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Daina S. Eglitis, Associate Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, GWU
Let’s start with a quiz. Can you name the four countries that border Armenia? While most Americans have some familiarity with this country of about three million people, not least because more ethnic Armenians live outside of the country than in it (many in the U.S.), the geography, politics, and social issues of Armenia less familiar. Certainly they were not familiar to me, an American sociologist whose research, while focused on social processes of post-communism, has been limited to European post-Soviet states like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. When the opportunity arose last summer to become part of the Open Society Foundations’ Higher Education Support Program (HESP) as an International Scholar partnered with the Department of Sociology at Yerevan State University in Armenia, I soon embraced it. But first I checked the map. Here are Armenia’s neighbors: Georgia in the north, Turkey in the west, Azerbaijan in the east, and Iran in the south.
The Higher Education Support Program (HESP) was born from the idea that post-secondary education is a key part of the development of open, tolerant, and democratic societies (www.soros.org/about/programs/international-higher-education-support-program). The Academic Fellowship Program (part of HESP) which brought me to Yerevan foresees the fruitful linkage of three entities. It seeks to identify ambitious and innovative humanities and social sciences departments in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans, and Mongolia as well as to support faculty in those departments who achieve advanced degrees at universities in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe, among others. Those “Returning Scholars” are supported with grants and opportunities that academic positions in their home countries cannot otherwise afford them, with the goals of fostering their skills in research and teaching and helping countries and universities reduce “brain drain.” The third piece in this scenario is “International Scholars” from Western universities, who partner with the selected departments and their faculty to support curriculum reform, the expansion of resources for teaching and research, and the development of academic networks.
In the 2011-2012 academic year, I was an International Scholar with the Department of Applied Sociology at Yerevan State University (YSU) in Armenia, one of four departments in the country that were part of the Academic Fellowship Program. While sociology has been at YSU since 1986, the Applied Sociology section was created in 2004. As in many post-Soviet states, sociology departments encompass an array of programs which, from an American perspective, cross into the disciplinary territory of other fields. Aside from traditional sociological courses on theory and methods, applied sociology at YSU offers specialties in conflict studies and public relations.
My department at YSU is well-staffed by young, progressive scholars, but the conditions of work are challenging. In a country where the average monthly salary is barely $300, pay in the academic sector is also low. Students are, by and large, bright and engaged, though the economic situation in the country compels most students to work. This has an effect on attendance and preparation. The legacy of Soviet bureaucracy translates here, as in many places in the region, into irrationalities of rationality that include paperwork more extensive than most American scholars are required to complete. Access to both Internet and hard copy resources, such as journals with contemporary research, is limited. In spite of obstacles, the department is endeavoring to prepare a new generation of Armenian scholars.
The preparation of committed and critical scholars who can turn a sociological lens on contemporary social issues in Armenia is of real importance. Consider just a pair of issues that sociologists encounter in this region of the world. First, the militarization of society: with unresolved conflicts with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan, the sense of threat in society is palpable. The collective memory of the Armenian genocide in the late Ottoman Empire and the more recent border war with Azerbaijan, together with the fact that young men are obligated to serve in the military, creates a situation where peace and stability may be perceived as fragile. The effect of this perception on social, political, and economic behavior is important to understand. Second, in the post-Soviet period, Armenia, like the other countries of the South Caucasus, has experienced the growth of a gap in the sex ratio at birth, similar to the phenomenon has been widely associated with countries like India and China. The roots of its appearance in Asia Minor remain open to fuller sociological study.
My role as an International Scholar has been informed by the knowledge and experience I have gained over 13 years in the Department of Sociology at George Washington University. One of the concerns that the Academic Fellowship Program (AFP) seeks to address is the Soviet legacy of didactic teaching in which the authority of the teacher is unchallenged and a student’s role is passive. As in most American universities, advanced students who become teachers are rarely trained in pedagogy, which means that many follow the models they have experienced in the classroom. Young scholars in the post-Soviet space are eager to break out of this mold. One of the contributions I have sought to make as an International Scholar is to bring my teaching experience and research into creative pedagogies to my department at YSU and other scholars in the program. To this end, I have offered seminars and roundtables in interactive teaching and active learning at both YSU and the AFP disciplinary meeting that brought together the region’s young sociologists at a single meeting in Istanbul, Turkey. With the help of the ASA*, the Department of Applied Sociology at YSU also received a gift of syllabi compilations and teaching materials to add to their faculty resources.
As a participant in the program, I have gained at least as much as I have given. The opportunity to be part of change and development in higher education, which is driven by the regional scholars in the program, has been enormously rewarding and interesting. I have learned about a spectrum of amazing research projects that range from the analysis of the role of bazaars in the post-Soviet Kirghiz economy to the study of the complex and negotiated relationships of prisoners and guards in Ukrainian prisons to the feminist analysis of post-war memorials in Kosovo. International Scholars also contribute through peer review, offering feedback on course development and syllabi. The creativity of scholars in the program is reflected in courses they are bringing to fruition on diverse topics such as collective memory and society, poverty and marginality, and modern social movements. Academic innovation and creativity are engines of social change and these young scholars—through their research and teaching—are making contributions of substance and significance to the discipline and their communities.
* I would like to thank the American Sociological Association for their generous donation of teaching materials to the Department of Applied Sociology at YSU. I am especially grateful to Margaret Weigers Vitullo and Valerie Jiggetts, who helped to arrange the gathering and sending of the materials.
Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (email@example.com).