Professor and Students from Utah Share Thoughts on Peace, Justice, Academic Cooperation and Much Else
On May 20, 2015, Dr Michael Minch, Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University, gave an open lecture at HSE Nizhny Novgorod. A specialist with a unique combination of interests ranging from theological ethics to politics, Professor Minch serves as the director of the Peace and Justice programme at Utah Valley University. We recently spoke with him about his visit, his academic interests, his plans to further develop cooperation between Utah Valley University and HSE, and his general desire to advance student and faculty exchange programmes between Russia and the US.
Several students from Utah Valley University are in Nizhny Novgorod with Professor Minch, and they spoke with the HSE news service about their impressions of HSE and the city. Their responses appear below Professor Minch’s interview.
Dr Michael Minch, Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University
— It is generally known in Russia that political science education in the US is dominated by quantitative methods with a strong emphasis on statistics. Much less is known about how political theory and political philosophy is taught in the US. Since this was your major, and you currently teach political philosophy, could you tell us a bit about that?
— There is a tension between political scientists and political theorists/philosophers in the US. The question is about how scientific political science can be. One end of the spectrum there are theorists who think that the term "science" is honorific. On the other end, are those who are up to their eyelids in quantitative methodologies, who see themselves most thoroughly as scientists. I lean toward the first position, although I am close to the middle. I do not employ quantitative work in my own research too often, but I draw from it very often.
Peace and Justice Studies prepares students to enter professions where they build peace and justice
— You are director of the Peace and Justice programme, which has existed at the Utah Valley University since 2003. What are the objectives of this programme? How would you describe the students who enrol in your programme? What areas and professional fields can they seek employment in once they graduate?
— Peace and Justice Studies prepares students to enter professions where they build peace and justice, analogous to the way that law school prepares students to practice the law and medical school prepares them to practice the medicine. Another virtue of Peace and Justice Studies is that it prepares students who are going into conventional professions to carry them out in unconventional ways. For example, a high school history teacher will teach differently if she also has an education in Peace and Justice Studies, a lawyer will practice law differently, and an economist will do economics differently. Many of our graduates go on to work for NGOs – that would be typical.
— You have a long-standing relationship with the Higher School of Economics-Nizhny Novgorod. How did it start?
— My relationship with the Higher School of Economics in Nizhny Novgorod began three years ago when I visited with Dr Fred White and two other professors from Utah Valley University. Dr White has a long-standing relationship with Dr Natalia Gronskaya and with HSE-Nizhny Novgorod. He has been working in Russia for many years (as you know, he was here for 9 or 10 months this past academic year). He set up an opportunity for UVU faculty who wanted to pursue research, and possibly set up a study abroad programme for our students, on the basis of merit. I was fortunate enough to win this opportunity!
— What do you expect from your current visit to HSE-Nizhny Novgorod and to Russia in general?
— My expectations for our visit are multi-layered. First, I want UVU and HSE students to simply get to know one another through discussions of important issues, in such a way that stereotypes melt away and they see the complexity and beauty in each others' lives and experiences. Of course, for my students, I want them to experience this in all their encounters with Russians of all kinds, most notably, their host families. Second, I hope that the students learn deeply together, in ways that are more compelling than if they would have engaged in these classes apart from one another. Third, I hope the UVU students fall in love with Russia and want to come back, and shape their education and perhaps their professions in a way that bends toward and engages Russia. Last, I hope the faculty and administrators at our respective universities find that this programme was so successful that they not only want a long-term relationship to develop in which we continue to exchange students and faculty, but that we will actively proliferate this model to other universities in the US and Russia.
I hope the UVU students fall in love with Russia and want to come back, and shape their education and perhaps their professions in a way that bends toward and engages Russia
— You have been teaching a course on democracy and human rights to our Master's students majoring in Political Linguistics. What are your impressions of the Russian students?
— My impressions of your students are twofold. First, they are more quiet and reserved, and circumspect in what they say when they do offer a comment. There is a humility in them, which is admirable. Second, when they answer a question or make a comment, they show themselves to be bright, careful thinkers. I thought that the students in my classes would have signed up for them and would be getting credit for taking them. What I found out is this. After long days of classes, exams, and work, they come to my classes in the evening although they do not have to do so, and they invest themselves in the classes and seemed to have enjoyed them considerably. In other words, they are learning for the value and joy of learning. This is impressive and I have been grateful to have these students in my classes.
— Are you planning to develop academic ties with HSE-Nizhny Novgorod?
— Yes, as I noted above, I very much want faculty from UVU to bring students to HSE, and faculty from HSE to bring students to UVU, back and forth. Dr White and I just finished writing a grant to secure funding so that we can help bring HSE faculty and students to Utah next year. I want this to be a long-term and ever-developing partnership, and I plan on being a big part of it for years to come.
Utah Valley University Students Share their Impressions of HSE and Nizhny Novgorod
I have to say this has been one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had yet in my life! I have met and come to appreciate some amazing people and I have fallen in love with the Russian culture and its people. This time I am spending is giving me a long-needed fresh re-evaluation of what I want out of my life and how I want to contribute. And I can’t believe it’s not done yet. Я очень люблю Россию!!!
Over the years, I have accumulated many reasons for wanting to come to Russia. To be brief, I will discuss two of these reasons, and some of my impressions, since arriving in Nizhny Novgorod. As a youth, I was intrigued by the culture, and the stories I heard, regarding the people of Russia. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, my parents were against Russia, like many people of their generation. It seemed that whenever something bad would occur, they would say that it was because of “those Russians!” I remember thinking, even at that young age, that I doubt that the Russians are bad people. In the last few years, I have met and have become acquainted with a few Russian people now living in Salt Lake City, Utah, finding them to be delightful people. My first reason for coming to Russia was to crush the myths produced by my parents. The second reason is to help establish a peaceful dialogue between the Higher School of Economics/Nizhny Novgorod Region and Utah Valley University/Orem, Utah, with the hope of bringing our two nations closer together.
As I expected, on the first day in Nizhny Novgorod, the myths, so engrained in my childhood, began to crumble. I have found the Russian people to be more like Americans than I imagined. Please understand that I am not saying Russian people and American people are the same, for there are differences. But just as there are differences, there are also similarities.
Our first weekend in Russia, we went to Серая лошадь with Russian students to ride horses, experience the banya, among other fun and interesting activities. One night, at Серая лошадь, we watched the Russian national hockey team play the team from the United States. The first two periods were extremely hard-fought, with the score 0-0. In the third period, the Russians played much better than the Americans, with a final score of 3-0. At the end of the match, the national anthem of the victorious country is played. When I listened to the Russian anthem, I could feel the pride of the Russian people, although I know very little of the Russian language.
Since the weekend in the country, relationships continue to be nurtured with delightful young people, with whom I feel an increasingly close bond – a bond that I hope will continue to grow, and last a lifetime.
I have been to Russia once before, last year, and so I had some idea of what to expect in Nizhny. My first impressions at the airport and on the way to our respective host families’ residences, I noticed many familiar things—the people had a certain look about them, the way they carried themselves so differently from people in the states. People in Russia tend to look very serious, straight-faced and solemn. While in the car, I was struck by the chaotic nature of Russian traffic. Although this was something I had experienced before, it still managed to surprise me.
At first, I didn’t know what to think about my new Russian acquaintances. Russians are difficult to read, generally preferring to keep their feelings to themselves while in the company of strangers. I do remember, however, that Anastasia, who played the role of our guide through Nizhny, seemed immediately to be a very friendly person. After a rather interesting car ride, we arrived at our host family’s residence. Lyudmila (the host of Bill and me) has proved to be a very kind woman and a very interesting person. She strikes me as the epitome of a Soviet; she tells us that in her heart she remains a true communist. She works at a clothing factory and takes great pride in her work. She told us proudly of the history of her country, particularly the Soviet period, as well as a lot of the local history of Nizhny Novgorod. We learned from her about Khokhloma, a painting-style used to decorate all sorts of things—from plates to tables and chairs—which has a long history in Nizhny. Lyudmila also loves to cook. She asked us right away if we wanted to get to know true Russian cuisine. And how could we refuse? She has cooked so many delicious things for us—pirozhki, bliny, greichka, sosiski v tyestye, borsch, schi, and much more. We enjoy our conversations about the food Lyudmila makes for us.
It was especially interesting to see how much we have in common. I feel like the sort of open dialogue that was so nicely facilitated in our classes is crucial for solving serious problems in the world
As for my experiences with the folks at HSE, I don’t even know where to begin! I have met so many great people, teachers and students alike, with a variety of interests, and have learned a lot from them. Together we have participated in group discussions, excursions to museums, walks around the city, and even a trip to a horse-riding centre, which to me was not unlike my experiences at a Russian dacha. The best part about it was getting to know the students at HSE better. They are all so kind and interesting, and it was a pleasure for me to spend time with them. We exchanged stories, got to know one another, told jokes, laughed, etc. Many of the students have accompanied us in our various excursions around the city. We went to the Sakharov museum, the Nizhny Kremlin and Gorki Square to name just a few places. Walking around Nizhny is simply amazing! The city’s history is rich, dating back hundreds of years. It is so cool to hear from our new Russian friends about the history of their city and their country.
In class, we have been discussing human rights, democracy, and non-violent resistance. The topics are very difficult by nature, and the limited time we have has meant that we are dealing with very complex questions within very short class periods. The conversations have been very engaging, with all the students participating. I think that this type of open environment is atypical, perhaps especially for HSE students, but I was pleasantly surprised to see them adapt to the open, friendly atmosphere. It was very interesting for me to hear the variety of perspectives, from both Russian and American students. There certainly are major differences between our cultures, but for me, it was especially interesting to see how much we have in common. I feel like the sort of open dialogue that was so nicely facilitated in our classes is crucial for solving serious problems in the world.
Overall, I could not be happier with my experiences in Nizhny. I only wish that our trip could last longer! I hope to maintain communication with my new friends at HSE, and I certainly hope to come back to Nizhny in the near future!
The people of Nizhny Novgorod and the students of HSE have given and treated me to a truly unique experience. I was taken back by not only the hospitality of the Russian students and staff, but also the intelligent conversations and engaging environment they produced and participated in. Studying with the Russian students at HSE has broken stereotypes and opened up political and philosophical discussions that I value deeply. Studying with Russian students has shown how informed and educated the Russian people are, and how similar our nations are.
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