Illinois students awarded Boren Scholarships

This is a re-post of an article posted by the Illinois News Bureau regarding four students at the University of Illinois selected as recipients of David L. Borne Scholarships. For the original article, please see

University of Illinois Boren Scholarship recipients for 2020. Clockwise from top left: Haley Nelson, Folashade Olumola, Melanie Rohla, and Matthew Schultz.

Four students at the University of Illinois were selected to study in world regions critical to U.S. interests as recipients of David L. Boren Scholarships. They are among 217 students nationwide chosen by the National Security Education Program to study languages in 44 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Middle East.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Four University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign undergraduates are among 217 students nationwide awarded David L. Boren Scholarships.

The National Security Education Program selects students to add international and language components to their education by studying overseas in world regions critical to U.S. interests. In the 2020-21 academic year, Boren Scholars and Fellows are slated to study in 44 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Middle East, studying 46 different languages. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is adjusting grant start dates so that recipients can proceed with their overseas language study when it is feasible to do so.

Haley Nelson, of Lake Forest, Illinois, and a graduate of Lake Forest High School, has been awarded a full scholarship to participate in the Turkish Flagship Language Initiative, which provides Boren Scholars with intensive study of the Turkish language through a combination of domestic and overseas programs. Nelson will pursue a year’s worth of Turkish language studies through the University of Wisconsin, Madison this summer, followed by continued language study at Azerbaijan University of Languages in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Attending Illinois on a swimming scholarship, Nelson is a junior double-majoring in political science and Russian, East European and Eurasian studies. Last summer, Nelson attended an intensive Turkish language program at the U. of I. She also has studied Russian and Ukrainian. In preparation for a career focused on Turkish and Russian culture and foreign policy, Nelson participates in the campus Program in Arms Control and Domestic and International Security.

“The unique perspectives that ACDIS helped me uncover, my desire to commit my knowledge to U.S. national security and the addition of Turkish fluency will give me the skills needed to gather information on Turkish culture and intelligence in my career,” Nelson said.

Folashade Olumola, a graduate of Homewood-Flossmoor High
School and a resident of Calumet City, Illinois, has been awarded a Boren Scholarship to study Arabic at Sijal Institute for Arabic Language and Culture in Amman, Jordan.

A sophomore in political science, Olumola spent the past year on campus working as a resident assistant for housing and as an undergraduate research ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research. Simultaneously, she has served as a Virtual Student Federal Service Internship with the U.S. Agency for International Development Operating Unit of the U.S. Mission to the African Union. She also is an active member of the campus Program in Arms Control and Domestic and International Security.

Olumola aspires to work as a foreign service officer for USAID under the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. She said she hopes to “focus on strengthening governance accountability through the inclusion of youth, anti-corruption and peacebuilding.”

Melanie Rohla, of Lisle, Illinois, and a graduate of Lisle High School, has been awarded a full scholarship to participate in the African Flagship Languages Initiative, which provides Boren Scholars with intensive study of African languages through a combination of domestic and overseas programs. Rohla will pursue a year’s worth of Swahili studies this summer through the University of Florida, followed by continued Swahili studies in Arusha, Tanzania.

Rohla, a senior pursuing majors in global studies and earth, society and environmental sustainability, will return to a familiar region. Her first exposure to East Africa was during a two-week trip to Rwanda in high school. She has returned twice, on a Critical Language Scholarship to Tanzania and for a semester study abroad in Kenya. She is a member of the Campus Honors Program and established a campus organization, Project Connect, to get peers involved in refugee assistance.

Rohla has worked as an intern for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in the U.S. Department of State, where she would like to return in her career. “The cultural and linguistic knowledge I will gain from the Boren program will allow me to communicate with local people, understand their input and experiences, and thus create better refugee programs and policies for East Africa,” Rohla said.

Matthew Schultz, of Arlington Heights, Illinois, and a graduate of

Matthew Schultz, Boren Scholarship recipient 2020

Prospect High School, has been awarded a full scholarship to participate in the African Flagship Languages Initiative, which provides Boren Scholars with intensive study of African languages through a combination of domestic and overseas programs. Schultz will pursue a year’s worth of French and basic Wolof studies through the University of Florida this summer, followed by continued language studies at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal.

Schultz is a senior pursuing majors in Frenchpolitical science and Spanish. He has worked on campus promoting study abroad through Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange and in the community as an interpreter and translator for The Immigration Project, a nongovernmental organization providing legal services to immigrants in Illinois. He spent a semester studying abroad and volunteering with an NGO serving the Paris homeless population and another summer teaching English in Morocco.

An aspiring diplomat, Schultz has taken classes in 10 different languages including Turkish, for which he was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship. “I envision myself drawing upon my knowledge of global affairs and my linguistic capabilities in a career representing the United States on the international stage,” Schultz said. “Nothing sounds more exhilarating and worthwhile to me than continuing to learn about the world as I lead collaboration efforts across cultures and protect freedom globally.”

A fifth Illinois student was named a Boren alternate.

NSEP is a major federal initiative designed to build a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills. NSEP’s Boren Awards program provides U.S. undergraduate and graduate students with resources and encouragement to acquire language skills and experience in countries critical to the future security and stability of the nation. In exchange for funding, Boren Award recipients agree to work in the federal government for at least one year. Since 1994, more than 7,000 students have received Boren Awards and contributed their skills to careers throughout the federal government.

Editor’s note: For more information on the National and International Scholarships Program at Illinois, contact David Schug, director, 217-333-4710;

REEEC-Affiliated Graduate Student Awarded ASEEES Summer Dissertation Writing Grant

LeiAnna Hamel, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures and FLAS alumna, has been awarded an ASEEES Summer Dissertation Writing Grant for work on her dissertation, “Undisciplined Bodies: Deviant Female Sexuality in Russian and Yiddish Literatures, 1870s-1930,” this summer.

LeiAnna’s dissertation analyzes the depiction of female bodies and eroticism in Russian and Yiddish literatures alongside medical, anthropological, and journalistic examinations of female sexuality. Her project poses the question: How did the sexualized (Jewish) female body become the locus for anxieties about modernization in Russian and Yiddish texts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Faculty News

David Cooper (Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures) has been selected as an NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Application) Fellow for 2020-21 for his project “Successful forgeries: Analyzing fakelore for oral-formulaic epic poetry characteristics.”




George Gasyna (Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Comparative and World Literature, Jewish Culture and Society, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory) has received a Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar Award. This award recognizes exceptionally promising associate professors in humanities units within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois.




Jack Hutchens (Ph.D. alum in Slavic Languages and Literatures and 2019-20 Polish language Lecturer) has received the Canadian Association of Slavists’ “Article of the Year” award for 2019, for his article “Julian Stryjkowski: Polish, Jewish, queer ” published in Canadian Slavonic Papers.




Roman Ivashkiv (Slavic Languages and Literatures) has been promoted to the rank of Senior Lecturer, effective August 16, 2020. This is an important and well-deserved recognition of his invaluable contributions to both the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Program in Translation & Interpreting Studies.







Harriet Murav (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Comparative and World Literature) has been appointed as a Professor in the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois. This appointment is one of the highest forms of campus recognition for faculty, and it reflects her outstanding scholarship and extremely high standing in her field.




Stefan Peychev (PhD in History, 2019), who has taught as a Lecturer in REEES, the Department of History, and the Department of Religion, has accepted a position as Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston College.




Judith Pintar (Teaching Associate Professor and Acting BS/IS Program Director) has been selected by the Office of the Provost and the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs as the University of Illinois Distinguished Teacher-Scholar for the 2020-2021 academic year. Pintar’s award will support her project, “Gameful Pedagogy: Instructional Design for Student Well-Being.” More information on the award and project can be found here.




Valeria Sobol (Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures) has won the prize for the Best Article in the field of Ukrainian history, politics, language, literature and culture (2018-19) from the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, for her article “‘Tis Eighty Years Since: Panteleimon Kulish’s Gothic Ukraine,” published in Slavic Review.

2020 Summer Research Lab Update

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Illinois has suspended all in-person summer programming on our campus. It thus will not be possible to host the Summer Research Lab in person this year. In consultation with colleagues at the Slavic Reference Service and our program officer at the US Department of State, we are considering other options such as expanded virtual research support. Our goal, as always, remains to provide scholars with the most effective support in advancing their research on the REEES region. In addition, we plan on organizing virtual events this summer, such as talks and coffees/teas, that are open to the REEEC community and provide networking opportunities for our faculty and students. We hope to pass along more details soon.

Alumni Profile: Matt Rosenstein

MattRosensteinOriginally intending to major in chemistry at Duke University, Matt Rosenstein ended up as a Russian major through a familiar route for those in Slavic Studies: on a whim, he took a Russian language course during his first semester of college. Thanks to an enterprising history teacher at his high school in Evanston, IL, Rosenstein had been able to travel to then-Soviet Moscow and Leningrad for a short group study tour, and that experience also played a part in his initial decision to enroll in Russian. As he found himself increasingly bored in the chemistry lab at Duke, and more and more enthralled with his Russian literature courses, he decided to switch majors, and eventually landed as a Ph.D. student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. 

Having always been drawn to darker works such as those by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Rosentsein says what he loves most about the Russian, east European, and Eurasian region is the “intensity of thought, emotion, passion, and pathos that seems to underpin the great works of Russian literature, art, and philosophy.” Although he admits he is unsure what it says about him that he is captivated by works with such “pervasive suffering,” he realizes he is not alone in that, and many other people have likewise “been enticed by the complexities of the âme slave.” 

Now the Director of Global Education and Training (GET) at the University of Illinois and a recent participant in the Illinois Global Institute Career Day, Rosenstein is familiar with the challenges of pursuing alternative career paths, but also the ways in which a degree in a field such as Slavic Languages and Literatures can open up other opportunities outside of academia. Rosenstein credits his time spent as a graduate assistant at REEEC with connecting him to the interdisciplinary studies community. Although he says he did not realize it at the time, his work helping with outreach events, newsletters and other communications, Title VI grant proposals and reports, and the Summer Research Lab helped him develop skills and interests working in higher education administration, campus internationalization, and interdisciplinary global and area studies centers that would later define his career path. His Ph.D. program in Slavic Languages and Literatures likewise gave him the opportunity to teach language and literature courses, to work as a graduate editorial assistant at the Slavic Review, and to work in the Slavic Library (now part of the International and Area Studies Library), “These jobs gave me a window into different aspects of academia, and the ways that one can make an impact through service to scholarship and public engagement.”

 As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Rosenstein most valued his faculty and student colleagues who often shared common interests despite researching disparate topics. In addition to studying Russia, east Europe, and Eurasia, Rosenstein also joined and performed with the university’s Russian folk orchestra, although, as he says, he was not particularly talented musically. One memory in particular from his early days at the University of Illinois stands out for him, though: he was able to meet Polish dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and eventual President Lech Walesa during Walesa’s campus visit. 

Rosenstein, who completed his Ph.D. in 2002, explored jobs in academia before deciding on his current career trajectory. However, he entered the academic job market during an especially competitive time for someone with a degree in Slavic Studies, “The Cold War was over, Putin’s ascendancy was still in its early stages, and the perception of Russia as a threat that warranted a strong national commitment to Kremlinology and Slavic studies had ebbed…so enrollments in Russian language and literature courses had fallen off pretty dramatically.” Wanting to stay in Champaign-Urbana, he ended up applying for and was hired by the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois. He also previously served as the Associate Director of the European Union Center. 

Rosenstein admits he rarely speaks Russian in his current position at GET; however, there are times when using Russian is necessary, such as when he was asked to deliver workshops during a trip to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the Ministry of Education. Although his knowledge of Pushkin’s poetry, Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, and postmodernism are not used in his current position, Rosenstein still sees the value in his graduate work for his current position: “I do think the skills I developed during my program—the ability to negotiate different global cultures thoughtfully and with sensitivity, the capacity to engage in close analysis of texts, researching a problem, producing written reports, among other things—are ones that I use in various forms as GET Director. And the broader skills of thinking critically, advocating for a particular position on an issue while also listening to others’ perspectives, which were honed during my Ph.D. program, all come into play.”

While the transition to an alternative career path is admittedly not always easy, Rosenstein fully believes that the skills students develop during their graduate programs are transferable to other fields. He recommends that students who are unsure if they want to pursue a career in academia as a professor try to gain experience in other areas during their graduate studies, which could include through RA and GA positions, as well as internships or part-time positions outside the university: “Don’t be shy in tapping the networks of support and advice that are available to you at UIUC, and carry the conviction that you will find your path if you pursue what interests you.”




Alumni Profile: Elana Jakel

ElanaJakelElana Jakel loves much about the Russian, east European, and Eurasian region, particularly the “warmth and generosity of the people, their appreciation for the arts, the region’s mix of cultures and traditions, and its often tragic but interesting history.” Although, it is only by chance that Jakel began studying this “tragic yet interesting” history of Russia. As an undergraduate, she enrolled in a two-semester Russian history course after all the other classes that interested her were closed, and only at the suggestion of her advisor who admitted her to the class above the enrollment limit. While studying Russian and Soviet history was not her original plan, according to Jakel, “by the time we hit the late imperial period, I was hooked. The following year, I started studying Russian.” Jakel went on to pursue a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois focusing on Soviet Ukraine, where she says she followed the traditional graduate career path: “coursework, summer language schools, research, writing, teaching, Netflix binge-watching, etc.” 

For her dissertation research, Jakel, who is now Program Manager of the Initiative for the Study of the Ukrainian Jewry at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), wrote on the experiences of Ukrainian Jews immediately after the Holocaust. The choice to focus on Ukraine proved to be an asset when she applied for her current position. After spending time at the Mandel Center as a Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow, she felt a career at the Holocaust Memorial Museum might be a good alternative to academia for her, so she closely monitored the Museum’s job listings, and ended up applying for her current position shortly after defending her dissertation. 

At the Mandel Center, Jakel is part of a three-person team who work to promote the study of the Holocaust as it occurred in the former Soviet Union. They organize programs for students and scholars here and in Europe, give outreach lectures at universities, and create instructional resources. She has recently been supervising a five-year project to produce a history of Jews in Ukraine before, during, and after the Holocaust. The publication as well as an accompanying digital tool will be available in both English and Ukrainian, and is designed for use in undergraduate and M.A. classrooms in both Ukraine and North America. 

Having recently participated in the online informational interviews conducted as part of the Illinois Global Institute Career Day, and as someone who has pursued an alternative career to academia herself, Jakel believes that all graduate students should be preparing themselves for alternative career paths, especially with the current state of higher education and the academic job market. She recommends students take advantage of tuition waivers and pursue a minor field or graduate certificate outside of their home department in fields such as Public History, Museum Studies, or an interdisciplinary specialty. Pursuing other assistantships for different skills sets can also give graduates an advantage on the job market. Jakel actually spent a year working as a graduate assistant at REEEC: “[Working at REEEC] was a bit unusual for a doctoral student, but that gave me the program planning and administrative experience that set me apart from other applicants and helped me secure my position at the Museum.” She also recommends students spend time achieving fluency in their foreign languages beyond reading proficiency. As a graduate student, Jakel studied Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. She says that while foreign languages are an asset outside of academia, this is only the case if you are able to converse on subjects beyond your research interests. 

Jakel completed her Ph.D. in 2014, and says despite the challenges that pursuing a doctorate can present, there are things she misses about being a graduate student: “Although grad school is often very stressful, it’s also a unique opportunity for intellectual growth, and personal and academic freedom that I sometimes miss. I also enjoyed the larger Urbana-Champaign community, which was the perfect size for me.”

Although she pursued a career outside of academia, Jakel appreciates that her work for her Ph.D. directly assists her in her current career: “I feel very fortunate to be able to apply the skills I worked so hard developing for my doctorate directly to my career. I have travelled to Ukraine several times for work, building partnerships, giving lectures, and attending conferences.” Together with her colleagues, she has also developed and led introductory seminars on the Holocaust in the USSR, as well as a Dissertation Development Workshop for international doctoral students to conduct research in USHMM’s library and archives. For Jakel, these projects allow her to use her degree in a manner she enjoys: “Programs like these allowed me to step into the ideal classroom where I can discuss the subjects I love, on my own terms, with interested and motivated participants—and no assignments to grade.”


Portions of this profile previously appeared as a part of the ASEEES member spotlight series. That complete interview can be found here



REEEC-Affiliated Undergrad Receives Boren Award


REEEC-affiliated undergrad Haley Nelson (Political Science) has received the Boren Award’s Turkish Language initiative program scholarship. The program will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Haley will continue to advance her Turkish as well as learn Azerbaijani.

Boren scholarships fund study abroad by U.S. undergraduate students in world regions critical to U.S. interests. More information about the program can be found here, while a list of past Illinois Boren recipients can be found here.

Faculty Profile: Eugene Avrutin

eavrutinDuring his research leave at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in the spring of 2008, Eugene Avrutin by chance stumbled across a case from 1823 in the Library of Congress catalog about a ritual murder of a 3-year-old boy in a small Russian town. The case piqued his interest, and when he visited the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg several years later, he located the other twenty-four volumes of the case. Following this trip, in fall 2013, Professor Avrutin (Professor of Modern Jewish History and the Tobor Family Scholar in the Program of Jewish Culture and Society) gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars lecture on his initial findings on the ritual murder case, and this project eventually became his book The Velizh Affair: Blood Libel in a Russian Town. Published in 2018 by Oxford University Press, the book examines the aftermath of the murder which resulted in authorities charging forty-three Jews with ritual murder, theft and desecration of Russian Orthodox Church property, and the forcible conversion of three town residents, in what is the longest-running ritual murder case in world history. Professor Avrutin credits the feedback he received at the REEEC talk from his colleagues, along with the resources at our library – including the Slavic Reference Service – with allowing him to finish the project. A Russian version of the book is set to be published with Academic Studies Press in 2021. 

His work on The Velizh Affair led Avrutin, together with Robert Weinberg (Swarthmore College) and Jonathan Dekel-Chen (Hebrew University), to organize an international conference on the topic of ritual murder accusations in Russia and Eastern Europe. They brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars – working in history, folklore, ethnography, and literature – to critically reassess a topic that has surprising contemporary relevance. The essays were published as a collection in 2017 entitled Ritual Murder in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Beyond: New Histories of an Old Accusation.

Avrutin, who has published articles on documentation practices, the concept of race, and religious toleration and neighborly coexistence in the east European borderlands, is currently reading several autobiographies and other first-person sources on the problem of interethnic relations and the role of race and racism in Russian and Soviet history. He is also currently working on a multi-author book project on the long history of anti-Jewish violence in eastern Europe. The book, which he is co-editing with Professor Elissa Bemporad of the City University of New York (CUNY), is intended primarily as a teaching tool for undergraduates, and he plans to use it in the courses that he teaches. Avrutin and Bemporad organized a workshop at the Center for Jewish History in New York last year with plans to publish the presentations in the tentatively titled Pogroms: A Documentary History. Each chapter will be divided between primary sources in English translation and a short essay contextualizing the sources. Other members of the UIUC community are also involved in the project: Harriet Murav (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures) has contributed a chapter on documentary fiction and the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, and several undergraduate students have helped with the project as Research Assistants.   

Professor Avrutin is currently teaching a new course called Zionism: A Global History. The course was originally designed for LAS Online, so it was unaffected by the campus-wide switch to online learning this semester. Nearly 120 students are enrolled in the class, including UIUC’s former Chancellor, Richard Herman, who is auditing. The class “encourages a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and society, the history of nationalism, and the encounters between Jews and Arabs…through an analysis of primary sources and deep contextualizing of the historical and political landscape of the 19th and 20th centuries.” Avrutin, who prerecorded the lectures last summer, says teaching the class online has been “a fantastic experience so far.” He will be teaching this course online again in the Fall. 

Professor Avrutin often conducts his research abroad in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kyiv, Vilnius, Minsk, and Lviv. Among other things, Avrutin says what he loves most about Russia, eastern Europe, and Eurasia is actually a particular pastry that he is currently missing: “I miss the cheese danishes. They are really good. Usually, I get one from a street stand on my way to work at an archive or library, but unfortunately not this year.” Professor Avrutin originally hoped to go to Warsaw this summer for a workshop at the POLIN museum on Jews and prisons, as well as to St. Petersburg to conduct archival research at the Russian State Historical Archive, but unfortunately those trips are no longer possible due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. He hopes to travel to Vilnius next year for a conference and research at the historical archive. 


Congratulations to our 2020 REEES Graduates & Student Award Winners!

We at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center are pleased to announce this year’s REEES and affiliated graduates:

REEES Undergraduate Degrees:

  • Joseph Dillier, B.A. in REEES & Political Science
  • Jacob Smith, B.A. in REEES with a concentration in Arms Control & Domestic and International Security
  • Leslie Bueno, B.A. in History with a REEES minor
  • Buyandelger Tsetsengarid, B.A. in Global Studies with a REEES minor

REEES Graduate Degrees:

  • Megan Carpenter, REEES M.A.
    • Final Research Paper: “Zombie Politics? The Continuation of Soviet Foreign Policy and Tactics in Russia Towards the Former Satellite States of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.”
  • Thornton Miller, Ph.D. in Musicology and REEES graduate minor
    • Dissertation: “Reaching Through the Iron Curtain: Practicalities in the Anglo-Soviet Cultural Exchange of Music and Musicians, 1955-1975”


  • Maria Dorofeeva, Ph.D. in Art History
    • Dissertation: “Making Men: Spanish Art and the Politics of Masculinity, 1898-1936”

We are also pleased to announce three awards for REEEC-affiliated students:

Ben Krupp (Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology) won the Department of Anthropology’s Shimkin Prize for best graduate student paper. The paper, “Fitness vs. Fitzkultera: Nike and the Unfit Body in Moscow,” will appear as an article in a special issue of  Laboratorium. The article was invited as part of a special issue on Russia and corporations organized by Doug Rogers and supported by the Carnegie Foundation.

Diana Sacilowski (Ph.D. Candidate, Slavic Languages and Literatures) won a SLCL Dissertation Completion Award. Her dissertation title is “Strategies of Silence: Representations of Jewish Poles in Polish Literature since the 1980s.”




Trolls at Play: Teaching Propaganda, Media Manipulation, and Election Interference through Roleplay

By Ben Bamberger

On April 27th, Judith Pintar, Teaching Associate Professor and Acting BS/IS Program Director in the iSchool, gave an engaging talk entitled “Trolls at Play: Teaching Propaganda, Media Manipulation, and Election Interference through Roleplay.” The talk, organized by the European Union Center and co-sponsored by REEEC, took place on Zoom and was well attended with over 60 participants (a packed crowd, in the parlance of the pre-quarantine!). In her presentation, Dr. Pintar described her general approach to flexible learning and role-play pedagogies before discussing how these approaches played out in her Spring 2020 course, “Seminar in Global Informatics: Narrative AI, Media Manipulation & Election Interference” (INFO/EURO 490).

For Pintar an ongoing pedagogical challenge, one that is likely familiar to many instructors, is the problem of getting undergraduate students to read course materials deeply and critically. When teaching courses on Eastern Europe, Pintar observed a troubling trend that resulted from this failure. Many of her heritage students came into the course with stereotypes about other nationalities and left with those same stereotypes intact. The non-heritage students meanwhile may have started with fewer stereotypes, but by the end of the course, they left with a well-developed set of stereotypes about the many nationalities of eastern Europe. To solve this problem, Pintar created playing cards with test questions through a simple game involving dice and fake money while further incorporating role-playing activities – for example, students would a write a white paper as a particular character or historical subject. As Pintar noted, this is not dissimilar from “Reacting to the Past” courses in the History Department, and encourages students to trouble some of their assumptions about regions, countries, or peoples. The result was extraordinarily successful – the playing cards allowed students to engage with new information and the role-playing helped students expand their understanding of this key world region. As a pedagogical approach, she convincingly argued that having fun and learning were not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing.

Pintar applied many of these techniques to her Spring 2020 Seminar on Global Informatics, which utilized a playful approach to teaching propaganda and media persuasion. As Pintar described, a key goal of the course was to encourage students to “be evil and become experts in disinformation.” To do this, the class created an entirely fake, new world made up of five countries with separate industries and resources (Romalea, Corico, Dodo, Valens, and Unia). “Planet Learth,” as this new world was called, functioned through action cards that detailed events that would affect each country. Byspring break, students had created a map of Planet Learth and began to fill in the key details about their individual countries. The first assignment was to create a public service announcement for their country and a meme cleverly disparaging their country from the viewpoint of an enemy nation.


Pintar was well on her way to a successful, hands on role-playing experience that had students not only thinking more deeply about disinformation, but actively creating it in an entirely fictional world. And then, the University was forced to move all instruction online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The move to remote instruction created several difficulties for a hands-on role-playing course, but Pintar was able to recreate the map of Planet Learth using online resources and then continue the game by uploading that map to Adobe Photoshop and using the layers feature to mark different stages of game play. Additionally, Pintar created a social media site so students could produce original content and spread disinformation about their respective countries, and students were assigned new and specific roles to help manage the move to online game play. The game continued, slightly changed but uninterrupted.


The ultimate conclusion – after a full slate of elections, coups, and war – was the stunning gameplay of one citizen of Valens, Pruella Falconsflight (a pseudonym for one of the students).* Pruella cleverly made a backroom deal with the Orphan General (Pintar) and the World Banker to purchase additional weapons for her own personal use, and then utilized these resources to betray her own compatriots at the last moment. But as Pintar pointed out, in the end it was not clear which country actually won the game. Unia ended the game with the most money while Corico was occupied by Romalea. But Corico’s brave defense of Valens made it appear quite heroic. Had the game gone on longer, these results would have simply created more opportunities for disinformation and manipulation.

The point of all of this, however, was not just to have fun. As Pintar argued, the course gave students a new literacy around the language of rhetorical manipulation, and a new sensitivity for how widespread manipulative advertising and public relations work is in our own world. Becoming experts in disinformation on Planet Learth allowed students to see how such techniques were practiced in real time. The one downside to this “role-playing light” approach, as Pintar calls it, is the fact that it is labor intensive and requires a lot of engagement with students. It therefore is not ideal for larger classes, or ones taught on short notice without ample time for preparation. But the rewards for utilizing playful pedagogies when possible are obvious, as Pintar’s engaging talk clearly illustrated.

*(REEEC has it on good authority that Pruella Falconsflight is in fact a REEEC MA student. Our personal congratulations to Pruella for their impressive gameplay and conspiratorial machinations!).


Ben Bamberger is an Outreach and Programming Assistant at REEEC. He completed a PhD in the History Department at the University of Illinois in 2019, focusing on the history of Georgian mountaineering during the Soviet period.