in Canada from various perspectives. The summer school won the hearts and minds of all of its students, who wish to return to the same place again next year and embark on another adventure into the rich world of Canadian culture and literature. Unfortunately, as of May this year, the Canadian government has cut all funding of foreign programs related to Canadian Studies, endangering the existence of not just another Czech Canada Summer School but of the CEACS and Young Canadianists. We spoke to two of the key organizers of the event, Dr. Don Sparing, the CEACS treasurer, and Dominika Lopašovská, the head of the Young Canadianists, to find out more about the Czech Canada Summer School and the current situation of Canadian Studies.


PP: What inspired you to organize the Czech Canada Summer School in Telč and for how long had you been planning to do it?

DS: What inspired us was two or three years ago when we started the group of the Young Canadianists within the Central European Association, and roughly in February or March a year ago we said: Let’s apply for a grant so that young Canadianists from all over Central Europe can get together. Then we asked ourselves what we could do, what would be interesting. I sat down with Zuzana Janouskova, who was the Young Canadianists coordinator back then, and we talked about possibilities and came up with this idea of a summer school dealing with the environment. It was Zuzka’s idea, actually, I must say. The idea basically was that with the theme of the environment we could cover a lot of areas and connect them. It was also at that time in the government’s support program, it was a priority area, and they were encouraging people to deal with the environment in Canada. So we chose this theme and sent off the proposal in May last year. In June or July we learned that we had received the grant.


PP: Were there any obstacles in trying to organize this event? Summer schools are not very common in our region. Were there any difficulties in obtaining the grant, or finding the teachers for the sessions? What was the most difficult aspect of organizing this?

DL: Maybe trying to decide what we could finance and what we couldn’t. Since it was the first thing of this kind that we organized, at first we really didn’t know how to do it and what needed to be done first. That’s when we contacted Katka Prajznerova, who helped us a lot. I don’t really think it would have been possible without her.

DS: The core of her academic work is Ecology, Environment and Literature. We talked about the abilities, the resources available to us, etc. She had some great ideas about possible teachers and we put it together. Finance was the major problem because from the beginning we had this idea that it was going to be held in Telč and that it would be called Czech Canada, so we knew all that, but then of course when it came to putting down on paper how much the real budget would be as opposed to what we had asked money for and got, it turned out that we were short. Luckily, the English Department in Brno has contributed generously, and the American teacher who is teaching here – his university paid for him to come here. And so on. So we’ve been extremely lucky in terms of finances. This may sound ironic, but we’re lucky that there are not so many students as there originally should have been, because we wouldn’t have been able to pay for everything, especially for some of the extra things, like the excursion to Czech Canada on Saturday, or the chateau visit. All of these things would have had to be done differently. Students would have had to pay themselves. Even the common breakfast, which is kind of crucial for the solidarity of a group at a summer school – originally, we thought we wouldn’t have enough money for the breakfast. As I said, it’s rather ironic, but because some people dropped out, we were able to improve the programme.


PP: What percentage of the money for this event was from Canada?

DS: Around 70 percent. But this doesn’t include outside funding, which we weren’t involved with – for example the air ticket for the American professor, paid for by his university. 


PP: What did you want the summer school to accomplish and what would you want the students to take from the experience?

DL: We just wanted to bring together people from different fields, which was really complicated because the majority of people who applied studied English. We wanted variety in fields of studies, which we didn’t really get.

DS: We had hoped originally that there would be a wider variety of disciplines among the students, maybe some law students, maybe some economics students, but it’s the nature of Canadian studies in Central Europe that the vast majority of teachers are in languages and literatures. Also the vast majority of our student members are in those areas, and others, I suppose, when they looked at the programme, they thought that there was still too much literature – for their interests – and so they didn’t apply.

That idea of bringing in a wide variety of students didn’t work as we had hoped. However, what did work was that in the final group of sessions that we put together there was a fairly wide range of issues. There were legal Native issues, justice, ecological justice. We also brought in two teachers from the University of Ostrava who’ve done quite a lot in the field of ecology, and two hard scientists working in the area of hydrology. From that point of view, we accomplished at least a part of what we said we would accomplish – we exposed at least a small, narrowly focused group of students to a wide variety of approaches to the environment.

DL: We also wanted to have people from various countries, which we in the end have, but not in such an extent as we would have wished to.

DS: Most of the people who dropped out were from more distant countries.

DL: Croatia, Serbia, Hungary…

DS: Maybe it’s a financial issue, we don’t know. It’s a pity, because we really would have liked to have had a bigger international component, but this is the first time we’ve done it, so maybe the next time. What we hoped to accomplish as well – in my part of the course I just hoped that I would broaden people’s awareness of ecological issues and different approaches to it. Environment is a complex issue and people should not just enter it with black & white views.


PP: The central theme of the Summer School was the environment. Why was this topic chosen?

DL: It’s very topical :) (laugh)…

DS: The basic idea was that we were looking for a topic which would appeal to a very broad range of students and potentially even enable us to bring in students who hadn’t done anything specific about Canada, but because of their interests, because of the topic we chose, they might be sucked into some Canadian studies.

And it struck us that the environment was an ideal topic because it could be approached from so many different points of view. As Dominika mentioned, we also had a teacher in our English Department, Katka Prajznerová, who does environmentalism in literature, so this was a kind of local proof of expertise in this area, And, of course, this tied in with the whole business of what Central Europeans think of Canada – they think of nature and all of these kind of clichés about Canada, mountains and lakes, trees, etc. Those were the main reasons. I also knew that right near Telč is this peculiar area called Česká Kanada. So it just seemed like such an obvious choice to have this Czech Canada environmental summer school because it brought together so many things.


PP: Your sessions at the Czech Canada Summer School focused on Native American Indians and environment. What motivated you to look into this specific area?

DS: I’m involved with a very interesting project that’s financed by the European Commission, which is a four-week study tour of Canada that takes 30-32 students to Canada every year. We visit Ottawa, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria and we meet with policy makers, people from government, the private sector, etc. When we did the first year, which was two years ago, I was quite fascinated and astounded by the information we received, the talks we were given by some people from British Columbia who’d been involved and are still involved with the land claims of the First Nations in British Columbia. It was a kind of revelation for me, the complications, the road blocks that had been put up in the way of these First Nations trying to get their aboriginal title back to their own land. So for me it was an opportunity to use a little bit of knowledge which I gained on this study tour two years ago, as well as some texts that we’d been given then. I also learned a lot of stuff myself. For me this was a great learning opportunity. I mean, I never like teaching anything if I don’t learn something.


PP: So, Dominika, you’ve attended all of the sessions in the summer school. Which one was your favourite? Which was the one you found most appealing?

DL: As one of the organizers I should say “all of them”… (laugh)


PP: Sincerely?

DL: I think together they make up a really great picture because what we intended to do was to include different points of view: First Nations, law, history, hydrology, and all of the professors are experts in what they do, so I don’t think there is anything to be improved there. But I, personally, am a practical person and I really enjoyed the field trip that we had on Wednesday - that we could try all those things that hydrologists do.


PP: You could put that on your CV: that you can now translate hydrological texts.

DL: That’s true; we read a lot of them (laugh).


PP: Do you think that this event can be repeated and possibly made into tradition? And if so, what should be the central theme of the Czech Canadian summer school and will it be possible to organize such an event?

DS: I think it’s very hard to speak about future of this event in the current situation when we’re not even certain about the financial prospects of the Canadian Studies association we’re members of. So there is definitely no specific thought about the future topic of the summer school. We don’t have any idea if we’ll be able to hold another summer school in the next few years. Hopefully later.

Our main concern now is to make sure that the core activities of this association go on and that includes the fact that we have to decide what our core activities are. This means, for instance, the journal, which comes out once a year. And we have to keep the Young Canadianists attracted, and run the basic service, which is the website. Things work now because people get together, brainstorm and meet each other. Every three years we have a major conference. But these occasions are in jeopardy. We will see – we’ll need to devise new modes of cooperation.



PP: Dominika, how should Canadanists promote Canadian Studies to attract more students? Do you think they have done a good job so far?

DL: Well, I think we’re doing the best we can. The best we can. I am not saying that everybody’s doing their best, but I think for Young Canadianists it is very hard to attract students. I spoke about it in the previous interview with Perspectives. The problem is that we have to rely on CEACS teacher members to give students information about us. What we did was that we organized presentations – that’s how I met Lucia Otrísalová and some of the participants of the Summer School. That’s basically what we could think of. Also, we are a student network in its beginnings, as opposed to GKS Nachwuchsforum, created by MA and PhD students in German-speaking countries, which have a long tradition of Canadian Studies and a lot of student participants. We, on the other hand, were established as a branch or as a sub-network of CEACS only in 2009, which isn’t so long ago for an organization. So we are, somehow, struggling to become more popular.


PP: Is there anything you would like to add concerning the Czech Canada summer school?

DL: We managed to attract a group of bright students and made good choices of teachers. Discussions in classes are great and inspiring. We are very sorry though that the school is not as multinational as we hoped it would be. We had applications from quite a few countries, but some students dropped out.  CEACS covers 9 countries, so it’s a pity that only 4 are represented and we hope that if there is anything like this in the future, it won’t be a problem anymore.

Tomáš Buš in co-operation with the Perspectives team



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