'There Is a Lot of Space for One’s Own Initiative and Creative Energy'
The next academic year our program will meet not only the new students but also the new colleagues. One of them - András Gál - was already teaching at HSE University — Saint Petersburg in 2018-2019, and now he is coming back from Budapest to St. Petersburg. We have talked to András and learnt, why he decided to continue his academic career at HSE, what he is going to teach, and why studying Political Science and the European politics is useful and interesting.
— You are currently graduating from your PhD program at the Central European University. Can you please briefly explain what your research is about?
— I am researching constitutional courts in consociations. Consociation is a specific form of ethnic or national power-sharing built on the cooperation of elites representing different societal segments. The reason why I think researching constitutional courts is exciting in this context is that they have the elite cooperation, on the one hand, which is based on secrecy and opaque agreements; on the other hand, you have constitutional courts which need to have public reasoning and often prefer to impose universal standards. While many democracies consider generous human rights provisions in their constitutions and robust judicial protection of these rights as something basic for the 21st century, their coexistence in these contexts remains puzzling. How power-sharing structures, together with upholding the supremacy of human rights and constitution can coexist?
— You were a visiting lecturer at HSE University — Saint Petersburg in 2018, and now you are about to become a faculty member here. What are your impressions of the university and why have you decided to continue your academic career here?
— I enjoyed my time at HSE University — Saint Petersburg. I find it a vibrant place, with a lot of things happening, a lot of new initiatives emerging, and it was mostly the ambition of the university which drove me back there. I think that it is an excellent place not only to learn from other colleagues, but there is a lot of space for one’s initiative and creative energy. This is the main professional reason, and of course St. Petersburg is an amazing city to live in. Even though I lived in very touristic cities like Paris, Krakow or Jerusalem, and I am coming from Budapest, which - in my opinion - is the most beautiful city in the world, I still do not hesitate to move to St. Petersburg at all.
— What are your impressions of the students you were teaching in 2018/2019 academic year?
— I found my students hard-working, very straightforward in terms of having their vision of what they want to achieve, and having ambitions for their careers, which made them kind of competitive, which is mostly, I think, good for lecturers. But also, I found them curious and eager to learn when they are exposed to new things. I also need to point out that the 3rd and 4th-year students have an impressive methodological background, in comparison to students of many other undergraduate programs.
— What courses are you going to teach at HSE University — Saint Petersburg? Can you please briefly explain what they are about?
— I will teach at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. On the graduate level, I am doing very general methodological and research design training, while on the undergraduate level I will have a broad course on Comparative Politics for the third-year students. It is supposed to be a somewhat advanced course, but still with an overview perspective, which acquaints them with comparative methods and most recent developments in comparative politics. Also, I am about to participate in a new initiative [of the Saint-Petersburg School of Social Sciences and Area Studies for students admitted through student competitions], the undergraduate Honours program, where I will teach a small, selective circle of students from other programs. Finally, I will teach a course on something I was focusing the last 5 years -- the dichotomy of constitutionalism and democracy, on how can democracy function by the majority principle but still have a respect for fundamental rights and the separation of powers.
— What practical skills can students acquire in your courses?
— Based on my one-year experience at HSE University — Saint Petersburg, I found out that, in the eyes of my students, I am particularly picky about writing assignments. Even though I sometimes set a high bar for students and they find it challenging, it is great to see them developing their argumentative skills and writing clarity. Also, because my research is at the intersection between normative and empirical research, I can help students develop a holistic approach to certain questions.
— Is Europe an interesting area of research?
— I have deep personal motivations for studying Europe. I grew up in Sopron, right at the border of Hungary and Austria, the former border of the East and the West, so moving and studying cross-border has been a part of my life since my very early age. The reason why I think it is academically interesting to study Europe is, first, the fact that this is the land where most of the ideas, influencing constitution-makers and institutional designers etc. were born. The other issue is that there is great diversity within the nations and countries of this continent. Even though we share a lot of common traits - like long-established statehood, specific legal traditions, etc - it is still interesting to see how different the countries are. It is also a continent which has ties to all parts of the world.
— Why, in your opinion, is Political Science an interesting and useful field of study?
— Social sciences all promise you to explain how the world works. Economics, Sociology, Psychology - all have this promise. From all of this, on the one hand, we can say that Political Science has the most modest proposals. We do have grand theories, but only a few. But in this way, I think political science is the most realistic, in terms of admitting that we need to embrace approaches of other disciplines, as well as it has probably the greatest appreciation for specific contexts. So whenever political scientists generalize and make comparisons, they actually do that on a very rigorous basis. In one sentence, if you want to understand the world as it is, probably, we have a modest proposal, but a very solid one.
— What advice would you give to our prospective students?
— They should remain as ambitious and curious as they usually are in the very first, say, two months of their studies; in some way, they should remain taking themselves seriously. Just one practical skill – keep reading newspapers. Especially when it comes to events happening outside their home country. All modern approaches in Political Science are very comparative, so knowing what is going on in other places and what directions are other countries taking is a crucial thing in bringing some life into all the theories and models you will be learning.