Leonardo Pataccini: Teaching Is Just Like Dancing

Although I was born in Argentina and I have lived there for the most of my life, I’m actually half-Spanish. My grandparents fled to Argentina during the Spanish civil war, but as half of the family remained in Spain, I still have a strong connection with the country.

I studied sociology at the University of Buenos Aires and already during my second term I started teaching history at the university. What’s interesting about Argentina is that most lecturers receive no salary for giving lecturers. They are usually young scientists in the beginning of their journey, and with universities largely relying on lecturers working for free, it’s like a voluntary work, to put it simply.

Leonardo Pataccini teaching at Johann Skytte Institute of Political Sciences. Photo credit: Andres Tennus

A few years ago I moved to Latvia where I researched the local economic crisis. With variable success, I spent two years over there and while working, I naturally heard about the University of Tartu. At first I wanted to come to Tartu for just five months but then I had a chance to stay for longer – even for three years. It began as a research visit, but the Skytte Institute of Political Studies found a way to incorporate me into its doings for a longer period. I agreed as I immediately felt really cozy and comfortable in Tartu.

The working environment, as well as co-workers, are very nice. The university is really international, which came as a pleasant surprise, because I cannot say the same about either Argentina or Latvia. It is also interesting that I’m meeting really important scientists during my stay but they all remain very humble.

When I came to Tartu, I thought I was going to quietly do my research about the economic crisis, and imagined it as a quite a lonely job. Constantly reading and writing. But the institute instantly asked me to give lectures and participate in various meetings. The melting-in-process was made really simple, with the environment being a lot warmer than I would have expected. It was nice to feel welcome.

Stereotypes vs Reality

When I came to Estonia, I was a little bit influenced by my Latvian friends and the stereotypes Latvians have about Estonians, such as that Estonians need lots of time to make decisions. People from the south tend to see northern people as distant and cold. Since I have studied sociology, I know that stereotypes don’t necessarily correspond to real life. I have lived in various countries and the more I travel, the more I understand that people are the same everywhere. Every nation has its share of shy people, active people, outgoing people. There are good people everywhere. I don’t believe that the nationality or place of residence would determine the qualities of a person. To get to know what kind of people live in a specific country, you have to go there and discover it yourself.

One of the greatest surprises after moving to Estonia was that there is no need to be in a hurry all the time and there are no traffic jams here. On the other hand, Buenos Aires in Argentina is a major city with a population of nearly 2.8 million people, so it takes a lot of time to get things done.

For me, one of the most terrifying, but also the funniest, moments in Estonia was when I stepped on an escalator at Tallinna Kaubamaja and got the feeling that it wasn’t moving at all. But in fact, it was moving just really slowly, with the motion almost unnoticeable. It was my first “wake up“ call that things flow according to their own pace over here, and I should cool down a bit, because why hurry all the time?

Going Outside With -15 Degrees per Celsius Should Be Forbidden!

When talking about Estonia, one cannot avoid the topic of winters. I’ll never forget going to the supermarket with -15 degrees Celsius outside. I opened my fridge and thought that it was broken, and the food probably gone bad, because it felt so warm. Then I understood that the temperature in the fridge was just warmer than outside.

I told my students that when it’s -20 degrees outside, the lecture will be cancelled. The population of Estonia is so small anyway, so why do you have to torture yourselves? Going outside with -15 per Celsius should be forbidden. It actually scares me when Estonians say that the winter was warm this year. Yes, I survived it, I didn’t even suffer much, but what’s next?

In both Estonia and Latvia, the weather made my accommodation harder. First, I wasn’t accustomed to the cold, but the darkness was unusual, too. Especially the fact that during winter there’s basically no light-time. On the other hand, I have hard time falling asleep at summer, since it’s so light outside all the time.

Before coming to Tartu, Leonardo taught at the University of Latvia. Photo credit: www.lu.lv

Higher Education

There are also differences between the higher education in Estonia and Argentina. In Argentina the student has to do 90% of the work. In Estonia, the work has been spread in a more even way between the lecturers and the students. The lecturers are really active and provide sources to their students even outside lecture time.

If there’s something Estonia could take into consideration based on the Argentinian education model, then it would be the requirement for students to read more. When I was acquiring my education, I had to read 100-200 pages of demanding text each week, mostly classics. I started with Plato and moved ahead from there. It gave me really good basic knowledge.

I’ve had a chance to teach both Estonian and Argentinian students, and had great experiences thus far with both of them. When I started to teach in Estonia, I was afraid that the students would not say anything in the lecture, but it’s not like that. True, Argentinian students express themselves more and are more active, they express their opinions and argue back. Estonians are more shy and reserved. Actually, Estonian students should try to speak out more, as it’s interesting for me to know how they think and how they see things. On the other hand, I understand if people don’t want to reveal their personal thoughts. I don’t force anyone to do it either, because teaching is just like dancing: I can invite you to dance and you can either accept or reject it.

Learning how to explain one’s point of view is an important part of the university education. The students of now are going to work somewhere one day, and then they will have to explain their decisions. So, improving debating skills would be useful. Ultimately, however, I really enjoy the fact that Estonian students truly respect the lecturers, are committed to their work and really want to learn.

Leonard Pataccini, a researcher from Argentina has spent over half a year in Estonia, working at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. This story was originally published in Universitas Tartuensis magazine.

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