Interview conducted by Carolina Reyes Chávez
Maeva Berghmans went through the IP process almost 4 years ago. Currently studying her 3rd year of Ph.D. at Palacký University, she speaks about the IP and the IP paper writing experience. Maeva comes from France and studied a BA in Nordic Studies at the University of Caen, France, with an Erasmus in Tartu, Estonia. After completing the Euroculture programme (2017-2019, Olomouc – Krakow), she is currently specializing in Czech History of the 19th and 20th centuries. She also carries out mentorship sessions for Euroculture students at Palacký University.
Euroculturer Magazine (EM): Where did you do your IP in 2018 and what was the general topic of that year?
Maeva Berghmans (MB): The IP that year was in Krakow and the topic was “Where is Europe? Replacing and re-ordering Europe.”
EM: What did the IP mean to you in terms of logistics? Was it hard?
MB: I was doing my second semester in Krakow already, so in my case, it was quite easy, I didn’t have to deal with trying to find accommodation and traveling to another place. Otherwise, it would have been like “Do I want to come back to the place where I was studying before the IP? Do I want to go home? Or do I want to go to the 3rd-semester location? There is so much to deal with that. So for me, it was better.
EM: How did you feel about the IP in general? Too many nerves?
MB: I was extremely stressed. I mean, the thing is that the IP is the big thing at the end of the first year. And it’s a serious thing because you are graded for the paper, but also for the presentation and how you respond to reviews, questions, etc.
There is also the not-that-stressful part which is the IP itself, the cultural visits around the theme and the seminars where you learn a lot. It puts you in this academic conference mindset, which is great because it really puts you at the same level as experts who are coming to talk about different themes. So you are speaking as an MA student, but your research is very highlighted and valued during that week, and you discover the joys and stress of peer review, what it means, to face criticism, and so on.
EM: What’s would you say it’s the best way to handle the criticism and to do the peer review?
MB: Well, there are always people who are going to say “I would have done it in a different way”, but it’s not supposed to be negative. You need to understand that this criticism is kind and nice, and trying to help you. So it’s important to see the review process not as “how I would have done this paper?” It’s more like “When I read it I had these questions, I wasn’t sure about his, I did not understand this argument, etc.” Meaning, as a reader, what did you learn and what was difficult for you to understand? That will help the person who wrote it a lot. Also, if you feel like something wasn’t done properly, before criticizing, ask yourself the question: if this parameter was changed, would it change just a small detail that would improve the result? Or would it change the whole point of the study? Then you make the comment. And always highlight the way it was done was legitimate and good.
That’s something to keep in mind when reviewing but also when receiving the reviews, the criticism, and the feedback. The way you did it was good but there are many other ways and you might want to consider those as well. Because that’s the point of research, you can always do it differently. Except in very rare cases, there is never ‘one good way’ and the rest is wrong.
EM: How do you think this whole IP process helps the students?
MB: A really important thing about the IP is that it helps to realize the plurality of approaches that you can have, because they give you one theme, which is the same for everyone, and you end up seeing how many approaches are possible with just one theme.
For conferences later, for those who want to continue with research, it’s the same, you get a theme and you have to interpret it according to your topic, so you end up in a conference finding ten or one hundred ways to approach it.
So the IP helps you to understand what happens in academia when you write a paper and you have to talk about it at a conference. Also in the end they are selecting some papers for publication, but whether they contact you or not, you can turn this paper into an article and have it published in an academic journal related to the field that you chose, and this is the first step towards becoming this kind of academic expert.
EM: What about the people that don’t want to make a career in academia? How do you think the IP helps these students?
MB: The IP prepares you for many things, namely project management, time management, stress management, and multicultural communication. Public speaking is the most obvious one because it’s not the same speaking in public than doing it in front of your peers, being evaluated, and there are people who are really chill and people who are super anxious. I was one of the super anxious ones, so you end up handling stress, that’s stress management. Also, you’ll have a deadline to send your paper, limited time to prepare the presentation, to present (15 or 20 min), and to comment on someone else’s paper. That’s time management.
And then, what you are doing is a research project, because you choose a topic, you go through the whole process of researching, and you have an outcome which is the paper and the conference presentation, and potential publication. So basically you are doing project management, at a small scale of course, but you have to plan ahead, manage your personal budget, and do a lot of other things while preparing yourself for the IP, and that’s something that it’s important to learn for any setting, any context, academic or not. Learning to deal with criticism and feedback is also important in professional life. And during the IP you’ll also have to do a small research project, in teams, and then you’ll have a lot of multicultural communication aspects. You’ll be in another city that you don’t know, with the stress of the IP itself, with lots of things to do, and you’ll need to make it happen, dealing with the differences in communication, cultural differences, and so on, in a way that ends with good memories -of course, because you don’t want bad memories from that. That’s where all the things that you’ve learned during these first two semesters, without even realizing it, will come in useful, and that’s when you’ll practice it and strengthen it, and it will become a professional skill.
EM: How should the second-semester universities prepare students better for that experience?
MB: I would say, more supervision and training about academic writing. A lot of people freak out because they don’t know how to do this kind of academic writing, which is not the same as the small papers that you’ve been writing so far. Because, for me at least, I learned English mostly from practice. Of course, I took some courses during high school, but in terms of grammarI just hear how native speakers do it and just try to imitate them, so it’s not quite precise, and when I’m writing I see that it’s a problem, because academic writing is different depending on cultures. Academic writing in France, Czechia, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, would be different each time. So you need to learn how to write these academic papers in a proper international fashion, that’s part of learning multicultural communication.
And I see it now because when I’m writing articles and the reviews come back, most of them criticize not my ideas but how I phrase things because I write long sentences for instance. And some people freak out because they don’t necessarily are self-confident with their English skills. So it would be nice for the universities to give this stronger frame so that you can focus on the actual research instead of freaking out about “Did I phrase this properly?”
EM: What was your paper about and how could you describe the evolution of your topic? Did it change a lot from what you had originally planned?
MB: I was writing about the use of certain symbols during the demonstrations that happened in Czechia around the time that Babish, the now-former prime minister, was active. Some of the symbols were coming from the Velvet revolution and they were reusing those, so I analyzed which symbols were used and how they were depicted in press articles.
To be honest, I had multiple ideas, and I had a couple of meetings with a teacher in Krakow, and each time we talked about my topic he was pressuring me with “what’s your research question? what are you looking for?”. That’s how I ended up narrowing it down, and this is how you should actually approach it. I would recommend you to not focus on the topic you chose, but what do you want to prove or to show? To formulate the question that you have in your head.
The first version will be probably a very long and complicated question, maybe you’ll have ten questions. You have to write them down and then you’ll start making connections. And then at the end of that process which can take a couple of weeks, you’ll have a question that tells you “This is your topic, this is what you are interested in, and this is what you want to prove and how you are going to do it”. And it will be perhaps a long question, but all the different aspects will be in it, even the methodology. And then later you’ll have to translate it into a research question that is marketable and fancy so that it becomes a title for the article that makes people want to read it, but there is this research question that you need to have. So brainstorm questions that you want to answer, more than themes because then you’ll realize what you need to do in order to answer that question, and what’s feasible and what it is not. But the fact that you need to phrase questions, you’ll end up having keywords that will help you look for literature that will be related to your topic.
And of course, you need to check if there’s literature that answers the question already, so you’ll read stuff at the same time and you’ll see that maybe there’s an article that solves part of your question, but not all of it, so that gives you another question. If you can’t find any literature that answers your question in any way, either is just that the question is not relevant, or you just found something that has not been researched yet, then go for it.
EM: Did you use your IP paper as a foundation for your thesis? Why (not)?
MB: Only the methodology, and the general topic of Czech history. So the methodology was discourse historical analysis, I kept the sources (newspaper articles), and I kept the focus on narrative symbols. But I changed everything else, so instead of being about contemporary politics, I went to the Cold War period, World War I, and victimhood.
Even while doing the IP paper, I knew I wanted to do it about Czech history, so one teacher gave me the idea of testing the methodology, instead of focusing on a similar topic, because it’s very important to try, on a small scale, if you are comfortable with that methodology and if it works for you.
EM: What was the most challenging about the whole IP experience and what tips could you give now to overcome those?
MB: For me the main challenge was anxiety. I know it’s not always something that’s talked about, but it should. So I was terrified about having to speak in public and defending my research, knowing that I’m been graded, and especially when you know that you forgot in your paper one of the main parts, because I forgot to include the literature review. I did it, but I forgot to include it. So one piece of advice that I have for people who realize that they made a big mistake in their paper, after submitting it, prepare a couple of slides that will compensate for that during the presentation so that the teachers know that you spotted it and tried to correct it. They will appreciate that and they’ll grade you better than if you just pretend that it didn’t happen or that you didn’t notice it.
For anxiety, the other advice is to keep in mind that the people that will be in front of you, most of them are stressed, maybe not as much as you, but everyone is stressed. So be aware that is not a pleasant way for anyone to be evaluated, that everyone fails at some point, and that the teachers that are reviewing your paper and grading your presentation do not want you to fail. They want you to become a good graduate, someone who actually learned from the experience, so everything they evaluate and tell you is for that purpose: to help you, not to fail you. So they might say things in a way that can be too direct for you, don’t take it personally. If the anxiety is too high, don’t hesitate to talk about it with your coordinators, or with your peers, just tell them that you are feeling bad, because they will hear you and try to understand, and they will know better what to say to you. So the stress is important because it pushes you to do better, but the anxiety should not be around too much, because it doesn’t bring anything good. With stress, you can identify why are you stressed and it lasts for a limited amount of time, therefore you can have answers to it and find ways to calm those down, whereas anxiety is lingering 24/7, and you don’t know when is going to show up and to peak. There’s no clear explanation and you cannot pinpoint why are you feeling like that. And I can tell from experience that no one will notice that you’re having an anxiety attack, even if it feels too obvious to you, so you should talk about it. But lots have passed through the IP and nobody has died, so you can do it.
EM: Some final thoughts about the IP in general and your perspective of it now, almost 4 years later?
MB: Well, something great is that after the visit to Auschwitz we had a session with an expert to talk about those difficult topics, based on the experience of being there. I remember that when we were processing all this, I realized that the theme of the IP was “Where is Europe?”, and for me, that moment, that session, it mirrored the topic the best, among all the other things that we did. Because it was happening at the same time when the Polish government was creating policies, making sure that the Polish part will be exempted from any responsibility, so you would be not allowed to say “Polish Nazi camp”, but “German Nazi camp”, so it was a time of tense discussion. And so we were having this discussion about the holocaust during this time, in Poland itself, in Krakow, which is symbolic because it’s one of the cities that is liberal and open-minded, and usually against the current government. So for me, this is where Europe is, in those discussions, in this freedom of speech and the respect for the fact that everything can and should be discussed. So, seeing that this was possible, bringing a European topic which is international enough to include people from outside Europe, discussed by locals and internationals, and discussing it in a way that is safe enough, so you know for instance that you can have a heated argument and then having drinks the same day with that people. For me, that was not only “Where is Europe”, but also where is Euroculture, and it’s in those discussions. That’s a really good memory for me.
So that’s what to expect from the IP. Expect to be surprised, and to learn from things, moments, and activities that you might not expect.
Maeva’s latest publications:
CHARGROS, Maeva Carla. “A Victim Among Martyrs? Czech Victimhood Nationalism during the First World War.” Central European Papers 8/1 (Oct 2020): 47-61. Link (open access): https://cep.slu.cz/artkey/cep-202001-0004_a-victim-among-martyrs-czech-victimhood-nationalism-during-the-first-world-war.php
CHARGROS, Maeva Carla. “The Impact of the ‘Prison of Nations’ Symbol on Czech Nationalism (1914-1919).” In Oppression, Despotism and Totalitarianism in Culture and Cultural History. Edited by Radomír Vlček. Prague: Czech Society for Slavic, Balkan, and Byzantine Studies & the Institute of History – Czech Academy of Sciences, 2021. 112-133.