Tetiana Bulakh-Commentary on Jane Burbank: From the Lecture Hall To the Bus Ride


One of my professors once shared that the majority of his “a-ha” moments happen when he is walking back home from the campus. Another friend, who is pursuing a PhD, confessed that her creative writing solutions usually come to her mind when she is taking a shower. It is hard to guess when a moment of inspiration can occur. It is equally hard to know where it can happen. But definitely it might catch you in an unexpected space and when you’re expecting it the least.

As a part of Winter Academy 2016, our group attended Jane Burbank’s lecture at the Freie Universität Berlin. Titled “How Space becomes Place: Russia’s Eurasian

Trajectories,” the talk interpreted a spatial location of the Russian Empire as an influential factor for historical changes. Analyzing border shifts and linking historical events to the juxtaposition of the different lands, Prof. Brubank chose a non-trivial approach to talk about the imperial transformations in a holistic manner. Revisiting common “center-periphery” dichotomy and questioning how certain territories acquire political significance, her interpretation was non-trivial and provocative. However, the lecture did not spark a vivid conversation nor did it start heated debate. And it was not until we stepped out the lecture hall and took a bus back to the hotel, that the most productive part of discussion took place.

Outside the static location of the university room and in a dynamic setting of a bus, the conversation was active and vibrant. Surprisingly, the issues that provoked this exchange of opinions were not directly related to the key points of the lecture. Winter School participants rather focused on discussing of Prof. Burbank’s use of visual materials. Even though it had been mentioned during the lecture that the maps were not exhaustive and precise, some controversies – like the names and borders of the disputable lands – charged lots of participants. The other thing was that the maps came from very different academic and non-academic sources, thus they contained (or omitted) politically significant information. These inaccuracies accentuated how highly contested maps can be and how visual aids can still the thunder from the lecture.

One would say that it was not meant to be so. I would argue, that the lecture worked even better than any organizer could dream of. Because, isn’t it an eventual purpose of any academic exchanges like this – to take the discussion further, outside the lecture hall? In this or that way, the lecture initiated productive dialogs, when scholars from different areas of expertise, affiliations, and disciplines found an intersection of their interests. The issue with inconsistencies of maps has driven our conversations. And I am sure that this bus ride helped many to revisit their own frameworks of interpretations and realize how our public presentations can take unexpected routes.

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