The (Brief) History of KAA

in Views

By Tereza Pavlíková and Blanka Šustrová

The Department of English and American Studies (KAA) has been here for more than 95 years. Following the establishment of the university in 1919, it was one of the founding departments of the Faculty of Arts. However, finding out the precise day of the founding of the English Department has proven to be a task more complicated than we imagined. There are no official records accessible. This we learned after checking a number of webpages, the whole Faculty of Arts library, and underneath the KAA couch. Failing in this task miserably, we decided to pay a visit to Don Sparling, who became a member of staff in 1977, to interview him in the hope that he would tell us where we could access the information we were so desperately seeking.




Don medailonekDon Sparling

Before coming to Czechoslovakia in 1969, Don studied English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto and at the University of Oxford. He became a member of the English Department in 1977 and after the Revolution in 1989 was elected Head of the Department. From 1977 to 1992 he was a vital part of the Gypsywood Players, acting, directing and producing plays. He is the founder of Canadian Studies in Brno, and KAA students may remember him as the author of English or Czenglish. In 2000 Don left the Department to become the first Director of Masaryk University’s Office for International Studies. These days, he is once again teaching an Introduction to Canadian Studies course at the Department. Apart from that, he is on the Board of the Spolek absolventů a přátel Masarykovy univerzity, as well as being a member of the team at the Brno Expat Centre, which he co-founded. He also teaches in summer schools organized jointly by Masaryk University’s Centre for International Cooperation and the University of Toronto.


“No, it’s not accessible anywhere. This is something that has bothered me for a long time. And it’s one of the many projects that I’m involved in now.” This was the point where we found out that attempts to write the Department’s history have always been a bit risky. One might even dare say cursed. “In the 1980s Professor Hladký said that he was going to write a history of the Department. He claimed that someone else beforehand had started to write it and that whenever anyone attempted to do this, they fell ill and died. This is some kind of an old Department legend – though I don’t know if he was just joking (laughs).”

1991 zleva okolo (asi) Blažena Tykvová, Franková, Ota Kříž (Head), Hladký, Debora Zemenová, dr. Golková, asi Chamo

1991 (left to right): B. Tykvová, M. Franková, O. Kříž, J. Hladký, D. Zemenová, E. Golková, (?)
Photo Courtesy of prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

As Don told us, Brno’s English Department is probably the oldest in the country. “Everybody in Prague freaks out when you say that. We were founded as the ‘Anglický seminář’. It’s difficult to date the actual foundation: people from the archives would date it from the appointment of the first professor, František Chudoba, in 1920, others from when the first classes opened. In Prague, of course, they were teaching English as a degree subject before then, but they were part of the Department of Germanic Philology. And as far as I know, and Professor Pavel Drábek claims the same, the actual foundation of the separate English Department in Prague came later than our Anglický seminář.” When František Chudoba was appointed professor, he was in London teaching Czech at the University of London. He was given a year and a half to prepare his lectures, buy books for the Department, and then he came back. “Professor Chudoba was a leading literary scholar; he was in touch with F. X. Šalda and lots of other prominent people. He systematically built up the library and – unusually for the time – he was keen on both British and American literature. He had an account in the main bookstore in Cambridge; every week here in Brno he received the Times Literary Supplement so he knew what new books were published and could order them from Heffers in Cambridge and they would send them here. We still have the register of the books with all the titles entered in Chudoba’s hand.” But the first teaching started even before Professor Chudoba came back from London. It began with lessons of English that were taught by Samuel Kostomlatský. Kostomlatský spent the First World War in Scotland studying theology, and when he returned after 1918, suddenly there was an English Department in Brno in need of an English teacher.

During the interwar years, there were some very interesting people who taught at the Department. Don told us about Stuart Mann, who later became one of the best-known British linguists. It was said about him that he could understand every Indo-European language. But there were even more surprises to his persona: “His great love was Albania. He would be teaching English here during the academic year and then in the summer he would go down to Albania to do research. He published an Albanian dictionary, and a grammar which is still being used in the English-speaking world. And apparently people didn’t know what he was doing in the summer. He would just say ‘I’m going south.’ Another interesting story was when he heard that there were some gypsies encamped just on the edge of Brno. And of course Romani is an Indo-European language. So he decided to meet them and see if he could communicate with them. And he could, apparently. He translated one of the Gospels into this Romani-Moravian dialect and sent it off to London to what was then the British and Foreign Bible Society. Their mission is to translate and publish the Bible in as many languages as possible. They were overjoyed they had another language and published this Gospel. The society then sent a copy to Mann. They thanked him and asked him if he might be interested in doing some missionary work with these Roma, because he was the only person that understood their dialect (laughs).”

Another interesting person, who was at the department from around 1924 until 1930, was Simeon Potter. He was one of the key people involved in the popularization of English in Czechoslovakia between the wars. At that time, in every larger city there were “Anglo-American Clubs” for people who liked English and wanted to learn it. The people would meet once a week to talk in English or to take lessons, they would also have a programme of lectures and the club would also boast a little library. These clubs published yearbooks and there was something like a central office here in Brno run by Potter.

Professor Chudoba died during the Second World War, and when the university reopened, Professor Josef Vachek became the new Head of the Department. Vachek was a distinguished linguist from Prague, one of the leading members of the Prague linguistic circle in fact. It was he who created the linguistic tradition at the Department. Professor Jan Firbas was his student. Vachek, because he was not a communist, had to step down after 1948. The next Head that came after him was Karel Štěpaník, who had studied before the war under Professor Chudoba, and who remained the Head until 1968.

1989 strike, D building

1989 strike, building D, Photo Courtesy of Ing. Mgr. Jiří Rambousek

“Apparently in 1968 there were people at the Faculty that were very engaged in the Prague Spring activities. Of course some were against it, but these differences didn’t develop into any bitter personal conflicts. The Dean at the time said that he was going to do everything possible to ensure that the minimum of people were kicked out. And that helped to set the tone at the Faculty. I was never told to teach this or that. It was a very free atmosphere and we were very open with the students.” For example, the only exchange programme in the whole of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s was KAA’s exchange with the University of Leeds. The students in Leeds studied Russian and also Czech, as a second Slavic language. The agreement with them was signed around 1966 and every year a certain number of students from Leeds would come to Brno to study Czech for ten weeks in spring, and the English Department could send the same number of students to Leeds. “We chose the students solely on the basis of their academic record, because if we attempted otherwise, the Communist Party might have stepped in and interfered. And except for one occasion, we never had any problems with them on the faculty level. They said that if we had chosen these people, they were going. But because the students were going to a capitalist country, God knows what would happen to them. As a result, we were told we would have to send a teacher with them every year. So, you know… we sacrificed ourselves (laughs). We would always tell the students quite openly that if they wanted to emigrate to the West, they shouldn’t do it during the exchange, as that would be the end of it. And it never happened. One year, about two weeks before we were going, one of the students came to me and said she couldn’t take part in it because the secret police had asked her to submit a report when she came back, and she didn’t want to do this, as she would feel awkward spying on everyone. To me it was clear that presumably every year they must have had a student who was given the same task, so I told her not to worry and just report things like that the students were introduced to the university library in Leeds, that they went on a sightseeing tour to look at York Cathedral, and so on. Of course when we showed them round the Leeds University library we always pointed out the collection of books from ’68 Publishers there … But that didn’t have to be in the report, right?”

At the end of the 1970s, the Department was taking in about twenty students a year, and the entrance exam required only a very good knowledge of English – there was nothing “political” about it. “I never had more than fifteen students in a class. In their fourth or fifth year I would probably have five or six of them,” Don remembers. The degree programme was always a combination with another language. There were two tracks a student could take: a teaching one and a specialized one, which was (in theory) intended to train translators. Cultural studies were not taught until the 1990s.

The Faculty of Arts during the strike in 1989, Photo Courtesy of Ing. Mgr. Jiří Rambousek

During the period of “normalization”, one had to be careful. “It was a deeply politically incorrect Department. We had three or four ex-communists in it, so naturally these were suspicious people in the eyes of the authorities. And we had virtually no young communists. There were, if I recall correctly, perhaps three of them, but none of them was senior enough to be considered being named the Head of the Department. And so, during most of the 1970s and 1980s, there was no appointed Head of Department. Instead there was someone who was given the task of running the Department, but not as official Head. In 1986, Zdeněk Masařík from the German Department agreed to become the external Head of our Department. He had good connections in the Party, and therefore had the authority to beef up the Department. Several people came into the Department around that time, for example Jana Chamonikolasová and Věra Pálenská. Věra was teaching at the Military Academy back then and the suggestion was that I should meet her and talk to her to see what her English was like. But I couldn’t do this officially, because I was a foreigner. As a person working at the Military Academy, she was forbidden to meet with anyone from the West unless she had official permission. So we had to work out this crazy scenario where she would be talking to one of the teachers in the Department and I – ‘by chance’ – would knock on the door and come in, be introduced, and chat with her. This was the kind of idiocy that went on in those days.”

That was not the only funny story Don remembers from the era. “When I was applying to join the Department, I phoned the then acting Head, Josef Hladký, to arrange a meeting at the Faculty. And he said: ‘No. Let’s meet at Rudé náměstí (today’s Moravské náměstí). I’ll be waiting on one of the benches near the university library and I’ll be reading a copy of the Morning Star.’ This was the British Communist Party newspaper. And I thought ‘This is really bizarre!’ But I went there anyway, and saw this figure, just as promised – it was like from a bad spy novel – and I walked up to him and introduced myself. Joe had a wonderful sense of humour – he was one of the reasons the Department was such a pleasant place to be in. The reason he was acting so peculiar was the then Dean at the Faculty of Arts, who was absolutely paranoid about people from the West. One time, he actually called in all the heads of the departments and told them that cars were circling around the Faculty with Western spies in them, listening in to find out what teachers at the Faculty were talking about. So the last thing Joe wanted was for the Dean to learn that I was applying for the job. In the end we completely bypassed him and went to one of the Vice-Rectors, who was very favourable and open, and had the authority to get me into the Department.”

After the Velvet Revolution, Don became Head of the Department, and, as expected, the Department went through some changes. One of the biggest changes was in the number of students. In 1990 instead of 25, 125 students could be admitted. There was also a shift towards more Western methods of teaching and evaluating. “Before that it was all oral exams, which I personally hated. Because methodologically they’re based on a Central European positivistic concept of knowledge, which is to say there is a certain ‘penzum znalostí’ that you should know, and then the oral exam is designed to find out what you don’t know. I find this perverse. To me an exam should enable the student to show what he is interested in and what he knows. So one of the things I tried to do after 1989 was to move us towards a more equitable and fairer evaluation system. That was a huge change. And in the English Department we started doing this before anyone else was.”

The other thing was the need to catch up on at least twenty years of what had been happening in the West. “There was a whole shift in critical theory, cultural theory, post-colonial theory, and there were whole new areas which were considered valid to study, for example film. We began introducing new areas and new subjects and of course the possibilities grew beyond the point that every student would be expected to do all the things, as was the case before. Eventually we got to the point where the students could choose their track according to their preferences.”

The other thing that was introduced, and was amazingly successful, was single-subject English. However, when it was introduced in 1990, there was huge opposition at the Faculty. “They claimed that you can’t produce an educated person if he or she studies just one subject. And I used to say: ‘Do I strike you as illiterate? Am I uneducated?’ Because I had studied just one subject in Toronto.” The single-subject degree programme offered more specialized courses, so the education given was very broad. It was also extremely popular, as ours was the only English Department in the country that had anything like this. There were usually six hundred or so applicants for twenty-five places. A special entrance exam was designed for them that demanded more thought and creativity. “The students in the single-subject English programme were phenomenal. But in the end it was cancelled by a decision of the Vědecká rada. The main argument was that it was ‘not part of the tradition of Czech higher education.’ Of course ten years later it’s the norm. We were literally ten years ahead of everybody else. And we were bitterly criticised and prevented from continuing with it.”

All of these changes helped establish the educational methods at this Department as they are today. Nowadays, single-subject English is indeed the norm, and as far as we know, interviews with potential teachers do not occur at Rudé náměstí anymore. Every year around 200 new students are accepted. The Department is buzzing with activity, in February it hosted the 10th Brno International Conference of English, American and Canadian Studies under the theme “Creating, Shaping and Signifying” (you can read a report from it in this very issue), and it is about to open a new MA degree programme in Northern American Studies in the near future. The current Head of the Department, Jeffrey Vanderziel, has been serving in this position since 2001. He succeeded Jiří Rambousek, who had been the Head from 1999.

Today the Department also has two students’ clubs. ESCape (English Students’ Club), currently led by Bára Orlická, was founded in 2004. Every year it organizes student parties, book fests, mock elections, muffin sales, the Creative Writing Contest, and newly also the Student Conference IDEAS. And Book Club, currently led by Tom Hájek, which was founded in 2012, and which organizes weekly Meet-Up Mondays, study groups, and issues its monthly newspaper The KAArdian.

The Department is also proud of its theatre company, the Gypsywood Players, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary and commemorated it, along with the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, with the performance of a stage version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Read more about it in the GWP history article in this issue!