Teaching as Resistance: Ukrainian Educators Reflect on Their Role in Wartime

, 11.12.2023
Ukraine in Focus

Part 2: Ganna Kolesnyk 

Ganna Kolesnyk is a literary scholar and a professor at the Department of English Philology at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University in Mykolaїv. She teaches Contemporary British Literature and Literature and Translation among others. As a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in the summer of 2023, Ganna worked on the project “Cultural Memory at Work: The Use of Traditional Female Images for Visualizing the War in Ukraine in Mass Media.”  


The First Days of Full-Scale War: Teaching on the Front Lines  

I cannot say that my situation is completely unique, but the fact is that I am from Mykolaїv, and my institution, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, was almost immediately, in three days, on the front line. The front line was 20 kilometers from the city, and it was certainly impossible to talk about resuming full-time education, because our city was under bombardment every day three or four times a day. When this war started, a large number of students, especially those who were not from Mykolaїv, left at once. It happened on Thursday, February 24; they said that classes were canceled until the end of the week, because it was not clear how long it would last and what to expect next. A few days later, many of our students ended up in the occupied territories. 

We promptly started online teaching and reached out to students, especially those who were under occupation. Many of our colleagues were in a similar situation. My colleague is from Kherson, she would come down to the basement every night and call us to let us know that she was alive. When there are explosions around, it is not time to study, so our classes turned into psychological meditation. At first, I was even surprised that so many students came to online classes, and then I realized that classes were an anchor for them which helped to believe that life goes on.  

In May 2022, two rockets hit our main building, and our library was heavily damaged. It was a week when Russians attacked mostly higher education institutions in Mykolaiv. We have several important universities in our city, and three of them were heavily bombed. In our university, only the administrative building was damaged. As for Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding, their huge nine-story building was completely destroyed: laboratories, classrooms, a library, workshops. The Ministry of Education is considering merging two universities in Mykolaїv because their buildings were destroyed and there is nowhere to study. Another big problem is enrollment: last academic year we were able to enroll only 11 students in our program, compared with 62 students before the war. No one wants to study in a frontline city, and those applicants who remain in Ukraine choose safer institutions at the rear. Everyone understands that the war is not over yet, and the front line can move in any direction, so our university is in an extremely difficult situation.  

Life Goes On 

At the end of the school year (2021/22), our rector decided that teachers who were abroad were not allowed to hold classes even online. On the one hand, it was sad, because we wanted to continue teaching; but on the other hand, we understood that it was due to the financial situation. The rector had to pay the staff that remained in Mykolaїv, and people who went abroad had more opportunities to support themselves. Nevertheless, we continue to work on different projects. For example, before the war, our faculty had an agreement with a university in Saarbrucken, Germany, and during the full-scale invasion we won a Study Bridge grant to develop distance learning. As part of the project, we are developing training courses for our colleagues who remain in Ukraine that can be taught offline, i.e., videos or assignments that can be posted on the university’s website. We have now moved on to the second part of this project. Our students are also involved in it, they assist us and get paid for it. In addition, there are exchange programs that allow teachers and students to come to Saarbrucken to participate in various projects in person. 

A large percentage of teachers left the city: before the war, 24 people worked at my department, now only eight remain. This is the specificity of our field, Philology: we all speak two or three languages, our university had ties with institutions in Europe, the UK, and the US, so many teachers left. And so far, almost none of them have returned, and my department has lost the best teachers. Unfortunately, I see that some of my colleagues will not return, especially given that the university administration has banned those who went abroad from teaching. I believe that this is a great loss of intellectual potential, because all my colleagues were ready to teach even for free. The only thing we could do for our colleagues who stayed in Ukraine was to share materials and methodologies, develop tests, grade students’ works, but all this was done unofficially.  

Ukrainian Scholarship: Time for Change?  

It is no secret that for decades Ukrainian scholars were forced to live in an information vacuum. Our salaries were low, so we could not afford to go to academic conferences, and our universities did not offer travel grants, as foreign universities do. The same applies to publications in foreign journals. As a result, the achievements of Ukrainian scientists are known only in Ukraine. I have about 20 publications, but only one of them is in English. My colleagues abroad don’t know what I do, and when I go abroad, I have to prove from scratch that I am worth something. When we applied for programs, it was extremely difficult to get accepted, as a result, almost all grants were awarded to scholars from Europe. 

The situation has changed greatly changed at present. On the one hand, a year and a half of full-scale war is a nightmare for Ukraine, but on the other hand, it is a fresh start for Ukrainian researchers. Now we finally have the opportunity to show that we exist, and that Ukrainian science is of the highest quality. There are a lot of people with good ideas, and now we can demonstrate it. Yet, unfortunately, in some areas, especially natural sciences, many Ukrainians who gain access to the Western academic market, will not return. This is a huge loss and I’m afraid to imagine what awaits Ukraine if young professionals all stay abroad. I will return to Ukraine because I have family there, and because I love university life and communication with students, I will continue to teach. But young people who are not held back by their families are more mobile, they have nothing to hold them here.