On the Columbia Symposium

Jared McBride

I had the privilege of participating in the symposium on Ukrainian and Russian nationalism held at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University this past April. The comments that follow are not a direct response to either the initial salvo by Taras Kuzio (in which I believe I am referenced anonymously) (http://www.taraskuzio.net/Files/Kuzio_Columbia.pdf) or the social media attack by Volodymyr Viatrovych (historians.in.ua), but rather my own thoughts on the symposium. As a graduate student currently writing my dissertation, I would like share perhaps a different perspective on the symposium and the larger debate about the dialogue surrounding Ukrainian history.

During my graduate studies thus far, I have presented my work at thirteen conferences, four of which were at international venues. I can say without reservation that the Columbia symposium was one of the most positive experiences I’ve had as a young scholar. The symposium brought together scholars of all levels and academic backgrounds for rigorous, yet respectful debate for two days. Above all, it should be noted that the organizers even took the initiative to invite graduate students like myself and Olena Petrenko to the conference. There is no unwritten rule that graduate students need to be included in such conferences and often they are not.

At the symposium, the organizers made sure I was comfortable with the presentation equipment and even allowed me to speak first on my panel. Though it says something about academia in general to even note the following, the organizers made sure I was allowed the allotted time to speak and I was able to answer questions directed to me during the question and answer session. During the Q&A I received helpful remarks and questions from the audience and the organizers and other presenters spoke to me privately after my talk about my research.

As someone learning a craft, it’s hard to ask for more than to have the ears of experts in your field of study for two days uninterrupted. Though experienced scholars may forget, presenting your work as a graduate student before the most respected names in your field can be a nerve-wracking experience. It is not always the case that one feels the level of comfort and respect that I did at Columbia. For instance during an earlier conference I attended, I was cut off seven minutes into my paper by a celebrity scholar and one can rest assured established scholars at the conference were not treated that way. Put succinctly, the organizers made this symposium a safe space for a young scholar to present.

As for the larger discussion concerning the symposium, I find the acrimony that has arisen to be distressing in many respects. First, regarding the issue of the Q&A, time limitations and the freedom to speak, I am at a loss to understand the alleged controversy. Everyone who wanted to ask a question was given the opportunity to do so within reason. I am grateful the organizers did not let audience participants monopolize the question and answer time as often occurs at conferences. Presenters get less time to address important questions and others do not get to ask questions because of the actions of a few. In my view, democratic dialogue does not mean any individual has right to hijack a shared time and space for his or her own goals – that is the opposite of healthy academic debate.

Second, I would be remiss if I did not remark on the irony that this alleged controversy erupted on this side of the Atlantic. I have presented in Kyiv and attended a number of scholarly presentations as a spectator in Ukraine. During my presentation in Kyiv in 2009, the Ukrainian chair of my panel tried to cut my paper off five minutes short because, of course, I was a “nobody.” During the question and answer period, the same chair decided the panelists would not be allowed to answer questions directed at them – only after the protest of a more senior colleague on the panel (Tarik Amar) were we allowed to answer questions directly. Other Ukrainian scholars at this same conference questioned why a graduate student like myself was invited to present at all. At this same conference, I heard an esteemed member of the Ukrainian academy use the phrase “Jewish scum” during Q&A. Oddly, I do not remember any protestations about the lack of democracy following this conference by Viatrovych (who was in attendance), The Ukrainian Weekly or anyone else for that matter.

At other events in Ukraine, I have seen my Western colleagues sworn at and threatened by audience members with little to no intervention by organizers. The Q&A, more often than not, turns into a series of endless polemical speeches by non-academics in the audience. This past year, I even observed a professor from the Kyiv Mohyla Academy inquire as to the ethnic background of a presenter during the question period, as if this had some relevance in academic debate. Given the juxtaposition of my experiences in Ukraine with the Columbia symposium, I think the preferable model for future debate is obvious.

If the detractors of this symposium are looking for a cause, I suggest they look to the state of the academy in Ukraine. With the exception of Portnov, who attended this symposium and posted on this forum already, I have found Ukrainian academic celebrities, both émigré and Ukraine-based, reluctant to turn a critical eye to their own academic system and institutions. One issue close to my heart, which I brought up at the symposium, is the treatment of Ukrainian graduate students. My Ukrainian friends and colleagues are stunned at the level of respect and culture of nurturing that I encounter in my studies (the Columbia event being a great example) given how they are often treated like pests by their superiors and forced to pay for dissertation defenses and publications, among many other injustices. It shocks me that I, an American PhD student, often need to write letters of recommendation for Ukrainian undergraduates to get into post-graduate programs thanks to a lack of care from their own professors.

Perhaps the time and effort of the self-anointed watchdogs of academic civility would be better spent cultivating a more democratic and egalitarian academy in Ukraine, rather than denouncing such healthy and productive events as the Columbia symposium.

Jared McBride is a PhD Candidate in Modern European History at UCLA. This is the fifth article in the Open Forum series.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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