Once a sociologist, always a sociologist: cultural diversity at UNYP

We all are shaped by our professional training and experience. Dentists observe your smile, language teachers have the urge to correct your non-standard ways of speech, and designers judge every detail of your home. And sociologists? Whatever we do, wherever we go, we use our sociological imagination. More than sixty years ago, the great American sociologist Charles Wright Mills introduced a new concept in sociology – the ability to grasp how impersonal social forces shape our lives. Sociology helps us to understand social reality and contextualize our personal experience into a broader social context. Thus, as a sociologist, I can’t help applying sociological imagination to my diverse teaching experience. Almost unintentionally, I analyze the atmosphere and self-presentation of the university, the students’ attitudes to learning, their motivation, the way they communicate with their schoolmates and lecturers, their social class, their cultural capital, the way that management treat the lecturers and students, and much more.

I was lucky to start my teaching career at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Pardubice. When I started teaching there in 2004, it was a newly-established department full of enthusiastic anthropologists willing to invest all their energy and time into building a dynamic department focused on fieldwork, following the newest international trends in social sciences. This project had all the characteristics of a new project which has not yet been fully settled: organizational imperfections, improvisation, and the need to constantly evidence one’s activities and “results” to the management. Most of all, I remember the vibrant atmosphere, an open-minded and creative milieu that originated in a lively community of lecturers and students.

Later, I taught for a year at Bryn Mawr College (US), a very prestigious women’s liberal arts college. At Bryn Mawr, I appreciated not only the beautiful campus and the perfectly equipped library that was open till midnight, but also the standard teaching style there – small discussion-oriented classes based on independent reading. The students took a serious, responsible, and dedicated attitude toward their studies, and their deep interest in the matters under discussion made my year of teaching at Bryn Mawr College a very joyful experience.

As well as UNYP, I currently teach at Charles University, and have enjoyed teaching in Erasmus exchanges at the University of Bordeaux in France, but nowhere I have experienced such a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse milieu as I do at the University of New York in Prague. I appreciate the UNYP course structure – three hours a week in small groups gives the lecturer enough time to dive deeply into the discussed topics. Nevertheless, I think that the main reason why I enjoy teaching at UNYP so much is the cultural diversity. Cultural diversity in class is always enriching but if you are teaching sociology, it is exceptionally valuable. During our class discussions, students are encouraged to share their experiences on topics such as culture, socialization, family, gender, normality and deviance, conformity, race, ethnicity, and interaction in everyday life; cultural diversity makes the discussion enriching and fascinating.

Cultural diversity demands sensitivity when leading discussions; for example, there can be cultural differences in the perception of “politeness”. In my classes, there are sometimes members of ethnic groups or nations that are in conflict, and this experience teaches students cultural sensitivity and respect for others. Discussing sociological topics while sharing culturally diverse personal experiences is an unparalleled way for students to understand the most important message about social sciences – the goal of this discipline is not to judge, but to understand. In this sense, studying at UNYP serves as a wonderful opportunity for practical experiential learning. In other educational institutions, students sometimes discuss cultural diversity in a very problematic, ethnocentric way (“they are living with us” or “how should we better understand them”) that focuses on difference, draws lines between “us” and “them”, perhaps sees cultural homogeneity as a norm, and may even show an inherent belief in the supremacy of the majority that “shows goodwill while generously tolerating cultural difference”. Conversely, UNYP teaches students in a practical way that there is no “us and them” but only us – Humanity.

Written by
Tereza Hyánková

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