An Interview with Central European University’s Agnes Toth

Editor’s note: This past semester, I had the good fortune to work in Budapest, Hungary for a semester, at my institution’s European campus. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and greatly appreciated networking with colleagues in the city. At the end of my trip, I invited the director of Central European University’s writing center, Agnes Toth, to sit down and tell me more about her graduate Center for Academic Writing.

As you may know, this past year, CEU has made international headlines, due to an unprecedented level of government scrutiny. Their accreditation structure—and, in particular, their funding ties to billionaire philanthropist, George Soros—resulted in a series of legislative moves that threw their future in Hungary into question. While discussions and negotiations are ongoing, I wanted to find out more about the work of their writing center, from Agnes—and how the university’s uncertain future was impacting the day-to-day work of her team.

WLN blog: Hi Agnes! Thanks for meeting with me today. I’d love to learn more about you and your center. Can you tell me a bit about CEU, and what did you do before working at CEU?

CEU is a graduate-level university accredited both in the US and Hungary, which offers English-language, 1/2-year Masters and doctoral programs in the social sciences, law, management and public policy. CEU currently has about 1400 students from over 110 countries, which makes it the second most international university in the world, according to The Times of Higher Education.

CEU’s Center for Academic Writing (CAW) was established at the beginning of the 1990s. Its primary mission is to ensure high standards of written academic English throughout the university by helping students become proficient, independent writers who can function effectively in CEU’s and the wider academic and policy community even after graduation and by supporting and working with faculty to assist their students. To date, CAW is the only European writing program to have ever received the “Writing Program Certificate of Excellence” award by the CCCC.

I have my masters in English language and literature. I also have postgraduate degrees in Translation Studies and Business Coaching.

WLN blog: I’d love to learn more about your center. CEU is a graduate school, that serves only graduate students. Can you tell me about your classes and your writing center?

Our center is a combination of a writing center and a writing program. We teach mandatory academic writing courses and offer consultations to students in all departments. We also collaborate closely with department heads and professors to tailor our course content towards students’ writing needs.

Our staff is entirely made up of professional writing instructors; all are considered part of faculty,  We teach native and nonnative speakers together. Most of our courses are in the fall and winter terms. We teach twelve sessions in academic writing in the fall, focusing on cultural differences in thinking and writing, the research paper and another, discipline-specific genre we choose in collaboration with professors.

Increasingly our writing instructors work with departments to develop guides/expectations. There are big differences between policy and research writing, for example. All students are asked to write something in multiple genres. Developed with different professors.

In winter, when students start working on their thesis, we offer classes on how to write thesis proposals, departmental thesis requirements, and then the thesis itself.

Our center is basically mandatory for all students. We don’t need to advertise our consultation services hardly at all! Students are required to come once or twice early in the semester. From that point on it’s optional. What may make us different from other writing centers is that we ask students to send their papers in ahead of time. We do utilize WCOnline, but only do online appointments for students that are doing thesis research abroad

Now we are very busy consulting with students in the spring term. Some students work through the whole thesis in one concentrated push, others just bring in sections.

For us, marketing/selling ourselves is more about proposing things to management! Such as last year’s initiatives for PhD students. We work with them mostly in consultations, currently, often over years, but want to do more. My team wants to provide special writing training for the PhD students, so we worked with the programs to tailor things to their needs.

WLN blog: What do you do to support those classes?

Go through the research and writing process step by step! As part of that, we have a lot of conversation about cultural differences. There are different expectations each student brings, and we reflect on that. An example is in Arabic writing, where using poetry to prove your point is a good thing! My favorite example was when a student from Bangladesh was talking about integrating research and citation. He used everyone’s first names…everyone else in the class was so surprised, they even started laughing. I asked him why, and he said, “in my culture, it’s not family names that are unique, it’s the first name.” He was trying to show more respect, to be sensible.

This is one of my favorite parts—I love to learn from students and what they’re studying! As a Hungarian citizen, I am a nonnative speaker myself, so I anticipate many of their challenges. However, getting students from all over the world to criticize and reflect on existing literature can be very hard. Many come from cultures where they don’t want to challenge authority. So, yes, our courses talk about genre expectation versus general expectations.

WLN blog: What would you say Hungarian expectations towards academic writing are like? For myself, I had a lot of discussion about citation this semester!

Earlier, academic writing instruction was only offered in English departments. Writing instruction related to thesis writing at Hungarian universities is increasing now, but is still not universal. We work with students a lot to explore howthey make their points clear and explicit. They’re more accustomed to being vague. They also don’t think in terms of American structure—it’s frustrating to them and they think it’s repetitious, as Hungarian conventions place a lot more responsibility on the reader.

WLN blog: Moving forward, especially in the midst of this political scrutiny of higher education in Hungary, what are your biggest challenges?

This past semester, thesis deadlines were extended for all masters’ students. They are going through a real gamut of emotions—sad, depressed, etc, to very involved and activist. They are also writing online posts and articles, and being advocates in their own countries. We’ve been so amazed at how strong international support has been…and here, in Hungary, as well. The first protest march that brought out nearly 60,000-80,000 protestors in Budapest was amazing. The whole thing is both tiring, and surreal.

WLN blog: There is open discussion of CEU moving…

Yes, and yet it is hard to think about moving for many of us, especially for the Hungarians. This is all part of a wider dialogue in Hungary, of course—and beyond. It’s weird to hear more open anti-EU discussions, including those in academia and in politics.

WLN blog: In light of all this, what are your goals for your writing center, moving forward?

Our writing center now is a safe haven. My tutors are not just academics—they’re psychologists, as well. There’s a lot of stress. We don’t even need to push for advocacy—that’s their background and that’s what they’re naturally doing. I’m amazed now at what they’re doing and how well. We’re continuing to focus on students’ studies and helping them complete their theses.

Despite things being on hold, I’m working on future projects right now, such as the PhD initiative I already mentioned. Meeting program directors and setting up courses for a new department, of Economics and Management, where I am currently working with program directors and the head to design new, more professionally-oriented writing courses for their students.

We don’t know where things are going to go, and if new programs will succeed and students will continue to enroll, but we’ve decided that business as usual is the best approach. We need to be there for the students. It’s been a very difficult year for them.

And there are a lot more decisions ahead.

WLN blog: Thanks, Agnes! We appreciate your time and wish you and your colleagues well. Keep us updated, and let us know what we can do, as an international community.

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