Tiina Kirss: Research funding structure stifles philosophical conversation

Tiina Kirss
Tiina Kirss Source: Alar Madisson/Estonian Literary Museum

The structure of research funding in Estonia forces scholars to view each other as rivals and discourages dialogue, says Tiina Kirss, an American-born literary scholar who has taught at universities in Estonia. In an interview with ERR's Novaator, Kirss discussed her long-standing interest in traumatic memory and women's studies, as well as her mother's dramatic escape on a war refugee ship.

Five thoughts from Tiina Kirss:

  • The current research system makes funding available to only a few.
  • It is important to encourage seminar work and academic dialogue.
  • Longer novels are written, and women are becoming more prominent authors.
  • Knowledge of the Bible helps to understand Estonian literature.
  • Several important women authors come from the Young Estonia period, such as Marta Sillaots, Marta Lepp, Alma Ostra-Oinas, Reed Morn.

You have a literary background, but your research extends broader to cultural and intellectual history. What were the main questions that motivated your research?

During my PhD, I was mainly interested in the impact of censorship on literature, in topics on women's literature and women's history and the historical novel. Later, when I became more involved with Estonian literature and culture, I developed an interest in biographies, which were widely collected in Estonia at that time, in the early 1990s, and in memoiristics.

Among the questions was the creation of the biographer's self-identity or the memoirist's representation of the self. In the instance of women's literature, I was captivated by how and why women's works were excluded from literary history, and under what circumstances women broke through in European literature. I realized that women's fiction possessed a great deal of ethical nerve.

However, my interest in women's literature and feminist criticism was not directly influenced by personal experience. For instance, neither my parents nor the parents of my contemporaries questioned whether or not women should be educated at the university level. My parents were both non-native Estonians who supported my pursuit of higher education. Education had to be practical though; it had to help me earn a living.

Even though I had good prerequisites for the humanities, my parents exerted considerable pressure on me to pursue a medical degree. I majored in biology in college to prepare for medical school, but I also studied French literature. French became my second foreign language, after English, while at home we spoke Estonian.

The turning point occurred after I had already been accepted into medical school and had only two years of study remaining. I had back surgery and believed I could no longer continue with it. I just didn't have that inner strength. Even though my medical studies had been very interesting, I decided to move on to the humanities and did a PhD in comparative literature.

Tiina Kirss. Source: Alar Madisson/Estonian Literary Museum

You were born and educated in the United States and have taught at several universities there. You studied, among other subjects, Estonian literature and eventually settled and worked permanently in Estonia. You mentioned that the choice of Estonian themes may not have seemed the most promising in terms of an international career. Why this decision? Was it a sense of mission, curiosity about your ancestry or something else?

There was a sense of mission there too. I wanted to give something back to Estonia, to share my knowledge of literature and literary theory. Up until that point, I had immersed myself in Estonian literature on my own. We had a glass cabinet filled with the works of Estonian authors, as well as the journals "Tulimuld" and "Mana."  Foreign Estonian literature and memoirs did not appeal to me as a teenager; I found them to be incredibly dull. At university, however, and during my doctoral studies, I became interested in how the dynamics of big European literatures were manifested in smaller ones, such as Estonian literature.

At first, I tried to approach this question through poetry. One of the turning points was definitely Jaan Kross' novels. International career chances for specializing in such a limited body of literary works were slim, if not nonexistent. To broaden context, I began to read widely, returning eventually to foreign Estonian literature. I came to Estonia in 1989, during the Singing Revolution. At that time, I read everything what could be termed contemporary literature.

Almost half of my dissertation was devoted to Estonian literature, specifically Jaan Kross and Viivi Luik. I also furthered my education with the aim of using this knowledge in university teaching: from 1999 to 2006, I held the Elmar Tampõld Chair of Estonian Studies at the University of Toronto, where I have been teaching Estonian language and literature.

In 2006, I was elected professor of Estonian literature at the University of Tartu and in the same year I permanently moved with my children to Estonia. One of the subjects I started teaching here was Estonian cultural history from the Middle Ages to the present day. I wanted to create a course that would give a more holistic overview of the wider cultural background, in addition to literature. I also took into account my children's observations: they were far more interested in people's daily lives, how they lived and how they were educated in different eras than in political context.

I contributed to a course on the core texts of Estonian literature at the University of Tartu. I asked the students if they were familiar with Kreutzwald's "Kalevipoeg" [the Estonian national epic], they replied that they had seen some pictures at school, heard some stories but had not read it. So it was necessary to start reading it for real, not to take the narrative as superficially national. We also read all five volumes of "Truth and Justice" [written in 1926-1933 by Anton Hansen Tammsaare], not just the first part. And we read selected passages from the Bible, which is also important for understanding Estonian literature.

Tiina Kirss. Source: Alar Madisson/Estonian Literary Museum

You have done a lot of research in women's studies and memory, among other things. For example, you have examined the role of women in Estonia in the early 20th century and how literature, e.g. the works of Ene Mihkelson and Jaan Kross, helps to make sense of past traumatic experiences. Both themes seek to reclaim and clarify voices and viewpoints from the depths of history. Why have these two themes been important to your understanding of literature and history?

There is already one answer in the question. It is precisely the effort to recover voices that have been lost. For me, they were important. I also became interested in correspondence and more personal journals and recollections.

I started working on memory in Toronto. I was inspired by Merle Karusoo, who has been doing life history interviews for a long time; she usually started by asking what the interviewee's first memories are. Influenced by Karusoo and the Latvian anthropologist Vieda Skultans, I wanted to try group work with elderly Estonians living in Toronto. I simply placed an advertisement in the Estonian newspapers and there was a great deal of interest; perhaps twenty people responded. Some wanted to write memories for their grandchildren, others for themselves.

The memories of Estonia, photographs from school days, and what people had lost and lamented were all fascinating to me. Some people's departure from Estonia was rather traumatic; they had left behind dear people and close relatives.

All of this was interesting because my mother's departure from Estonia was equally dramatic. Due to the fact that she was a medical worker, a nurse midwife to be precise, she was able to board together with her family one of the ships evacuating wounded German soldiers called the "Moero," ironically a name that means fate. The ship left Tallinn on September 22, 1944.

At that time there was a great deal of torpedoing in the so-called Liepāja corridor off the coast of Latvia. "Moero" was hit by a torpedo at 11 a.m. and sank within seven minutes. The lifeboats were overcrowded, my mother, her parents, her brother, and my brother's sweetheart were all holding to the crammed lifeboats with ropes. While many people imagine the autumn 1944 escape as a small fishing boat on a stormy sea – the sea was actually calm and the sun was shining that day, the boat was big but rather fragile and the autumn water was very cold.

My mother saw her father, her mother, her brother and his sweetheart let go of the rope one after the other. She was all alone. Then she tied the rope that was connected to the lifeboat around her arm and passed out. Her clothes, documents and luggage had all been lost at sea when the next ship in the convoy picked her up. Mum told me this story when I was four-years old. It's early, but she probably needed to tell.

My mother's life continued, first in DP camps in Germany, then in the United States, but she never recovered from the tragedy she endured at age 27. She lived on, but it was a break that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Many years after her passing I became interested in the topic of traumatic memory.

I have also researched the memories of people who fled to Sweden in 1944 and resettled in Canada after the war. I was interested in how the loss of the homeland was depicted in writing during this early period, when these events had just taken place. I started by reading the October 1944 issues of the Swedish journal Teataja, which contained literary descriptions of Estonians' escape.

The study of these and other sources led to the publishing of my book "Rändlindude pesad" (The Nests of Migratory Birds,) in which I explain the characteristic features of traumatic memory narratives. As one approaches a traumatic event in a narrative, the description becomes neutral and devoid of sentimentality.

One literary work that deals with escaping the legacy of the Second World War, and which could be called a trauma text, is Arved Viirlaid's novel "Tormiaasta" (Stormy Year.) It is not very highly regarded literately, but it deserves a closer look.

You taught Estonian literature at the University of Tartu from 2006 to 2011, and then cultural theory at Tallinn University till 2015. With what goals and ideals did you start your professorship? What was it that made you most happy about the job?

A professorship in Tartu had been my dream. I came with much enthusiasm and taught using the techniques and possibilities I was familiar with. Essentially, I wanted to help students in approaching the text in such a way that they would begin to express their own views on the structure of the text. About how the text is put together. How does the text work and what does it do with us? As the Estonian student was very shy and quiet, it was necessary to support them in answering such questions. In order to understand what is going on inside the text, we have to use certain techniques, to examine how language constructs this world. It was very interesting, most of them came along very nicely.

My health, however, suffered as a result of overwork, and I was raising three children on my own. I couldn't see a way to reduce the load. The professor was supposed to contribute two hours of lectures per week. I had twenty of them, not counting the tutorials. Burnout develops gradually over time, but it comes on suddenly.

Tiina Kirss Source: Alar Madisson/Estonian Literary Museum

Then I was hired by Tallinn University as a professor of cultural theory in 2010. The first couple of years were exciting and hectic. The spirit of the 1990s could be felt at the Estonian Institute of Humanities, which served as the foundation for the Tallinn University School of Humanities and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013. I taught a doctoral seminar at Tallinn University to students from a variety of disciplines, including musicologists, dance and theater scholars. My first teaching post in Estonia was actually at the Estonian Institute of Humanities in the spring of 1990.

After five years my position was not renewed. Someone else was chosen for a professorship in cultural history. Then, with the encouragement and academic hospitality of Margit Sutrop, I returned to Tartu and have been working there since 2015. I am thrilled to be in Tartu. I have lived here since 2006 and raised my children here, so my work at Tallinn University was a commute.

Students at Tallinn University complained about a lack of guidance. Five or six outstanding students approached me and asked for active mentoring. This entailed a thorough reading of their dissertations, commenting on them, asking questions and conversing with them. I have actually enjoyed the supervision, especially in the master's and doctoral programs.

During your tenure as a professor, you wrote a series of critical articles in which you said that the expectations placed on you and the research bureaucracy here sometimes forced you to compromise professional and creative goals. In 2007, you wrote about the alarm bells of Estonian humanities. You've also been critical of the Englishification of higher education and the general decline of academic culture. What were the main concerns at the time, and how has that changed?

I would particularly highlight the ongoing structural and research funding reforms. During my tenure as a professor in Tartu, research funding became much more bureaucratic and unfriendly. This was disheartening. A lot of time was spent on bureaucracy that was meant to be flawlessly organized.

Doctoral students are now evaluated after the first semester. Not in a way that allows you to settle into your first year, pursue your interests and delve into your subject. They are then evaluated again at the end of the following semester. Furthermore, they begin to impose how to write an article way too early. There is overwhelming emphasis on conformity.

Current research funding structure has resulted in competition among fellow peers, who now have to compete rather than collaborate. This felt very alien and toxic to me in such a small academic environment. It fosters a climate of distrust and a lack of interest in communicating with one another. Free philosophical discourse dies in such a system.

When I arrived in Estonia, I though it to be a creative little nation whose value lies in its people's close connections, with fewer intermediaries between them. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic structures of larger countries have been imported here. Why try to be something you are not? Rather, be large in your smallness, build upon that specificity, encourage seminar work and academic dialogue.

Only a few people can access funding under the current system. There is even a rule that a researcher must have completed a post-doctoral research period abroad before applying for research funding. By the time they finish their PhD, many people have started a family. Long-term stays abroad are therefore difficult.

You said that living in Estonia demands a tremendous deal of inner strength and brightness. If I may ask, what has life in Estonia given you and what has it taken away?

In any case, I would say it is giving a lot back to me right now. For starters, I see that I have three Estonian-speaking children. My son, the youngest, graduated from drama school and now works as a regular actor at the Ugala Theater. Estonia, I believe, has been a good environment for my family, with strong and lasting friendships. My daughters are very pleased that they have learned a small language, that they have been noticed and cared for.

I am now in a position to see the results of my efforts. In certain aspects, I have flatly refused to play my role. I conduct my own research in the way I believe it should be done. The Estonian Literary Museum, where I now work part-time, presents a great deal of creative challenges with its wealth of archival material.

But we still need that brightness because there are dark and gloomy seasons here, and the atmosphere can become a little suffocating. Strength is required because society is rife with self-interest, arrogance and carelessness. It is critical to retain concentration and focus on the good, and to emphasize this when you interact with others. Estonia has taught me to whinge a lot less.

In literary circles, the expectation of a great work is a common topic of conversation. What are the greatest novels in contemporary Estonian literature?

There are some. "Tunnistaja" (Witness) by Katrin Laur is the most recent. It's a superb novel, in my opinion. Then there is Kai Aareleiu's "Vaikne ookean" (Pacific Ocean,) which is also a great novel, and her other works are excellent. Also noteworthy are Eva Koff's novels "Sinine mägi" (Blue Mountain) and "Kirgas uni" (Lucid Dreams.) "Serafima ja Bogdan" (Serafima and Bogdan), by the late Vahur Afanasyev, is another excellent novel with a dark glint to it. Kärt Hellerma's novel "Koer ja kuu" (Dog and the Moon) should also be mentioned.

I've noticed that people are starting to write longer novels, which is very good. It is not insignificant that more of this new quality has been introduced by women.

You turned 65 in September. What are your hopes for the future, and what do you want to accomplish the most?

I would like to finish the monograph on Jaan Kross that is currently in preparation. I have read nearly all of his works several times over the past few years, yet I still have a great deal of hesitation about what will happen if it goes wrong. That is the silliest barrier to writing. When you think about it, a cramp sets in and you are unable to write.

I want to teach as long as I have a voice and the ability. Seminars are my preferred type of academic work. I am not sure how many more new courses I will develop, but one of them will almost certainly be on women's studies and history. I also have a small ambition to write a novel. In fact, I've been thinking about it for quite a long time. Once some other things get done, I can hopefully focus on fulfilling that dream.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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