International exchange is crucial for small fields

When the Aleksanteri Institute launched its Ukrainian Studies programme in 2008, there was very little academic expertise in Ukraine available in Finland. Now the situation is much better but visiting lecturers are to this day a vital element in providing the best possible multidisciplinary teaching and ensuring the development of the field of study.

Every year, more than 100 international teachers spend a week or two at the University of Helsinki, making a significant contribution to the development and internationalisation of teaching. They bring along new perspectives and academic traditions, as well as teaching methods. Student feedback on their courses is usually extremely positive.

At the Aleksanteri Institute, the idea for using visiting teachers stemmed from practical need. From the early years of the 2000’s, there had been increasing demand for Ukraine related expertise both from the civil service sector and from business life. The then head of the department of Russian language and literature, professor Arto Mustajoki and director of the Aleksanteri Institute, professor Markku Kivinen decided to raise to the challenge, and a new study programme was founded. Alas, as there was no expertise on Ukraine in Finland, who would teach the courses?

— Our only viable option was to look for teachers from abroad, says Jouni Järvinen, director of educational programmes at the Aleksanteri Institute

In Ukraine, Kiev was a natural destination as many of the teachers at NaUKMA, The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, have been educated in the West and speak good English. Other visiting teachers came from western universites.

— We began by finding out what kind of courses students were interested in. Then we considered the fields in which we could provide teaching using the expertise at the University of Helsinki and the national network of the Aleksanteri Institute. Next, we contacted Kiev and asked for help in the areas where our expertise was the narrowest, Järvinen explains.

Currently, the study module receives three or four visiting teachers per year. In addition to Ukrainian teachers, visitors also come from universities located in other countries. The background and language skills of each teacher are verified as carefully as possible. Many of them are already familiar through the institute’s research projects – and those who aren’t often establish some kind of research contacts while in Helsinki.

— International teachers have provided a new outlook, among other things, on the Ukrainian crisis, Järvinen notes. It is also remarkable, how different the political, economic and social phenomena in Ukraine appear from the viewpoint of colleagues from different geographical locations.

New perspectives for research

Last autumn, Natalia Kobchenko from Kiev’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy held two lectures on the Introduction to Ukraine course, in addition to which she conversed with Ukrainian language students. The visit also gave a new direction for her own research.

— During my teaching visit to the University of Helsinki I had a great opportunity to get to know the content of the Ukrainian studies programme in depth, namely to find out the aspects of Ukrainian history, culture, politics, reality etc. that are the most interesting for foreign (that is, Finnish) students. So, it helps me to revise and correct in some way my vectors of scholarly research. After my visit to the University of Helsinki I decided to change some points in my areas of scientific interest and conduct more interdisciplinary investigation combining linguistic problems with historical and political ones.

No less important for me was getting acquainted with the techniques of teaching Ukrainian language as a foreign language at the University of Helsinki and to compare it with the teaching techniques of Ukrainian language for foreign students at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Intensive courses demand student commitment

The teachers often hold intensive courses, conducted partly online and partly in Finland.

— At first, we aimed for two-week courses, but a teacher leaving his or her home university for two weeks requires a long period of advance preparation. One-week intensive courses arranged in Finland suit them better, Jouni Järvinen explains.

In order to make the often stressful and demanding intensive courses worth while for students, the Aleksanteri Institute has adopted a practise of collaboration between a Finnish coordinating teacher and the visiting teacher. This model makes it possible for the visitor to hold a couple of lectures, a seminar session and provide intensive guidance, for example, in master's theses, while the coordinating teacher takes care of the often tricky practical matters.  

No matter how smoothly run, the intensive course always demands extra commitment from the student. In a short time one is expected to cram into one’s head loads of in-depth information on novel subjects, and from a foreign view point at that. For many a Finnish student this might be the only direct contact with a living Ukrainian expert, so it pays to go through the effort.

But how well can the students adapt to the diverse methods and perspectives of the visiting teachers?

— Mostly, our students are such an international bunch that their attitude towards visitors doesn't really depend on their nationality or origin. The suitability of varying teaching styles of course depends on the student. As a rule, the feedback received from students has been extremely positive, Järvinen states.

Essential part of curriculum design from the start

At the Aleksanteri Institute, teacher visits are an essential part of curriculum design.

— When we begin designing the curriculum with my colleague Minna Oroza and a group of teachers, we very soon get the idea of the courses for which we hope to have visitors. When the teaching programme is completed in February, we already know what resources we have and where we need to seek help. By March - April, we’ve confirmed the visitors for the coming academic year. Of course, when we wish to have someone of especially high academic status, we contact them already in the previous autumn, explains Järvinen.

Thus, it’s very seldom that visit requests at short notice can be accepted. When the teaching is part of the regular teaching programme, it is also easier to find and access by students. Planning well ahead saves a lot of energy and work for everyone.

— Of course there’s still a lot of coordinating to do, and lots of surprises along the way, admits Järvinen.

Despite the extra work he sees that the visits are most certainly worth the effort.

— It's very rewarding to gain teacher colleagues from around the world and to broaden your own perspective on teaching. Serving as a host and getting to know new international scholars is for me often the most productive part of any visit.