Loyola Magazine

Research takes sociology professor to the Czech Republic

Q&A with Barbara Vann, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology

Barbara Vann, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, has taught at Loyola since 1987. Her courses and her scholarship focus on the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Vann has been involved in the creation of the Gender Studies minor, in diversity issues, in service-learning, and in the Alpha Program at Loyola. She is director of Loyola’s Summer Program in Prague. Most recently, she completed a research sabbatical in 2013-14 in Prague, where she held a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship at the Institute of Sociological Studies of Charles University.

Brenna O’Connor, ’15, recently spoke with Vann about her research, which focuses on the experience of identity in post-communist Czech society, as well as what it’s like to teach sociology at a Jesuit university.

What do you like about teaching at Loyola?

The students. I have taught other places, and the students here are great.

Can you talk a little about your research?

I just returned from spending most of the past year in Prague. I had a Fulbright Fellowship, and then I took unpaid leave for another semester because I was not finished with my research. I’m interviewing people about their memories of November 1989, because they just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism there—which is also why I really wanted to be there in the fall. And this wasn’t just the Czech Republic; it was also Poland and Hungary, and I was actually in Poland right before their day.

Why is your research and scholarship so important to you?

Well, for one—and I have been thinking about this for years—I’ve been to Prague every year since 2004. So I’ve been going for 10 years, including my last sabbatical in 2004-05, when I lived there for a year.

I am very interested in communism because I grew up under the Red Scare, and Americans don’t know anything about communism. It’s just very interesting to me to meet people who actually lived it. The Czechs are funny people, and they don’t like to talk about it. There are now some Czech academics who are doing very good work surrounding this topic; however, there hasn’t been very much written in English about Czech experiences under communism.

Thirdly, as an outsider, I have a different perspective on it than Czechs do, which some could criticize as a bad thing, but I think it’s a really good thing, because I see things that Czechs don’t see, because it’s right there in front of them.

My oldest respondent is 94 years old, so the generation that lived through the entire 40-year history of communism is going to die before very long. They experienced it all, so I think it’s really important to talk to them. Czech young people aren’t learning very much about communism because their parents don’t want to talk about it. I think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. I’ve also visited other Eastern Bloc post-Soviet countries, and almost all of the other countries are dealing with it to a much greater extent than the Czech Republic is. So I think it’s important and if the Czechs aren’t going to do it, then I am going to do it.

Finally, I’m fascinated by it. I’m also very lucky. The reason I can do research there as an outsider is because I have been going for so long and I have friends there. You really have to trust somebody if you’re going to talk and ask questions like that. There has to be some trust. And I can get away with it as an American—you just say, “Well, I’m an American, and we need to know this.”

Can you describe an “aha!” moment in your research?

My best Czech friend and I have been friends for 10 years and got into an argument. I was talking to her about the interviews I was conducting (she’s been very helpful in terms of helping me find people to interview).

I had interviewed someone who was the same age as she is. She’s 44, so she was 19 in 1989. It was the students who were so involved in the end of communism, and my interviewee was simply not allowed to go to university because her father was a suspect.

I was telling my friend about this, and my friend said, “She’s lying.” And I said, “No, I don’t believe she is.” Well, we got into this horrendous fight, and it really made me think… There are some interesting feelings about communism out there. A lot has been written about guilt—for people who didn’t get involved—and they have to justify that somehow. My friend’s father was a communist, so she never had any problems.

The other surprising challenge for me has been in dealing with what’s referred to now as “post-communist nostalgia.” As I’m interviewing people who literally worked on the collective farms as young people, one of them, whose father was in prison at the time, said, “Things aren’t so different now. We were fine then.” And at the very end of the interview, they mention casually that the only place they could ever talk without being overheard was down in the wine cellar.

This totally freaked me out! I’m still struggling with that, to try to understand. And I’ve talked to some people who are doing the same research in other countries, for example Slovenia and Bulgaria, and they’re finding the exact same things that I’m finding. So it’s not just a Czech thing. It’s this whole post-communist weirdness. I have to figure out how to actually explain that, and I’m working on that.

How are Loyola’s Jesuit values reflected in your teaching?

When I came here, I learned about cura personalis, and I took it to heart. I’m not Catholic, but I think the Jesuits are great. I think what they do is great. I have always included service-learning in my classes, and when I’ve had to write proposals for classes or even on the syllabus, I talk about the preferential option for the poor and things like that. I also taught in Loyola’s Alpha program for years.

What is something your students don’t know about you?

I’m pretty upfront with my students, but my new students that I have now don’t know that I’m a certified yoga teacher and yoga therapist.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of teaching?

Well, there would be yoga. I really like riding bicycles; I like cooking and needle work. I also have a dog!

Do you have a favorite book, movie, or quote?

My favorite quote comes from Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”