From Canada to Mexico in One Master’s Programme

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By Anna Jílková

North-American Culture Studies is a new, fresh option for MA students at the English Department. Established in 2015 in cooperation with the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, it focuses is both on linguistic and literary aspects. Students can apply either for the Spanish or the French module. Masaryk University gives this major valuable support in study materials and lecturers.

Where did the impulse come from?

The initiative came from both departments. “During the 90s we formed a group of people interested in Canada. And at the same time there were experts on Latin America. So, we got an idea to connect these two areas together,” explained one of the initiators Prof. Petr Kyloušek from the Department of Romance Languages and Literature.

Who was at the beginning?

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Jiří Krásný

Apart from Prof. Kyloušek there were other professionals supporting this idea. From the English side, it was doc. Tomáš Pospíšil and Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel. They collaborated with experts from the Romance Studies such as doc. Lukavská or Daniel Vázquez Touriňo. However, one person which might not be officially recognised but who spread the idea of focusing on Canada among the people was Don Sparling. “I was included in the pre-programme phase, more as an administration capacity,” commented Sparling.

What did the pre-phase look like?

As Prof. Kyloušek said, people started to work on this idea in the 90s. But it didn’t really take off till 2010. “Back around 2010 the Department of English and American Studies and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures got a big grant to create 40 new courses dealing with North America,” said Sparling. This grant funded not only new courses but also scholarships that enabled students to be sent to either the United States or Canada. The payback was in a remarkably high number of diploma and PhD theses regarding issues in these countries. And that was the real starting point. Logistically everything was secured – courses, library, teachers… So, it was easy to promote this area even more. With a huge portion of passion and interest in this topic, a completely new Master’s programme was opened.

You will learn about the varieties of Spanish language or about Mexican theatre.

Why is it attractive for students?

“My last year of bachelor studies came, and I had to start thinking about my next steps,” said Denisa Krásná, a student from the very first year of this programme. During her bachelor study, she was attending courses in both English and Spanish. “When I was deciding about my Master, I was considering options such as English or Spanish Philology. I wouldn’t mind to study English but I would miss Spanish. On the other hand, Spanish Philology is too difficult and not quite the right fit for me,” said Denisa regarding her decision to join the programme. So, when this programme was made public, she did not hesitate one moment – it was the ideal solution for her.

The content itself is very interesting. The situation in these countries changes every year – it is very dynamic. Students deal with topical issues such as migration or ‘otherness’. They get detailed knowledge from linguistics, literature and culture studies. After completion of all the compulsory subjects, they can pick some of the elective in-depth courses to broaden their knowledge and sharpen their focus.

What are the requirements?

This year is the second of the programme’s existence. If everything works out, the first graduates will be known by the end of summer 2018. “In the first year there were only two students enrolled. But the number is getting higher, the second year we had seven students and the following one even more,” explained Kyloušek, stating that the beginnings are always difficult. The reason behind this low number is an insufficient knowledge of languages. To be able to apply for this programme, you need to understand not only English but also either French or Spanish. And that is where most of the students fall short. “Unfortunately, this is not only about this major but in general. Since the one-major studies prevail, there is not enough students who can work with the second language. They all study English and are not aware how much another language can be useful to them,” added Kyloušek. The ability to read historical books in languages other than English is very rare nowadays, not many students are capable of that.

Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Jiří Krásný

“As a student of English and Spanish, I was accepted automatically without having to sit the entrance exam,“ says Denisa. However, you can be accepted even without previous studies in these areas. Recently, the requirements have been lowered slightly. Applicants need to know the language to the level so that they understand the literature but do not need to master other skills in it.

Spanish or French?

You need to choose two out of three modules. The first one – the English module – is compulsory. And then you need to decide whether you pick the French or the Spanish module. The French one focuses primarily on Canada but does not forget small French-speaking areas such as Louisiana or New England. Among the compulsory courses you can find one focusing on Czech translations from Quebec literature or one called The Imaginary City – Montréal, Québec. The Spanish branch takes you more south – California, Mexico, Central America. You will learn for example about the varieties of Spanish language or about Mexican theatre. “The courses offered by the North-American Cultural Studies programme are all very engaging and there is not a single course I am not excited about, ” Denisa says, showing her enthusiasm. The main reason behind her satisfaction are various class discussions and that cultural, literary and linguistic courses are perfectly in balance.

However, if you decide on a Spanish branch, it does not prevent you from taking the French courses as well. “The programme motivated me to finally learn French properly which enabled me to take also elective French-taught courses offered by the department.” Just because there is only a few students you will avoid overcrowded classrooms and enjoy the individual approach of lecturers. “Everyone at the Department is very understanding and supportive, and goes to great lengths to find a solution to every obstacle,“ confirms Denisa.

“Once you get over this language barrier you earn much more insight into discussed issues and you will understand the connections”

And the plans for the future?

Denisa is slowly coming to the end of her studies. “I am not sure yet if I will graduate on time, but I am currently in the process of collecting resources for my diploma thesis. It looks like my thesis will be combining Canadian and Mexican literature, and will hence truly represent the interdisciplinary approach that this major promotes.“ And the main focus for the future of the North American Culture Studies? Keep moving. “That is the biggest challenge right now. To stabilize the programme and attract more students” observes Kyloušek. “Once you get over this language barrier you earn much more insight into discussed issues and you will understand the connections”.

For additional factual information visit the department’s website.