09 September 2007

Tartu, Estonia - Listen Up!

Before my sabbatical ended in June, I had a chance to attend an interesting, small conference in Tartu, Estonia. Tartu is located relatively close to my home country Finland – it took me three hours by boat, from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, and six hours by an express bus to reach Tartu. Tartu is the second largest city of Estonia, with a population of over 100,000. While Tartu might not be familiar to many Americans, it is a well-known historical university town in Europe. The first written records of Tartu date from 1030; the University of Tartu was founded in 1632.

University of Tartu, founded in 1632

To a tourist familiar with other European locales, Tartu resembles a charming medieval Italian or Spanish town, with narrow, windy cobble-stoned streets and interesting architectural features and medieval churches (like the Tartu Cathedral shown on left). Unlike its comparisons, Tartu is still recovering from the neglect of Soviet rule. All over the city, buildings are being renovated, largely with EU restoration funds, and like Tallinn, which has experiences rapid “clean up” and modernization, I predict that Tartu in five years will have many more beautifully restored buildings, along with ultra-modern office buildings similar to those that have changed Tallinn’s skyline, and most of the rundown, cluttered alleyways and backyards will have been replaced by modern parking lots and tidy street cafes and restaurants.

I was lured to Tartu by the city’s reputation as an old, respected university town and by the international Conference Alerts website, which I had been checking regularly prior to my sabbatical leave. I spotted an alert from the small International Association for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Education organization, whose conference title, “Constructing Curricula for International Understanding: Challenges for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Educators,” promised an opportunity to learn more about my sabbatical theme, internationalizing curricula.

The networking opportunities in Tartu didn’t disappoint me. The conference introduced me to many new, interesting contacts from England, Scotland, Sweden, Japan, and Estonia, among others. In the photo on the right, I am joined by a Swedish colleague on the left and an English colleague on the right. Our day trip across the Russian border in a small mini-van, with participants from eight different countries, was an unforgettable experience – notably thanks to the Japanese participants’ eagerness to sing karaoke (mostly old Beatles tunes) as we strolled along windy, narrow Southern Estonian highways. However, I found the conference program less relevant to my teaching. The presentations focused far more on the subject areas, such as methods of teaching economics, than ways to internationalize the curricula – which should have been the conference theme. Thankfully, my frequent discussions with international colleagues made the trip worthwhile.

The Estonian participants, in particular, opened my eyes to different ways of teaching and learning. They tend to view education from their former rulers’ (the Soviets’) perspective – more as a hierarchical, authoritative experience, where the professor talks and the student listens. One of the Estonian professors noted that he feels much more comfortable with this approach than the more democratic, collaborative Western approach. He commented, “In Estonia, one person speaks and everyone listens; in Western universities, everyone speaks and no one listens.” Well, I must admit that this made me think about the collaborative teaching methods many of us in the U.S. and many other Western countries employ to inspire student participation and thought. Certainly, there are many times when we learn a great deal through dialog with others, but how can we better utilize the moments when “everyone [just] talks and no one listens”? How could we learn to listen better? I suspect that in both approaches, true thoughtful, deep listening is not adequately encouraged and taught. After all, haven't we all witnessed - and been guilty of - moments when one speaks, yet no one listens? Thanks to my Estonian colleague, I am curious to learn more about the art of listening – both from the teacher’s and the student’s perspective. Having recently accepted an interim dean’s position, I am also interested in discovering and practicing better ways to listen to faculty and staff needs and ideas.

Strolling along the streets of Tartu in late-May heat, watching the city renew itself through ongoing, rapid building renovation, I felt a sense of personal renewal…. We can, and we should, open our eyes and ears to different ways of doing things. How can I “renovate” my thoughts on teaching and learning? What can I learn from my new international colleagues?

Listen, that’s what I can do. Listen, and I hope, learn from it.

A summer evening rock concert in Tartu's medieval town hall square - the times are changing!

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