Questionnaire on Polish Studies

The Sarmatian Review has initiated an ongoing series of interviews with representatives of the American Polish academic community concerning Polish Studies in the United States. Below we print the comments of John J. Kulczycki, Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Professor Kulczycki: Since 1978 I have been teaching Polish history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In response to the Questionnaire on Polish Studies that appeared in The Sarmatian Review (XIV:2, April 1994) and at the suggestion of the Editor, I thought that the readers might be interested in an overview of my experience. In the last 16 years I have probably had the opportunity to teach more Polish history to more students than anyone else at an American institution of higher learning (I do not know of any national directory giving statistics on Polish courses or how often they are taught, and to how many students, but I would appreciate comments from interested colleagues). I have taught three courses on a more or less regular basis: an introductory Survey course in Polish History (basically for freshmen and sophomores), an advanced course in the History of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918 (for upper-class undergraduates and graduate students), and a second advanced course in the History of Twentieth-Century Poland.

The Polish community in Chicago does not seem to have instilled in its younger generation an interest in Polish studies, not to speak of pride in one's roots and ancestry.
Because I was hired as a historian of Poland specifically to teach courses on Poland and on eastern Europe, the main constraint on how much Polish history I teach has been the enrollment in my courses. Over the years, enrollment has been affected by several factors. The prominence of Poland in the daily news over the last 16 years, starting in 1978 with the Polish Pope, helped to increase interest in Poland. The news coverage is now in decline; however, this is not the only factor or even the most important factor. Extraneous factors such as scheduling, curriculum, and requirements often influence enrollment more than the subject being taught.

These extraneous factors changed at UIC a few years ago when the university switched from the quarter system (10 weeks each) to semesters (15 weeks each). At the same time, the curriculum and requirements were revamped. In general, the change from quarters to semesters has hurt my Polish history enrollments: with fewer courses to take and with courses lasting longer, students tend to take courses "useful" for fulfilling graduation requirements and for careers, and Polish history does not have a high priority in this respect. Nevertheless, enrollment in my introductory course Survey of Polish History has risen and usually reaches its limit of 32 students. This course is one of a limited number of courses that carries "humanities" credit necessary for graduation. Thus, it seems that I will be able to teach my Survey of Polish History every other year in rotation with a Survey of East European History. Under the quarter system I taught the Polish survey at least once a year, usually to about 20 students.

The changes, however, have had a negative impact on my advanced courses in Polish history. Whereas in the past, I could expect around 20 students, now I run the risk of not getting the five required for a course to be allowed to continue. Last time I taught the course on twentieth-century Poland, I had seven; I have not offered the course on partitioned Poland since the change because of concern over enrollment. Previously, under the quarter system, I taught an advanced course in Polish history almost every year, sometimes twice a year. Now I cannot offer it more often than every second year.

Although I have never taken an exact count, I would estimate that about half my students are of Polish origin. At a public university in Chicago, I could expect a much higher enrollment of students of Polish origin. Some do indeed have an interest in the subject and others have the usually mistaken impression that it will be an easy course because they learned Polish history in Saturday schools or even in Poland. But far too many students of Polish origin see no practical "use" for the subject. I have also often enough run into students with Polish names who are embarrassed when I suggest they consider taking a course in Polish history. The Polish community in Chicago, especially the older immigrant community, does not seem to have instilled in its younger generation an interest in Polish studies, not to speak of pride in one's roots and ancestry.

With the fall of communism, there is a new problem in the declining interest in Poland among the non-Polish students. Most of them were young children when Solidarity was born, and so they did not experience the excitement that attended its birth. This along with the extraneous changes at UIC has probably hurt the enrollment in my advanced Polish history courses. In an attempt to find more graduate students for these courses, I have successfully moved for changes in the requirements in the graduate program of the Department of History. Previously, one could choose East European History as a field of study and specialize in Polish History. Over the years, very few M.A.s and even fewer Ph.D. candidates chose to major or minor in this area. In keeping with the changes after 1989, I moved for the abolition of East European History as a separate field, arguing that topics such as Polish History should be part of the European History field. It remains to be seen if this was a good idea or not.

Thanks to a supportive graduate director, questions on eastern Europe have begun to appear on M.A. and Ph.D. qualifying examinations in European History, though so far only in the modern period. Not all of my colleagues in European History agree with this change, and it has alarmed some European History graduate students. They have complained that eastern Europe is not covered in their European History courses. In the long run, this change in the graduate curriculum may increase enrollment in my advanced courses, but it may also force me to teach advanced courses in general East European History instead of more specialized ones focusing on Poland. It does seem however that making Poland part of Europe offers the best hope for the future of Polish Studies.

Another area of concern is the books available for use in courses in Polish history. Since I began teaching at UIC, more books in English have been published about Poland than in any comparable period in American academic history. At times, I actually had a choice among books in print rather than ordering what was the only book available. This however pertains mainly to my course on twentieth-century Poland. In fact, the interest in Poland and the consequent avalanche of books pertains mainly to the period after 1945. I fear that in the next few years the books available now will go out of print, and the declining interest in Poland will also mean that publishers will conclude that books about Poland are not "marketable." Here again we run into the problem of the older Polish American community not buying serious books on Poland. Perhaps the best hope is to see Poland integrated into Studies in European History.

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