Roanoke College

Professor Hinlicky reflects on semester in Slovakia

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  • Professor Hinlicky reflects on semester in Slovakia

  • 06/03/09
  • By Dr. Paul R. Hinlicky
    Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies

    From February to early May of this year, nine Roanoke College students joined me for a three-month "pilot" semester abroad based at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia. The experimental model involved exporting established Roanoke College curricula, employing three Slovak professors as adjunct teachers, and taking maximal advantage of our location (40 miles from Vienna) at the literal crossroads of Europe: here Byzantium and the West, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Muslim have met one another, and in the short course of 70 years Slovaks have experienced democracy, fascism, bolshevism, and now again democracy. What a living museum!

    I taught at this institution for six years in the 1990s, filling a hole in staffing created by the 40-plus years of communist strangulation policy toward the churches. In the 10 years since coming to Roanoke College, I have often wondered how I might fruitfully link the two institutions. On a May term expedition there in 2008, the new Slovak Dean, Ondrej Prostrednik, asked me about bringing American students to Bratislava. Encouraged by his words, I sought and acquired the permission of our faculty to take students there for a semester. And so, on February 7 (our RC calendar adjusted to coordinate with theirs), we flew to Vienna into the midst of a real, central European winter!

    I could not have been blessed with a better group of students, who were each academically serious, personally cordial, good team-players and wide-eyed at what they were seeing and experiencing. I understand one of them chronicled our adventures on Facebook and titled the student band, Hinlicky's Heroes. I was flattered, but the allusion to Hogan's Heroes does not imply that our facility was a POW camp or that Dean Prostrednik is a Colonel Klink! On the contrary, we were treated as honored guests in a state of the art facility. The food was delicious. And the expert attendance and accompaniment of Ms. Teodora Kosturkova, the Chief Administrative Officer of the school, in all our ventures made our three months a pleasure and a joy.

    And venture we did: integrating the May term intensive learning travel course that I have taught for a number of years, "Religion, Politics and Violence in Central Europe," into our three months, we made weekend excursions to Budapest, Prague, Wittenberg, Vienna, Krakow, Auschwitz and Wadowice (the birthplace of John Paul II). Back in Bratislava, the students learned a little of the Slovak language and attended the philharmonic (Dvorak -- one hears the Slovak National Orchestra frequently on NPR classical music stations!), the ballet (Nutcracker) and the opera (La Traviata, with that over-the-top death scene in the finale, was enough to win over even skeptical RC students).

    It was academically hard work. I taught three demanding courses: Holocaust, a 200-level course cross-listed History and Religion; Islam in the Eyes of the West, a 400-level Honors course, and for the second semester of 100-level Critical Reading and Writing, a course I am developing for our new Intellectual Inquiry curriculum, Theologians under Hitler. In addition to the Intensive Learning course mentioned above, I also taught 300-level Philosophy of Religion as an independent study with two of our students (working through my forthcoming book, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz), supervised several senior theses, and continued to translate from Martin Luther's Latin with the able assistance of my Undergraduate Research Assistant, RC rising senior Roy McKenzie '10. In addition to this, I was able to translate into English several historical Slovak texts for publication in the USA, including the very significant 1942 denunciation of the Jewish transports to Poland by the Lutheran bishops, which will appear in the autumn issue of the scholarly journal, Lutheran Quarterly.

    On the downside was being separated from my wife of 35 years for so long. Ellen, who works for RC's Resource Development department, was able to break free and join us for ten crucial days when we made back-to-back long-weekend excursions to Budapest, then Prague and Wittenberg. In this truly "intensive" situation, where she played her familiar role from past May terms as "mama bear," aka second supervising adult. That was a big boost halfway through!

    A teacher naturally worries that an opportunity like this could be abused by students more interested in the European party scene than in learning. I was gratified to see this group of students perform far beyond average, not only for me, but for the three Slovak professors. Indeed, in the course on Luther's Theology taught by Dr. Lubomir Batka, where the grade was based on an oral examination at the end of the semester, every student earned an A! Two history majors expressed their astonishment at the massive amount of reading required for Dr. David Daniels' 300-level course on the Habsburg Empire. Almost all the students took Dr. Julius Filo's 200-level Religion and Society course, Church and Civil Society in Slovakia, which was enriched by the presence of many guest lecturers.

    I think it is safe to say that an intellectually as well as culturally significant event took place for nine RC students in the spring semester, 2009! And I am hopeful that what was authorized as a pilot program will become a signature RC study abroad option.

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