Collaborating across Centers and Disciplines: Pitt's Central Eurasia Initiative

by Zsuzsánna Magdó and Nancy Condee, Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh

This piece was originally printed in the June 2018 NewsNet.

As U.S. universities globalize their pedagogical and research agendas, National Resource Centers like our own Center for Russian and East European Studies (REES) embrace the opportunity to reach beyond their established regional and interdisciplinary focus in creative ways. REES’s latest effort to enrich regional and global studies has been to build collaborative networks across campus in a bid to pool resources and attract interest from schools whose curricula have not historically been able to leave room for international studies. A shared effort of the REES and Pitt’s Asian Studies Center (ASC), the Central Eurasia Initiative (CEI) furthers academic programming focused on this vast and diverse world area.

With an emphasis on trans-regional and global linkages, the CEI supports faculty and student engagement with a region that has been both a heartland and a frontier for worldwide processes. In the past, Silk Road cities were simultaneously nodes for epidemics and human mobility, for geopolitical rivalries and peaceful exchange. Today, rapidly developing countries in the region are sites for competing plans of integration at a time when world powers vie over large-scale infrastructure projects to link the region’s vast resources to trans-regional supply chains. Because Central Eurasia is so critical for making sense of these and other global issues, we envisage our center’s increased emphasis on Central Eurasia as part of an enterprise to connect – and connect with – academic units of the university that do not usually coordinate their activities: the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the Swanson School of Engineering, the School of Business, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), the School of Law, and our parent center, the University Center for International Studies (UCIS).

The current centerpiece of the CEI is an NEH Humanities Connections Grant, awarded jointly to REES and ASC for 2018-2021. Titled “Water in Central Asia: Tributaries of Change,” (see page 30) the grant enables our centers to develop a cluster of undergraduate courses that build on another while combining disciplines in atypical ways. “Central Asian Water Past” crosses history and environmental studies; “Central Asian Water Present” brings together political science and engineering; and “Central Asian Water Future” embraces both engineering and business. The thematic concentration on water in these courses reflects the contemporary significance of this topic while providing a captivating lens to study the Central Eurasian region. The courses will follow mutually supporting trajectories: encouraging students to think about water issues on unfamiliar terrain and to explore a largely unstudied area of the world, while addressing an issue they know to be of global urgency—the need for clean, sustainable water sources.

This recent NEH award served only as the catalyst for rolling out the Central Eurasia Initiative; it is the keystone, but not the whole arch. In fact, both events reflect the culmination of several years’ worth of efforts, serendipities, and programmatic momentum that have propelled our centers at UCIS further into the field. Throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, REES and ASC co sponsored the Exploration of Cultural Identity along the Silk Road speaker series, which served as a kind of pilot project for ongoing cross-center collaboration. Since 2016, a foundational element of our work on Central Eurasia has been our ability to hire a string of Postdoctoral Fellows specializing in the region. Their presence gave rise to an interdisciplinary Central Eurasian Studies reading group, open to faculty and students, which convenes monthly to discuss scholarly books, articles, works in progress, and other media selected on the basis of collective interest. Our Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Patryk Reid, organized an international symposium, “Rivers and History in Central Eurasia: Control, Potential and Change,” held in Pittsburgh in February 2018. In addition to its robust Russian and East European Film Collection, the University Library System recently acquired 230 Soviet-era, low print run primary source editions and Uzbek historical documents, joining what was already the largest collection of Turkmen films in the West. Meanwhile, REES, in conjunction with Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili in GSPIA, was selected to host the 2018 Annual Conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.

Yet the expansion of our Central Eurasian programming has not come at the expense of our other core areas. As NewsNet readers are well aware, the 2017-2018 academic year was one of centennials and semi-centennials. To reflect on the historical arc of the Russian Revolution, REES held “The 1917 Centenary Series” last fall. The series featured lectures by Professor Mark Steinberg of the University of Illinois, Grace Kennan Warnecke, political consultant and daughter of George F. Kennan, and Anne Garrells, journalist for National Public Radio. These lectures are available for viewing on our center’s website by following the preceding hyperlinks. In spring 2018, REES participated in a larger collaborative project of the University Center for International Studies, “The Global Legacies of 1968,” by screenings iconic films that reflected on that momentous year in our region. Finally, in the past academic year, REES also hosted the series “Eastern Europe in the World,” featuring scholars who explore the region’s embeddedness in global histories of empire, colonialism, and connectivity.

Nancy Condee is a professor of contemporary Russian culture, cinema, and cultural politics at the University of Pittsburgh and is Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Zsuzsánna Magdó is Assistant Director for Partnerships & Programs at University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian and East Euroean Studies.