The construction of an academic discipline is an inherently political process. To claim that a field of study such as gender studies —singled out by the right and even demonized in certain countries in the region starting in the early 2000s—has been recently “politicized” is only to say that the politics of that discipline have been laid bare. The controversies in Poland around the historical memory of World War II and questions of Polish culpability have also made headlines around the world. However, there are other cases where the centralized nature of the state university system and the academies of sciences have made it easy for political pressures to threaten the existence of entire disciplines, or re-shape departments according to politically desirable norms and values (e.g. media studies, cultural studies, or political science). These issues are bound up with larger trends in higher education in Europe, such as the economic restructuring of universities which has been going on since the Bologna declaration in 1999, but is intensifying now in Central and Southeastern Europe. In 2009, we marveled at the occupation of the University of Zagreb by students demanding tuition-free education. In 2019, we are about to witness something like “shock therapy” in Hungarian education, following a similar occupation of Kossuth square in Budapest. What connections can we draw between the corporatization of higher education in general, the tuition-driven models targeting foreign students which are now being introduced in Central and Southeastern Europe, and the targeting of certain disciplines (or universities) as politically undesirable? Which factors are the most threatening to the humanities and social sciences? And what are the most effective ways to resist these trends?
Jessie Labov is a Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, where she coordinates the Digital Humanities Initiative. She is also the Director of Academic and Institutional Development at McDaniel College Budapest. Before moving to Hungary, she was Associate Professor in the Dept. of Slavic Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Ohio State. Her book Transatlantic Central Europe: Contesting Geography and Redefining Culture Beyond the Nation was published with CEU Press earlier this year. She has written on Polish film, Yugoslav popular culture, and Central European Jewish identity, and led a variety of digital humanities projects concerned with issues of canon formation, text mining, and visualizing the receptive pathways of literary journals. This summer, July 2019, she will co-direct the CEU Summer University Course Cultures of Dissent in Eastern Europe (1945-1989): Research Approaches in the Digital Humanities.