Review, Joint Area Centers Lecture with Jessie Labov, “The Politicization of Discipline in Central and Southeastern Europe: Humanities under Siege,” 22 April 2019

by Jesse Mikhail Wesso (MA candidate, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies)



On 22 April 2019, Dr. Jessie Labov (Resident Fellow, Center for Media, Democracy, and Society and Coordinator of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Central European University; Director of Academic and Institutional Development at McDaniel College Budapest), in conjunction with the Joint Area Centers (JACS) at the University of Illinois, presented on the topic of the “Politicization of Discipline in Central and Southeastern Europe.”



The title of her talk, “Humanities under Siege,” belied the importance of the topic, which, in summary, included detailed discussions of collective memory, gender studies, and the political economy of the Eastern European university. She used historic examples, including the 2009 student demonstration at the University of Zagreb (where students were demonstrating for tuition-free education), to draw a parallel to current events, including the 2019 Kossuth Square occupation in Budapest, and outline a challenge to contemporary humanities as a discipline. Moreover, Dr. Labov aimed to provide potential avenues of resistance to what she characterized as an assault on the traditional disciplines of the humanities. 

The fundamental concern of her talk was access to education. By monetizing and politicizing the university, states in Eastern Europe appear, in Dr. Labov’s formulation, willing to trade a “traditional” model of education, which necessarily includes the humanistic disciplines, for American-style private education, which apparently carries more value. Dr. Labov suggested that this model may discourage students in Eastern Europe from attending these types of universities, which appeal primarily to foreign students looking to get an inexpensive “European” education.

Unfortunately for Eastern European students interested in the humanities, this trend toward “practical” education is intimately connected with political realities of the region: for example, Dr. Labov cited the decline of Gender Studies as a discipline in favor of “Family Studies.” The implication is that states in Eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary, are allowing political ideology to influence directly the curricula in their universities. This trend, no doubt alarming to some Western observers, can, according to Dr. Labov, be challenged at the polls, by the people who are directly affected. As her talk made clear, however, this trend is not insular but global, and has important implications for global education policy. An increased attention to these matters is crucial for anyone interested in higher education, especially in the sphere of the humanities.



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.


Jesse Mikhail Wesso is an MA candidate in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and an Outreach Assistant at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. Previously he received a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Bradley University. In addition to his work in history, Jesse has performed as a touring musician. He is also a published poet whose work has appeared in national and local literary arts journals, including Fifth Wednesday Journal, Contrary, and Bluestem.

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