Teaching in the Land of Fields

My Fulbright sabbatical in Poland

September 28, 2015

Richard E. Sapon-White (far right) and friends in Łódz, Poland. Photo: Richard E. Sapon-White
Richard E. Sapon-White (far right) and friends in Łódz, Poland. Photo: Richard E. Sapon-White.

In 2012–2013, I had the privilege of spending a 10-month sabbatical teaching library science courses at the Institute of Information and Book Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland as a Fulbright Scholar. I taught four courses in English: subject analysis, resource description and access, introduction to metadata, and ebooks in libraries. This incredible experience was made possible by a Fulbright Scholarship, sponsored by the US Department of State and administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES).

While teaching enabled me to learn new things and explore aspects of topics I thought I already knew, teaching overseas provided an opportunity to see those topics from a different perspective. For example, using an excellent book about ebooks in libraries as a textbook, I realized how North American–centric this text was. The vendors mentioned in the book did not do business in Poland; monetary figures were given in US dollars; and, even though the text was written for professionals, it contained plenty of American English idioms. I needed to revise my teaching to include examples—of libraries, vendors, and practices—that reflected my students’ experiences. I offered what I could from my own experience but also encouraged students to share what they knew and to seek out information to provide a better picture of the situation inside Poland. As a result, I most certainly learned as much as, if not more than, my students by the end of classes.

Sapon-White sits next to a bronze statue of pianist Arthur Rubenstein in Łódz, Poland. Photo: Richard E. Sapon-White
Sapon-White sits next to a bronze statue of pianist Arthur Rubenstein in Łódz, Poland. Photo: Richard E. Sapon-White

My teaching methods were traditional by American university standards: lecture, discussion, in-class exercises, and group work. Since English was a second language for the students, I posted all of my presentation slides to SlideShare for later referral to ensure comprehension. I also required students to post their own presentations to the same site.

Learning techniques emphasizing direct student engagement with learning material have made great strides in Poland, but I sensed that teacher–student and student–student interaction was still something of a novelty. Although initially hesitant to ask questions or participate, most students were eager to share their thoughts on current controversies in librarianship and were asking questions in class by the end of the fall term.

The Fulbright program sends academics and professionals to more than 125 countries each year to teach and/or conduct research for 4–10 months, depending on the specific award. Each country has its own set of awards, many of which are open to any discipline and some that are discipline-specific. While some awards focus on librarianship or information science, librarians can apply for the “any discipline” awards. I have received two such awards.

Awards are announced online every March with an application deadline the following August (August 3 for this year’s cycle). You need to plan in advance, as successful applications submitted this summer would be for awards beginning in fall 2016 or the winter 2017. Applications should specify what you want to teach or research, provide evidence of teaching skills, and describe your reasons for wanting to be a cultural ambassador for the US.

I highly recommend the Fulbright Scholar program to librarians who can take sabbaticals or leaves of absence. The program is highly competitive—but if you don’t apply, you don’t know what you might be missing.

Visit cies.org for more information. Powodzenia! (That’s “good luck” in Polish.)


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