Interview with Margus Vihalem, the next Director of the School of Humanities

Taking the office as the next director of the School of Humanities in September is Margus Vihalem.


What brought you to Tallinn University?

I first came to work here in 2007. I was in a doctoral programme in France, where I’d been living and studying for six years. That spring I applied for a position as a lecturer in philosophy at the university. Since I’d already written over half of my doctoral thesis, I grabbed the opportunity to apply for a position at Tallinn University, because I didn't want to stay in France or head to some other faraway place. I wanted to apply the knowledge and experience I had in Estonia. It was quite difficult at first, because I had to give eight new courses in the first year that also needed developing, all the while having to finish my thesis.

What are your proudest accomplishments?

Besides the interesting and varied studies and research I’ve undertaken, the thing I’ve valued most is the friendly people I’ve worked with and the nice atmosphere in the places I’ve worked. In my view, it's impossible to create and maintain a strong and forward-looking team without those two things. Being the Head of Study Area of Cultural Theory for the last two years has been something of a challenge in that regard. Solving problems and misunderstandings while ensuring smooth operations between a number of fields of study is something I've never actually learned how to do. I’ve also discussed with my colleagues the direction the humanities will be taking over the next few years, and what can be done to encourage friendly and supportive communication between colleagues. One thing I consider an achievement was being voted best colleague and most popular lecturer among students at last year's Christmas party, which surprised me a lot. Nothing could make a lecturer happier or more inspired than to be valued that much by both their colleagues and students.

What drove you to apply for the position of director?

It was my colleagues who suggested I should apply at first. But what helped me decide was the role I’ve played in the school councils over the past three years. I helped organise the school’s first summer retreat, I coordinated the planning of the Christmas party as the Head of Study and I’ve generally just been thinking about how the school could be a wonderful place to both work and study. The way I see it, being connected to others is where true strength lies. A wonderful team is created by its members when they feel motivated and valued and are able to instigate and make changes. Plus I think it's important to consider the challenges that the field of humanities is facing. I think that first and foremost we have to be versatile and able to evolve, and they’re traits that are valued by our students and society today as a whole.

What do you think of the current state of the schools created since the structural reforms?

The situation today is somewhat different, because it depends on the development of the schools and the decisions they’ve made so far, as well as on the general state of the field. Fortunately the schools have a certain amount of independence, but this in turn places more responsibility on the director, who has to decide on the school’s vision for its future development. It's vital for all schools to take social change into account and to run with it, and that means we have to change as well. Hopefully the worst of the trying times for our school are behind us, but difficult and significant decisions will still have to be made. They’ll have to be really well thought through and make us stronger.

What are your goals for the School of Humanities over the next five years?

I’ll be doing my utmost to ensure the sustainability of the humanities and that our school has what it takes to be considered a valued partner in dialogues with society and other institutions. To accomplish that, we need to recognise our strengths and to be open to sharing and developing them. To me, high-quality research and our ability to obtain research grants are very important. I value our expanding role in teacher education just as much, because it enables us to contribute to shaping the future of society and everyone in it. My vision is for research and teacher education to be linked. Properly uniting these two areas would give us a great opportunity to move towards a knowledge-based society. Our school’s quite small on the global level. On the one hand that's a weakness, but on the other, we can make it one of our strengths in the future. It will enable us to be dynamic and to respond more swiftly and flexibly to social change and expectations. And needless to say I also want to boost the sense of unity at the school. So it's important to cultivate a friendly and supportive culture of communication and cooperation between academic fields and centres.

What are your main aims regarding the school’s educational activities?

I think the quality of our education is very important, since it's our calling card. Today students can choose between a wide range of universities in Estonia and abroad, and we have to be able to explain why Tallinn University is a good choice. Combining high academic standards with an innovative and creative approach will help us attract talented students and be highly regarded in the field of humanities. We also have to be more forward-looking and ask what skills and knowledge will be needed in society in five or 10 years’ time, and we have to do that now, not in five or 10 years. I feel we need to work more closely and have proper conversations with organisations that could benefit from the skills we teach and develop, and with society as a whole. Two ongoing concerns that need to be addressed are the high drop-out rate and lack of interest in the Erasmus exchange programme. In a modern world with open borders, studying abroad comes with lots of benefits for students, universities and society as a whole. We need to work with students and student councils to analyse why there’s a lack of interest in studying abroad if we want to make changes.

How do you think team spirit in the school could be boosted?

True team spirit and a sense of fellowship can only be generated if the people who want to achieve it get to participate in the development of the school and contribute their ideas and energy. We should be valuing and recognising our colleagues more and actively including them in development and setting our vision. People come up with really good innovative ideas when they discuss things together and work in synergy. These ideas need rich soil to grow in. They can't be cultivated by one person alone. Humans are social creatures, and I think it's in our nature to work together. We can always work on our cooperation skills, but that requires good will and determination. What we've seen in our school is that encouraging and including our staff can lead to productive new initiatives that reinforce team spirit and motivate us all to do our best.

How can we increase interest in doctoral studies among local students?

We can attract Estonian doctoral students by showing them what our programme has to offer after they graduate and how much that level of education is valued by and needed in society. We know only too well that doctoral studies aren’t regarded highly enough in our society, and that's what we and the doctoral students need to work on together. We also have to look at the bigger picture and modernise our programmes. On top of giving doctoral students the ability to delve into one area of study, we also need to be teaching them skills to explain their expertise to the general public, so that what they do is comprehensible to ordinary folk. And in doing that, we need to find partners from outside the university. If we include our doctoral students in all this, I’m sure we’ll be able to make some changes.

What problems need to be addressed in the School of Humanities or at the university in general?

There are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, but the most important ones are salaries, overworked staff and the lack of career opportunities. Salaries have gone up in the past few years but still aren’t meeting expectations, especially when you consider that our staff are experts in their fields who deserve to be paid accordingly. Plus they tend to be overworked, which means there’s a serious risk of burnout. That’s an issue that needs a lot more attention than it's been given so far, both from a humane perspective and to ensure the sustainability of the school as a whole. The new tenure system doesn't solve the problem of staff not being able to perform at their best. We still need to figure out how to value our current staff more highly, and give opportunities to successful young academics. And I’m all for strong representation of an environmentally friendly world view and actions, of course. That's an important part of our reputation as a responsible, modern organisation. We still have a lot of room for improvement.