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Thursday, June 4, 2020

GUR Spotlight: Nomads of Eurasia

Professor Edward Vajda.  Photo by Jesse Nichols
Professor Edward Vajda // Photo by Jesse Nichols

EUS 210: Nomads of Eurasia, a general university requirement (GUR) to fulfill part of the comparative, gender and multicultural studies requirement at Western, is currently being taught during fall quarter and is open to all students.

Nomadic cultures have lived across Europe and Asia since the beginning of human history, but many are underrepresented in history courses, said Edward Vajda, a Eurasian Studies professor at Western. Vajda said Nomads of Eurasia is one of the only classes of its type in the country.

Pastoral nomadic cultures, mobile cultures that use animals for food, ranged from some of the largest historical empires – including the Mongols, the Huns and the Ottoman Turks – to small, isolated cultures, Vajda said.

Many of these nomadic cultures are underrepresented in history curricula, in part because of geographical isolation and common lack of written languages, Vajda said.

“I tell the students in class that I’m filling in the white areas on the map,” Vajda said. “The things that are usually left blank or the areas that usually are simply ‘the other people living there.’”

Vajda said he hopes this class will give students an opportunity to see these cultures from a new perspective – one of the objectives of the comparative, gender and multicultural studies GUR requirement.

Ani Mesropian is a junior studying political science and Eurasian studies at Western, currently taking Nomads of Eurasia. Mesropian said this class gives her a better understanding of her field of study.

“I feel like I’m really getting to the origins of my area of study when I get to do this class,” Mesropian said.

In order to teach the class, Vajda said he had to write much the course material for the class, creating detailed PowerPoint presentations and notes for students to access on Canvas.

Vajda had worked with a publisher to develop a textbook for the class, but he said the company cancelled the project once they discovered his class was the only class of its type in the country.

“They said ‘No, we can’t make a textbook for one class,’” Vajda said. “I told them, ‘If you saw how many students took the class, you might change your mind!’”

The fall 2015 class has capacity for 128 students. The class size has ranged from 13 students in summer 2015 to 292 students in fall 2013.

Vajda currently films his lectures and posts the videos online for students to study. He also uses the lecture videos for an online section currently offered during the summer, and he said he hopes to eventually offer online sections during other quarters as well.

Mesropian said the lecture videos are helpful if she misses a class or forgets something. Vajda also posts practice quizzes after each lecture, which Mesropian said help her study for exams. She said the exams can be difficult, but there are many resources available for students to study.

“I would say that Vajda’s style is probably one of the most approachable styles for a student,” Mesropian said.

Serge Samoylenko, a communication studies and Eurasian studies student at Western, is also currently taking Nomads of Eurasia and said Vajda’s lectures help him prepare for exams.

“There are so many things I am able to retain because of Vajda’s ability to just talk about these things in a very interesting and engaging way,” Samoylenko said.

Nomadic cultural history plays a major role in current events today, from conflicts in the Middle East to modern border disputes, Vajda said.

“The modern Middle East is different from Europe and East Asia because all of the main groups in the Middle East came from pastoral traditions, so they have different sensibility of what is good and evil,” Vajda said. “I think that fundamental distinction is what is at the root of a lot of differences in diplomacy and politics in the modern world.”

Nomadic cultures have also affected sedentary cultures, from Hun invasions influencing the collapse of the Roman Empire to nomadic trade routes causing major disease epidemics, Vajda said.

“Pastoral nomads are the root of big changes in the history of sedentary people,” Vajda said. “Yet they’re always looked on as the villain, as the enemy, and you never see them as a society of their own.”

Mesropian said that this class has taught her how much of an impact many nomadic Eurasian cultures have had on world history.

“So many roots came from there, and we don’t credit them,” Mesropian said.

Nomads of Eurasia is offered during fall quarter under the name EUS 210.

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