An American Academic in Bulgaria

O. Alan Weltzien
Western Montana College-U of M

In early July, 1998, my family and I returned to the U.S. from Sofia, Bulgaria, where I had lived the preceding nine-and-a-half months. I had completed a Fulbright Fellowship at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski," where I accustomed myself to an academic culture markedly different from what I have known in Virginia and, over the past eight years, in Montana. This traditionalist culture differs in virtually every assumption about curriculum and pedagogy from our own, but because of earlier experience in Poland, I felt less surprise than I otherwise would. It attempts a comprehensive curriculum, but at the cost of rigidity and a nearly complete lack of student ownership or choice. Younger faculty take increasing issue with the prevailing, one-way transmission model of the professor-student relationship, but it seems pretty clear that what students already know does not count for much. As a Fulbrighter my purpose was not to dispute their academic culture, though of course I talked as much as possible with colleagues about our markedly different traditions.

1997-98 represented my second year in Eastern Europe. In 1989-90 I had a Fulbright in Poland, where I was associated with the University of Gdansk. I was curious to see if Bulgaria in 1997 resembled in any respects Poland in 1989, as all the former Eastern European Communist countries fashion new, Western economies. In Sofia, a capital city of over 1,000,000, I quickly learned that my earlier year at Poland's University of Gdansk well prepared me for Bulgarian academic culture. St. Kliment Ohridski, a crucial figure in Orthodox Church history and the history of the Cyrillic alphabet, is the patron saint of Bulgaria's oldest and most prestigious university. We all learned Cyrillic, and our teenager and I also learned some "Bulgarski," as many segments of the population do not know or speak English. I base my comments upon my experiences at these two universities, though I speak primarily about Sofia University. Too, they represent only my interpretation and do not constitute the whole truth.

Sofia University's grand old building, the "Rektorat," represents a case of seriously fading grandeur. During the economically tumultuous 1990s, the University, with a student population of about 18,000, has been seriously underfunded, as have most all Bulgarian institutions of higher education. The results are predictable: poorly lit stairwells; classrooms without chalk or erasers or, in winter, heat; dirty, dusty corridors; and bathrooms lacking toilet seats and paper, reliable plumbing, and hot water. A public health hazard, and no place for women. I shared an office with four colleagues on the fourth floor of the central wing. The IBM-compatible computer worked fine; the copier, less reliably. As far as I saw, no other copiers exist for Department faculty. The computer in this office lacked e-mail capability; to have an e-mail account and access, I procured keys to a second office on the fifth floor shared by no less than ten colleagues. Each uses a cubbyhole closet along one wall to store supplies and some personal effects. Sometimes offices double as classrooms or sites for oral exams. I tolerated the Rektorat more easily than my wife, but after dark, an element of risk accompanied one's movements because of dim or absent lighting. Nothing like descending a cavernous stone stairwell five flights in the semi-dark.

As a senior Americanist (i.e., specialist in American literature), I became part of the Department of English and American Studies, which in turn belongs to the Faculty of Classical and Modern Philology. This Department admits only 100 students per year, who are then assigned to one of five groups. This year's freshman class had a one-in-twenty chance of admission, so obviously the curriculum attracts top quality students. If I recall correctly, the curriculum is divided into four components: British literature and studies; linguistics; practical English, including translation; and American literature and studies. The latter forms the smallest component. A Sofia University student stays with the same group of approximately nineteen others throughout the five-year course of study. Of course these students get to know one another's habits well, but that rigid group identity has several drawbacks as well. One concerns a central assumption about this curriculum: all students take all courses. It's soup to nuts, with no options or shortcuts on the menu. There is no such concept as electives; everyone takes morphology, for example. Thus a Sofia University student in this curriculum takes the same courses in the same sequence with the same students for five years. Students choose some of their fifth-year specialization courses; otherwise, no choices.

This definition of curriculum contrasts significantly from ours, and I believe its shortcomings outweigh its idealism. For example, the Department's definition of American literature, based upon a rather small master list, falls hopelessly short. It attempts a basic survey but in fact parodies the notion of coverage. The parody deepens when various students admit to me their scanty or non-existent reading of the list during the term. Similar problems obtain regarding assumptions about pedagogy. Judging from my limited experience, Eastern European universities have mostly modeled themselves after the German research university paradigm that Ernie Boyer, among many others, argues has shaped American academic culture in the past few generations. At Sofia University, courses are called "lectures," and that name describes the preferred pedagogy. I am not going to bash lecturing, a commonplace and trite response, but I am suggesting that their pedagogy rests upon a transmission model. Some courses apparently include some discussion, but that's very much the exception. The mindset seems to be that only the professor knows what's important, and the student must ingest and memorize at least until the occasion of the course exam, which may occur one or two semesters later and which will be oral.

I witnessed many oral exams in progress and occasionally thought about the images of education presented in Hermann Hesse's Beneath The Wheel. Students smoke in the hallways, nervously awaiting their summons; then, in ten minutes or less, their ability to answer examiners' questions smoothly and substantially determines their success or failure-whether they have suddenly fallen behind one or more semesters, or not. An old form of exit exam, a mode of evaluation dependent mostly on memorization and regurgitation, thus remains primary. Yet I know from experience with fourth-year students one term that students highly dislike and resist most forms of "continuous assessment." The Department introduced writing courses for second-, third-, and fourth-year students and has yet to figure out how to fully integrate them into their curriculum. As I tried to explain and introduce elements of writing classes commonplace in the U.S., I found students rejecting them. Several bright students--M.A. level students here--bridled at the prospect of writing more than one or two five- to ten-page papers for the course; I compromised, and they all wrote four or five short essays. Their rejections come, I think, from their acceptance, however grudging, of expectations about pedagogy and evaluation vastly different from ours.

Relations between students and professors, and between professors, are certainly more formal than is the case in the U.S. Besides the fourth-year writing course already mentioned, I taught the third-year American literature lecture and a couple of fifth-year, M.A. courses. Those third-year students, for example, certainly found it strange when I would shift out of a lecturing mode. In general, students act much more deferentially towards professors than is the case at home. I was not entirely joking when I would say to American colleagues and friends that I lived in Bulgaria to regain some respect as an academic. On the other hand, many students felt uncomfortable when I would try to close some of that distance and undercut the received traditions of formality. Certainly anything like a personal interest in the students feels foreign to them and is foreign to their experience. As an academic in Bulgaria, one commands respect--which is a good thing, because one does not receive a salary one can live on. A full professor, I received in "leva" (i.e., "lion," the Bulgarian currency) the equivalent of $130 per month--in cash. Foreign faculty such as myself received our salaries reliably, on the tenth of the month; my colleagues might wait one to three weeks or more after pay day because of "cash flow" problems. Most of my colleagues survive by giving private English lessons, moonlighting as translaters, and the like. It's becoming increasingly difficult to eke out a living in Bulgaria's turbulent 1990s. According to one close colleague and friend, bank clerks earn more than professors.

Academics are hard pressed to survive financially these years. I was part of a distinguished department, with many active scholars who have studied in the U.K. or U.S., or have published articles and books. Some of them I guess to be impressive teachers; some, however, are probably terrible in the classroom. But then, pedagogy matters little in terms of evaluation or advancement--it's as alien a criterion as student evaluations within a course. Teaching effectiveness does not matter. Departmental service matters, but writing and publishing matter the most. My colleagues concern themselves little with central administration, before which they feel powerless and which, judging from my occasional encounters, seems as incompetent as any I've encountered. The University's top official, its Rektor, acts utterly indifferent to repeated departmental efforts to force his hand and improve conditions in its classrooms, offices, and bathrooms. Differences in academic rank strike me as more important, and more frequently observed, than is the case here. Certainly they possess a greater number of ranks, and the overall structure feels more pyramidal.

The Department of English and American Studies numbered, at least in 1997-98, about forty-three personnel, which may include--I don't recall--the British Council lecturers and American Fulbrighter. Its Chair, the only full professor in the department, enjoys quite a bit of authority and respect. I was told his nickname soon after meeting him and addressed him thus. Later I learned that close colleagues of fifteen years or more address him only by his title and surname. Given his national reputation and list of publications, I felt embarrassed holding the same rank. A difference in academic culture solely? He is followed by five associate professors, all of whom have been with the department twenty-five years or more (and two or three of whom are women). My impression is that there is very little academic mobility in Bulgaria; if anything, professors at some of the newest, less accredited and less credible schools would jockey for a position at Sofia University, but that's not always the case. For my colleagues, trying to survive juggling two or three jobs, the choice is whether to remain in academe or not. Below associate professor come the ranks of docent and lecturer, and I don't understand the local distinctions between these. To earn this rank, one must write and publish a "habilitatcya," something like a second dissertation. Finally come three levels of assistant professor.

At the lower levels, one might be teaching without having the dissertation completed. Two of my closer friends have been completing theirs, and with one, I sat in on one of the dissertation defense meetings. As a full professor, I could write her a letter of support after critiquing her work, which I did. That meeting proved an unpleasant experience, as the former department chair, retired for years now, used the occasion to launch a general diatribe against feminism, let alone feminist theory. Successfully defending one's dissertation entails a series of defenses with professors increasing old, male, and removed from one's area of expertise--or even one's discipline. Questions linger at the national level as to whether one's dissertation must be written in English or Bulgarski. I understand that the whole process takes about two years, and that one receives the conferral only by some national committee at the end. This strikes me as a byzantine series of disincentives which, coupled with the brutal realities of salary structures, make it hard to fathom why many would remain in academe.

Lines of authority run more clearly between ranks than has been my experience in the U.S.; everyone knows their place. However, this Department's treatment of its foreign guests is uniformly cordial and courteous. I most always felt as if I existed outside those lines of authority. Bulgarian public education is superior in many respects to that in the U.S., but I fear its reliance upon rote memorization and disinterest, at least until the middle University years, in critical thinking. Probably half my students read much more (in English) and write better (in English) than three quarters of my students at WMC-UM. Many acted with some sophistication--and some jaded cynicism as well. Attendance is entirely a different matter there than here. As is the case elsewhere, University admission appears the giant hurdle; after that, many go on automatic pilot, bumbling along in some respects, assured that they will not lose their place except in exceptional circumstances. Students might physically attend one's course 50% or even 25% of the time: there is no such thing as an institutional attendance policy, though individuals can strain to define and enforce their own. In the penultimate week of the spring semester, I had a student join my M.A. course. Nor does "flunking out" carry much meaning.

Students often can't make it to class because they are too busy working--often, like their professors, giving private English lessons or working as translators or teachers. In their large number of work hours, perhaps, they most resemble American students. But they, and the rest of Bulgarian society, smoke far more than do Americans. Too, there is a wry unpredictability to the academic calendar. It might turn out to be some saint's day next week that you didn't know about until now. Or perhaps the students have taken another informal student holiday. One's contact hours are sometimes not only fewer, but less certain week in and week out.

As was the case in Poland, I felt I learned far more from the students than I could teach them. They knew quite a lot about American pop culture and New York City, for instance, but knew virtually nothing about other regions including the Rocky Mountains. Some would like to transfer to an American college or university; others would like to immigrate, but the green card lottery is tough to enter. I am impressed with what the students know but unimpressed with the ways--at least the formal academic ways--they have come to know what they know. As an American academic, I see many flaws in the lockstep curriculum utterly lacking electives (at least until the fifth year, M.A. level). I see many flaws when all courses are typically called "lectures" which typically feature little give and take between professor and students. Due to my own idiosyncracies, I object to the traditions of formality insofar as they interfere with or obstruct what I judge genuine education. I would be foolish to believe that American academe holds all the answers or is uniformly a superior system. Bulgarian higher education undergoes reform along with the rest of the country. New schools have cropped up many times during Bulgaria's first post-Communist decade. Some are disreputable, shady. One, however--the American University of Blagoevgrad (AUBG), founded six to eight years ago--models itself after an American private liberal arts college. AUBG has emerged in the forefront of Bulgarian higher education, and its quality challenges the received traditions of venerable Sofia University. The latter needs more shaking up; the English Department's curriculum and pedagogy need some modification, as its authoritarian style feels alien to liberal traditions in American academe.

Last May I took part in the Third Fulbright Conference dedicated to the Fifth Anniversary of the Bulgarian-American Commission for Educational Exchange. The conference was titled, "Education and Civil Society in the Post-Totalitarian World"; I titled my speech, "The Culture of Writing Classes, Liberal Arts, and Eastern European University Reform." My point was that Sofia University students, at least many of those I knew, resisted the culture of American college writing classes because the faculty do not understand it or, if they do, don't accept it. I have taught writing classes for about twenty years now. If the activities and tones characteristic in my writing classes imitate, in certain respects, a liberal arts education, then I believe, as I remarked in my speech, that Eastern European universities need to grow beyond their German research model and adapt a curriculum and pedagogy characterized by at least some give and take, some negotiation. Unfortunately, I imagine the Bulgarian economy will change more rapidly than the prevailing academic culture.

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