Euroculture Report

Teacher Benjamin Martin “What’s special about Uppsala University? Well, we’re the oldest and coldest!”

Euroculture Uppsala has been one of the most popular universities in the MA Euroculture Consortium, when it comes to the number of students it attracts every semester. Rumor has it, ‘Ben’ might be the answer. The Euroculturer has invited Benjamin Martin, Programme Directer and Teacher of MA Euroculture at Uppsala University to ask about his work, his research, and Europe as he sees it.

Dr. Benjamin Martin

Benjamin Martin, Programme Director & Teacher

Euroculture Uppsala

Photo credit: Tom Weller 

Topic 1. Euroculture Uppsala

Q1) Hello, Benjamin. Could you briefly tell us about your job as Programme Director and Teacher of MA Euroculture in Uppsala University and also the courses that you’ve been teaching? Also, when was your first encounter of MA Euroculture and how did it happen?

I’ll take your questions in reverse order (and call me Ben). I first encountered the Euroculture program through a friend – Magnus Rodell, a Swedish historian whom my wife knew from university. He taught in the Euroculture program and recommended that I apply for an Erasmus Mundus fellowship as a “third country” visitor to the program. I got that fellowship and thus was able to to teach a bit in Euroculture at Uppsala in the fall of 2007, and then to attend the 2008 Intensive Programme(IP) in Krakow. These were both great experiences, but not ones that I thought would lead anywhere in particular. In 2008 I began a job teaching European history in San Francisco, and figured that was it for me and Euroculture. But life has a way of surprising you sometimes…

The job as director I say more about below. As for my teaching, I lead the historical part of the Fall semester group’s first course, “Historical and Religious perspectives,” as well as Eurocompetence I; in the Spring term I lead the IP preparation and methodology course.

“Life has a way of surprising you sometimes…”

Q2) Out of twelve Euroculture Consortium universities, what distinguishes Euroculture Uppsala? Also, Euroculture Uppsala is especially fit for students with research interests in which field? (from past students’ research topics)

Ah, that’s a tricky question. I’m not sure I know enough about all the other programs to say what’s distinctive about our program, except perhaps some obvious things; that we’re the oldest and coldest, for example. More seriously, the Euroculture teaching staff has its particular interests and specialties, but Uppsala University offers great opportunities for research in all sorts of fields, of course; I’ve been pleased to see how recent generations of students have done research in the most varied areas, and developed connections—through their thesis work or as part of a “research track” placement—with a whole range of departments and faculty members far beyond the Euroculture team.

Q3) What are the challenges of being a Programme Director in MA Euroculture programme? And what do you like most about the job?

Well, although it is a part-time job, it certainly doesn’t feel that way at certain times of the year. The position demands a rather spread out set of activities: planning course schedules one minute, evaluating a placement proposal another, communicating Uppsala University’s views to the Consortium office in Groningen, and vice versa, and so on. To say nothing of simply answering email, of course. I certainly have been learning a lot; about the workings of the Swedish university system, and about the pleasures and difficulties of pan-European university cooperation. Working in Euroculture, perhaps especially as a non-European, offers constant insight into (a small piece of) what European integration really is, how important it is, and how much work it can be!

What I like most are the personal contacts—with students, with faculty at Uppsala, and with our consortium partners. I am genuinely fond of the Euroculture gang, which, for example, makes the management meetings (while not on the face of it the most thrilling occasions) a pleasure to attend.

“I certainly have learned a lot about the pleasures and difficulties of pan-European university cooperation…”

Ben & Cameron

With Cameron Ross, Programme Coordinator of Euroculture Uppsala

Euroculture Uppsala

Topic 2. Your research

Q1) You are from the USA, but it seems like you have had strong interest in European literature, culture, and languages for a long time. You studied Romance Languages and Literatures (Italian) for your BA. What made you choose Europe and more specifically, Italy?

I spent a year as an exchange student in a small town in northern Italy in 1990-91, and while I was often homesick, etc., that really was a decisive moment in my life. I suppose it was the intensity of the experience—learning the language, figuring out a culture, getting an altered perspective on where one is from (all clichés, I know, but all true, too)—that got me so interested. That was also the first time I though hard about matters of identity; thinking for example about why it was not OK to speak northern Italian (Veronese) dialect in school, why people found it so hilarious if I tried to speak dialect myself, why the kids gave the girl from Calabria (in Italy’s South) such a hard time, and so on. I have since studied a lot of German history, and now have learned Swedish, but there are key features of Italian history that have continued to fascinate me and keep me coming back.

” There are key features of Italian history that fascinate me and keep me coming back…”

Q2) From the titles of your publications, I can see your enthusiasm in Fascism, Nazism, and the relationship of those two with Literature, Culture, Politics, and even Films.  What about Fascism and Nazism that fascinate you and also, how do the traces of them manifest in today’s world?

I’d like rapidly to dispel the notion that I am enthusiastic about either fascism or Nazism (!), but yes, I have spent a lot of time reading about them. I came to Italian culture and its history first, and in that way learned about fascism. My interest in Italian-German contacts and comparisons led me to study German history and to develop a project in which the Nazi regime was a major (but not the only) actor. I was and remain especially interested in the way Italian fascism, and later also Nazism, mobilized cultural life and aethestics as part of a poltical project. I have come to think that the political project itself cannot really be understood without reference to culture. The thing is that fascism and Nazism are not just two movements or regimes that happened to take place in Italy and Germany; they are important parts of the process by which those two countries entered and responded to modernity. So there are traces of them (and of immediate postwar responses to fascism and Nazism) everywhere – not only or necessarily in radical right-wing politics, but in the layout of towns and cities, the structures of politics, the tenor of public life, and so on.

Q3) Could you tell us about your current research project and plan for the future research?

I am writing on how Nazi German and fascist Italy collaborated and competed in an effort to create a “new order” in European cultural life in the 1930s and during World War II. As for what’s next, I have a variety of ideas, most of which have to do with the ideological history of international institutions.

Topic 3. Europe as you see it

Q1) One of the two themes of the 4th edition of The Euroculturer is ‘My Europe, as you see it.’ You have been living in Europe for quite a while and also have family here. From your experience, what is the strength of Europe despite the problems it is facing, most notably, economic crisis and high unemployment rate of young people?

Well, it is of course significant where you are looking from when you look at Europe. Living in Sweden and working in the European university world, a typical day in “my” Europe is characterized by functional public transport (in Stockholm, where I live), careful zoning laws that preserve the countryside in the train corridor from Stockholm to Uppsala, top-notch publically funded university facilities at Uppsala; and in the meantime my children are in good and free or highly subsidized school/daycare, to which we can bike from our home without crossing more than one street, because of the planned out and publically maintained network of bikepaths. Naturally, these things strike me because they are unlike life in most of the United States. Sweden is of course not the same as “Europe” in this regard, but it’s true that the Europe of my experience is a place where the mark of the interventionist state is all over the place, in planning and making possible a particular vision of democratic society, one that voters here chose over and over again. The irony, of course, is that these things I perceive as European (namely state intervention into the economy through high progressive taxation and large-scale investment) are now rejected or seen as impossible by European leaders as they struggle to respond to the current crisis. How broad really is the range of choices open to today’s Europe? That is of course a complex question. Greece can’t just decide to behave like Sweden, not least because the country does not control its own currency, but also for a host of geographical, economic, historical, and cultural reasons—just the sort of factors that make it so hard to talk about “Europe” at all, and that make it so interesting to study.

“The irony? The European state intervention is now rejected or seen as impossible by European leaders…”

Q2) You spent several years in Europe in your early twenties thanks to the fellowship you’ve received including Fulbright and German Chancellor fellowship. Even though you are still quite young, if you could compare the problems young people in Europe had faced at that time with those we are facing currently, what will be the biggest differences? Was it a better time back then or there is no difference at all? 

Well, I wasn’t in Sweden in 2000-2002, and now I am rarely in either Rome or Berlin (where I was then), so I cannot compare directly. One key thing is surely the economic (and thus social) changes that have come along with the Euro. That is, I do feel lucky to have been among the last generation of American students to live in the Italy of the lira. One lived pretty well, even on a graduate stipend, and even in central neighborhoods of Rome where no student could afford to live today, and where the family grocery stores have become high-end boutiques. Another difference is that there was then a great deal of optimism and energy—some of it rather naïve, no doubt—about Europe and European integration. The tone when one even said the word “Europe” was far sunnier in the Italy of 2001 than it is today, for obvious reasons. The speed with which that semantic shift has taken place has been really striking, although it should not surprise attentive students of the history of the European idea.

” I feel lucky to have been among the last generation of American students to live in the Italy of the lira…”

Q3) How is it like to live in Sweden? If you could choose another European country to live, which one will it be? Italy?

Sweden is very good to me. When I dream of being somewhere else, it is usually particular cities rather than countries that come to mind; and above all Berlin—the most stimulating place I’ve lived, and Europe’s real cultural (and now, in spite of the Germans’ best intentions, political) capital city.

Topic 4. Useful tips?

Q1) Any professional tips for recent graduate of MA Euroculture looking for jobs? How can our degree be valuable?

My own professional life is so wrapped up in the university world that I am reluctant to offer advice about careers outside of it (I have only theoretical knowledge of this so-called “real world” that I hear about sometimes). I will say that I believe what makes a Euroculture degree “valuable” is not to be measured only in terms of direct economic value. That is, the experience you have in the program, the skills you develop, things you learn, the talents and interests that you discover or advance, the personal and professional connections you make—these can all be sources of meaning and personal satisfaction. And indeed it is sometimes by following them up in that spirit—pursuing issues that really seem interesting and important, cultivating networks with people you like and who are interesting, and thus gaining access to the places where people are addressing those issues—that people find good jobs. Or rather, that’s one way of finding a way to get paid for being active in an area you care about.

Q2) Could you recommend any books or films to the Euroculture students who are in the crossroad of their lives?

I think my film or book recommendations aren’t worth so much, but I will recommend reading big, long, and demanding books while one still has time; The Brothers Karamazov, for example. As for being at the crossroads of life, making choices, and so on, I have gotten a lot from M. Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow. If one wants to be happy, it’s helpful to find out that smart people have been working hard on figuring out what happiness is and how it works. Then one can begin to see how to incorporate that insight into shaping one’s own life.

“Read big, long, and demanding books while one still has time…like The Brothers Karamazov…”

Thank you very much, Ben, for sharing your story with The Euroculturer. We wish you all the best in everything you do, especially your job as Programme Director and Teacher at Euroculture Uppsala and also your current and future research!

Editor’s words: We express our sincerest gratitude to Teacher Benjamin Martin who accepted the invitation to share his invaluable professional experience of MA Euroculture, his academic journey so far, and also stories of his good old days in Europe as an exchange student.  

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