by Martina Krénová and Tereza Walsbergerová
Although he is not leaving the department altogether, the fact that he is stepping down as head after 15 years definitely feels like the end of an era. That is why we decided to sit down with the former Head and current Deputy Head of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University in Brno, Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, find out more about his life, and take a peek at the many different sides of the man who has gone from doing the local paper delivery route in San Francisco suburbia to being in charge of one of the oldest English departments in the world.
Though it may seem like he had in many ways the stereotypical American childhood, it was a pretty rough ride. While he primarily grew up in San Francisco suburbs, his family moved around a lot, which meant that as a very young boy he often found himself having to be the new kid at school. “I wouldn’t say I had a lot of friends or was very popular. Junior high school was a pretty miserable experience for me.” Thus, instead of trying to fit in with the jocks, the popular crowd, or the brainy kids, he busied himself with other things. For example, he got himself the stereotypical American job of delivering the local paper. “I started off with one paper which was once a week, and then I moved on to a paper that was Monday through Saturday in the afternoons. After school I would come home, wrap papers, if it was raining put them in plastic sleeves, and then deliver them. I probably had about a hundred papers.” More importantly, like all lonely children, he buried himself in books, predominantly fantasy and science fiction. In his sixth grade he was first exposed to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which then prompted him to join a science fiction book club when he was fifteen. “I pretty veraciously read everything. I had read The Lord of the Rings by the time I was sixteen probably about five or six times.” In other words, reading became a way to escape his everyday life.
“I pretty veraciously read everything. I had read The Lord of the Rings by the time I was sixteen probably about five or six times.”
Although he claims to have had no literary heroes with whom he would identify in his personal life, there were a few scholars who helped mold his young mind into the academic that he is today. “There was a teacher in junior high school that was quite influential, Mr. Lesley, later when I went back to night school, there was a woman who inspired me to take up anthropology, Betty Goerke, and then at college, in my undergraduate, there were two professors who inspired me in some respect – one was Brian Fagan, who influenced me in the sense that he was a believer in popularisation of scholarship and writing for non-scholarly audiences, and the other was my thesis supervisor Mike Joachim, who introduced me to European archeology.” Possibly as a result of these influences, he then went on to do his doctorate in Central and Eastern European Paleolithic Archaeology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign between the years 1986 and 1991.
“My life has never been planned in the sense that I’m going to A, B, C. Yes, I’m going to A, but what happens after that would depend on what happens with A.”
Furthermore, one of the most significant points in his academic life was his Fulbright Scholarship stay in Czechoslovakia in 1989, which would, though he did not know this yet, shape the next twenty-seven years of his life. “My life has never been planned in the sense that I’m going to A, B, C. Yes, I’m going to A, but what happens after that would depend on what happens with A. And so I came, and what happened after is the result of things that happened here.” After he went back to the States in 1990, realizing his dissertation was not going anywhere, he decided to return. “At that time Don [Sparling] and Doug Dicks who was a Fulbright scholar at the Department at that time, said ‘why don’t you come back and do American studies,’ and I said ‘I’m not really doing anything in the States’ so I came back.” Moreover, because of the fact that his family moved around so much when he was a child and he therefore does not have strong attachment to places, nor to people, he was able to stay long-term. “People come, people go, people move, people go away… I think that that has allowed me to stay here.”
Since he came to Brno after the Revolution, the curriculum at the department had just undergone a massive change from more linguistics and literature-oriented one with very little history and culture to something more similar to the curriculum as we know it today. In his words, it was not a smooth transition. “The Department had a very turbulent period in the mid-90s when there were serious disagreements among staff about the direction of the Department. I wasn’t at the center of those, I was a marginal, young, new person at the Department, and so it wasn’t really my place.”
“I cannot imagine the sight of Dykes for Bikes leading Prague Pride would go very well here, topless women on their hogs riding down the street, that would be a bit much. In the States, in San Francisco, it’s normal.”
When it comes to the attitude of Czech students towards America, he does see a shift, but he does not believe that the interest was any stronger back then. “Students in the early 90s had an idealized vision of America without really knowing it, so it was difficult when you presented them with an America that didn’t correspond with their imaginings, just as it is difficult now when you have students who have this vision that they get from the media and you are trying to present a different vision, and it doesn’t correspond with what they have seen or heard about America.” Relatedly, he believes that Czech media do not offer enough diverse programmes which could help educate the public about American culture. “You don’t find black and Hispanic shows here, you just find the white shows. Dubbing is a whole other issue. Until that changes a lot of things won’t change here.”
Diversity is not the only thing he believes that Czech society perceives and processes rather specifically. For instance, when asked about what he thinks about the Czech responses to the American presidential race and the Donald Trump phenomenon, he pointed out the Czech (and Slovak) inability to take foreign experiences and turn around and look through that lense at their own culture. “A lot of things I hear Donald Trump saying I hear the current Czech president echoing in a slightly less vulgar language, but the core ideas are the same there.” At the same time, he notes Czech and Slovak presidents do not have much influence, whereas if Trump became president, he would have a lot of control: “I think Europeans are right to look at Trump with some caution, because he is basically unpredictable, that’s the key thing, and he has power.”
“You don’t find black and Hispanic shows here, you just find the white shows. Dubbing is a whole other issue. Until that changes a lot of things won’t change here.”
Furthermore – in connection with his Gay Studies course – when asked about differences between the LGBT+ communities in the Czech Republic and the USA, he chalks most of them up to population size in general. “In some respects the Czech community is much less fractured than the American community. In the United States within the gay and lesbian community there is much more atomization of interests and part of it is patterns of residence, part of it is economic issues.” He mentions the gap between the economic status of lesbians and gay men in relation to the pattern of residence and family, which has been narrowing for the past ten years thanks to marriage equality. “Here the community is to a large degree more cohesive simply because of size and also socialization, although you also see differences, lesbian clubs and gay clubs, but it is not quite as diverse as you see in the United States.” Further differences are in the level of visibility, or rather the Czech refusal to stand out, and the general atmosphere, which is more relaxed and less political here; there are no sit-ins or picketing, or protesting outside of Parliament. “I cannot imagine the sight of Dykes for Bikes leading Prague Pride would go very well here, topless women on their hogs riding down the street, that would be a bit much. In the States, in San Francisco, it’s normal.”
Since in a previous interview with the ESCape magazine (2007) he said that in his experience Czech students were more passive than American students or even other foreign students, the question was whether that is still the case today. Apparently, not only is it still true, but it is also the case in the combined studies classes, which are attended by more mature and adult students. “They came in and they all went to sit at the back of the room, and I made a comment that that is not going to be the case, and so they moved and we talked about this a little bit and there is this Czech fear of standing out. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, for either reasons that you might get positive attention that might cause jealousy among your colleagues, or negative attention from the teacher, that you’re not a good student.” Although he does his best to encourage students to participate actively in classes, he feels like it is a bit too late because of the school system. “It goes back to what’s been imprinted on you since primary school.” Additionally, he agrees that going abroad might help in overcoming this fear of standing out, albeit not every student can go to Bristol, as many universities offer interesting and exciting opportunities. Moreover, even if the Erasmus experience is not perfect, that does not change the fact that every experience is a valuable one.
When enquired about the dreaded tests and quizzes that he seems to favor in his classes, he says that when he started teaching here they did a lot of essays which, as the Department grew, became impractical and reading the same texts over and over became a bit tiring. “I don’t have problems with students writing essays, and certainly at the master’s levels my students in my courses write essays, but I think that the tests are more objective – they’re fair to the students. And there are essay questions in some courses, so it is not just the knowledge or fact-based exams. And partly it is the background of what I grew up with. It is what I experienced.”
“One needs to recognize, and to a fairly large degree sublimate one’s own ego and recognize that the greater good of the Department is the key element.”
The (Former) Head
When it comes to being a head of a department, he has learned that it includes many responsibilities regardless of its size. “I’ve been very fortunate that throughout my term as the Head the senior academic staff – Prof. Franková, Prof. Urbanová – were always very supportive of me, and I was able to work across the various subdisciplines. The problem in departments as diverse as ours is that within the subdisciplines you’ll get people with competing interests.” In other words, he understood that linguists want and need something different from what translators, teachers or literature and culture people need and want, and balancing these competing interests without being seen as favoring one or other can sometimes be difficult. The key to successfully running a department is then in looking at broader picture and listening to others. “One needs to recognize, and to a fairly large degree sublimate one’s own ego and recognize that the greater good of the Department is the key element.” Furthermore, he has learned that while delegating responsibilities and duties is important, the Head always has to have a hand on everything, because ultimately, the Head is the one taking full responsibility. Finally, even though running the department might be very exhausting for some people, he says that he has enjoyed it and has not found it particularly exhausting. “Teaching is in many ways much more exhausting than that.”
Now that Jeff Vanderziel is stepping down, students might expect him to teach some new courses. For instance, he is already preparing a new one for the bachelor’s level and in the near future he will probably teach his Trickster course, which he revived last year. Fortunately, as teaching courses that match teachers’ interests is one of the advantages of this Department – it has always been encouraged and allowed by the Heads – the staff almost always teaches what they are interested in. “There have been some staff changes over the past year, and that means some people have left, and so we have some gaps that would be nice to fill, but I think that the model that we have is a very functioning model.” There are some new subjects or topics that he would like to see being taught here – digital humanities being one of the areas. What is more, next year a Fulbright lecturer might come here to teach a course on graphic novel, which he considers something pretty exceptional within the framework of university studies.
“The things that have happened have happened, whether we believe in karma or some greater force or energy or whatever it is. If I went back and changed something then I wouldn’t be where I am now – the butterfly effect – I believe in that very much.”
Additionally, as he is famous, or “rather infamous” in his own words, for not socializing with students, is it going to change now that he has stepped down from his position at the Department? When asked this question, he said that not socializing with students is only partly because of his position at the Department and that it is mostly because he knows that socializing with students minimally is better for him psychologically. To put it differently, if you are expecting to become his best friend, you might be disappointed. “I can imagine that I will be more social with students. But will I be very social with students? No. And this is just for my own psychological well-being. There have to be situations that I can control and I can get out when I want to get out.” Interestingly, he emphasizes the Czech double-standard towards professors, which is that in many respects Czech and Slovak students often have expectations of the non-Czech staff that they would not necessarily have of the Czech staff. “For example, has anyone ever asked Milada Franková why don’t you go out with students, why don’t you socialize with students? Or ask Naďa Kudrnáčová, why don’t you socialize?”
A Happy Man?
In general, Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel has never been one to look back on his life and question his choices. “The things that have happened have happened, whether we believe in karma or some greater force or energy or whatever it is. If I went back and changed something then I wouldn’t be where I am now – the butterfly effect – I believe in that very much.” So is he happy? No, but he is contented. Satisfied. “I’m happy… in that sense I’m content with the choices I’ve made. Happy is not a word I would use very often to describe my emotional state. I’m not a happy smiley person if you haven’t noticed (laughs).”
- Born September 21, 1960 in San Francisco, California, USA
- 1986-1991: Doctoral Studies in Anthropology (Central and Eastern European Paleolithic Archaeology) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- 1986: B.A. with Highest Honors in Anthropology, University of California. Honors Thesis: “A Spatial Analysis of a Mesolithic Site on the Federsee, Bavaria, West Germany”
- Department Deputy Head, Department of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University (2016-)
- Department Head, Department of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University (2001-2016)
- Academic Senate, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University: Member (2000-present), Chair (2002-2008)
- Academic Senate, Masaryk University: Member (2002-present), Member, Economic Committee (2003-present)
- Board Member, Fulbright Commission in the Czech Republic (2010-present)
- Board Chair, Fulbright Commission in the Czech Republic (2013-14)
- Board Vice-Chair, Fulbright Commission in the Czech Republic (2014-15)
- Member, Czech and Slovak Association of Americanists
- Member, Central European Association for Canadian Studies
- Member, Czech Association for English Studies