Sunday, May 13, 2012

An American in Praga: Your Tax Dollars at Work

the grand entrance
My work in Poland for this trip is at the Warsaw University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS -- pronounced "ess vuh pess"), a private university with about 10,000 students. 
the beach at SWPS
(click on pictures to enlarge, btw)
 All of its courses are contained within one large building that is a reconstructed old factory.  Inside, one would not know that: rooms are spacious and bright, hallways are high and wide, and the built in classroom computer systems are quick and responsive.  Only the outside appears like the grounds of a factory.  Most of the students are Polish, but there's quite a large international contingent drawn from China (they go for the English language studies),Ukraine, and Belorussia. 
In the eyes of the Fulbright Specialists Program which is funding my work here, I am an expert in United States studies, with sub-specialization in religious studies and online pedagogy.   
There is no Jewish Studies category in the Fulbright Program -- religion is represented as a sub-category of sociology.  The Fulbright Program, which is run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the federal Department of State, was established in 1946 as part of the post-war effort to foster international academic exchange and improve the world, and at that point the field of religious studies was barely on the radar; even now, people (yes, even academics) don't understand that this field fosters cultural understanding and doesn't actively promote religion. 

students deep in concentration
My Fulbright Specialist proposal, constructed together with Lucyna and Piotr from the SWPS Institute of English Studies, detailed the lectures, workshops, and consultations I would offer over a 2-week period to share my expertise with faculty and students of the university, and to learn from them as well.  SWPS pays for my housing (at the nearby Hotel Felix) and gives me a per diem allowance for food, and the U.S. government covers the cost of a cheap airline flight and will pay me, afterwards, an honorarium for each day of work.  So far I have not disappointed: I am a little bundle of American good will and culture, and people seem interested in what I have to say. 

Poland today is very mono-cultural.  Everyone looks pretty much the same in terms of skin color, bone structure, and their religious background is overwhelmingly (94%) Catholic.  Of course, there are a small number of Gypsies, and now a growing Asian community (mostly Vietnamese).  Poland is very stingy about allowing in new immigrants, and with its history as a nation of laborers it certainly does not need to allow in temporary foreign workers.  There aren't any Muslims here yet, and judging from this strange mural on a
the fan helps cool the coming inferno
downtown wall,  an imminent Muslim presence is not eagerly anticipated.   I think, but I'm not sure, it shows Muslims bowing to 
a leader who is preaching imminent destruction.

 the closest Karen gets to Poland
 However, at SWPS I kept myself busy as the voice of American multiculturalism.  My inaugural lecture focused on the diverse kinds of American Jews.  This lecture included PowerPoint slides of hairstyles, hats, coats, and women's blouses.  I had three separate slides of smiling American rabbis, including some of my L.A. favorites. 

I gave two workshops providing students practice reading and analyzing English writing, using my May 2011 blog on eating kosher in Warsaw in Poland.  Another workshop featured my CSUN Israel class material teaching students to critically read online news.  This session included me teaching them (using maps and a glossary) about the Islamic Jihad, the Occupied Territories, and the policy of administrative detention.  We read the report on this incident that had been written by Amnesty International and re-published in an English-language Palestinian online newspaper.  Then the student read my CSUN students' posts critiquing the article.  It sounds ridiculously complicated, but the students were engaged and made good insights. 
Inspired by this multicultural theme, I went out with Lucyna to Tel Aviv Café and stopped in afterwards at the Beirut Café directly across the street.   
Each of them had a sign in their window promoting their hummus. In fact, there are lots of international food options in Warsaw today - even more than last year.  I've had tasty Mexican food in a restaurant called Frieda, boldly decorated in colorful scarves and about forty paintings of the stern-faced unibrow herself.

Right now, Warsaw is shining itself up for its upcoming debut as a major player in world affairs.  Next month, half of the EUFA soccer games will be played right here in Praga, the other half in Ukraine.  There are construction crews everywhere, and, infused with EU funds, the railway stations that last year looked like worn out Soviet structures now have a new face and are better illuminated.

 Warsaw football stadium space ship
Perhaps the thought of these upcoming World Cup games made me suggest to Lucyna a lecture topic featuring America's unique contribution to treating alcoholism, AA and 12-Step programs.  I gave the lecture today, and the students were quite attentive but far too quiet for my taste.  I felt a bit like an alien visiting from another planet, describing my advanced alien practices to the earthlings who were obviously thinking "Really?  People really do that??"  It depressed me a bit, until I remembered that my American students responded to this topic much the same way.  The Polish students, however, ever polite, gave me a round of applause before they went on their way.

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