“We Are Motivated by a Sense of Duty Towards the Generation Coming of Age Now”

January 31, 2020

In September 2020, CEU will expand its teaching portfolio into undergraduate studies. Professor Dorit Geva, founding dean of undergraduate programs and head of the BA in Culture, Politics, and Society program, discusses how the new bachelor’s programs respond to the transformations the world is undergoing and how they fit into the university’s mission.

You joined CEU in 2011 after teaching at the University of Chicago. How would you sum up the past 8 years?

It’s been an emotional roller coaster. When I joined in 2011, I quickly appreciated how unique CEU is. Unlike the University of Chicago, where almost all students are from the U.S., the CEU student body is especially international. It generates a special feeling of camaraderie and liveliness among students which we faculty feel in the classroom. CEU is also small in size but big in reputation as a high-level research institution, and that too makes it special. Then, seemingly overnight, the university was thrust into a crisis in spring 2017, when it became apparent that we probably needed to leave Hungary. But it’s been heartening to receive such a warm welcome in Vienna, our new home. The creation of the new BAs in Vienna shows that we are committed to sustaining the university’s unique mission. These past 8 years at CEU have taught me that universities are more important than ever.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I believe that all students can grapple with the most complex ideas. My role, as a teacher, is to help break down these ideas into straightforward concepts that can be made meaningful to students. It is also my responsibility to develop students’ critical capacities, meaning the ability to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of ideas and arguments, including their own, and to build strong argumentation skills. That’s why I expect students to be present, and to be part of the discussion.

What are classes like at CEU?

It’s almost a cliché within CEU for faculty to say that we love how diverse our classrooms are. But it’s true! Yet it does bring its own challenges. I can’t draw on cultural references everyone can relate to. I have to work harder to bring out the core ideas of texts as the basis of discussion and reflection. Also, each of us in the classroom needs to be more rigorous in expressing our ideas in a clear way so that we can effectively communicate them and convince others of our point of view. It’s harder to take shortcuts in a highly international classroom. This raises the bar for everyone in class, and when effective debate or communication happens, it leaves a strong impression. In the final meeting of my course last term, there was a moment when a student from Egypt and a student from Kazakhstan engaged in a clear and animated debate with one another about the value of reading the Western “canon” in sociology, and it was magical. 

You often involve students in your research. How has your experience been?

I’ve worked on some research projects that were made possible by the expertise, contacts, and insights students can bring. For example, I’m co-writing an article now with a recent CEU graduate, which is based on interviews we conducted with Members of the European Parliament, thanks to his previous professional contacts. 

What makes CEU’s new undergraduate offering exciting? 

We had the rare opportunity to create two new BA programs at a time when the world is undergoing immense transformation, and within a university with significant intellectual and creative resources. Unlike many BA programs that have been running for years, perhaps decades, we paused and asked ourselves: What are the most important ideas we think university graduates should be exposed to in this moment in history, and what are the skills they need to become the next generation of leaders? Our BA programs combine the classic ideas still worth learning and debating, while acknowledging the transformations brought by the digital revolution. We are also motivated by a sense of duty towards the generation coming of age now, facing changes to our political systems, and the immense challenges of the unfolding climate crisis. 

What are the similarities and differences between the two new BA programs? 

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and Culture, Politics, and Society (CPS) are both multidisciplinary programs with several paths towards completing a major of choice. However, PPE maintains disciplinary identities from the start. Students choose to major in philosophy, or politics, or economics, and from their first year are exposed to each of these disciplines, and some of their complementarities. CPS rather starts by breaking down disciplines. It’s based on the model of the Liberal Arts, where students are first exposed to a range of questions and concepts cutting across the humanities and social sciences, and from the third year, disciplinary boundaries start appearing. In both PPE and CPS, students complete an intensive major in their fourth year with a significant Capstone Project which can take many creative forms. PPE gives students skills in rigorous quantitative and analytic reasoning. CPS instead has a core curriculum in its first three years, developing skills in interpreting and producing different kinds of knowledge, including textual, visual, audio, and digital information.

What kind of students are you looking for?

We are looking for bright, open-minded, and creative students, who are ready for the challenges of studying at CEU and who want to make an impact after their studies. We are a small community, but a major research university, and look forward to welcoming students who relish the chance to learn in an academically rigorous and international environment in small classroom settings. It won’t always be easy, but it will also be fun, especially for students who take advantage of all that Vienna has to offer. CEU is not a cookie-cutter university, and we are not looking for cookie-cutter students. 

What book should every eighteen-year-old read?

I don’t think there’s any single book everyone should read; I don’t believe that the same ideas and values can have an impact on each and every eighteen-year-old. I can only say that a book I love to teach to eighteen-year-olds, as a sociologist, is Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon was a French-Antillean psychiatrist and social philosopher writing in the 1950s, who wrote eloquently about the experience of being a man of color in a white world. He poetically relates how the history of colonialism and racism can produce a kind of psychiatric madness in people of color, which cannot be reduced to an individual’s mental instability. I especially enjoy teaching the book because it powerfully conveys how global history shapes the innermost depths of the self, and despite the anguish it conveys, it ends on a hopeful note. Also, it’s like an anti-tweet. It necessitates slow reading, you need to savor it and allow its power to really sink in.