Literature Professor Olga Nikolova: ‘Literature develops your capacity to distinguish the music in it all’
After graduating from Harvard University and living in the U.S. and France for years, literature professor Olga Nikolova was determined to pass on her knowledge and experience to her students in Bulgaria. Read our interview with professor Nikolova and learn more about her profound passion for writing and how literature can help us “understand ourselves as part of the world.”
Tell us a bit about yourself – where did you grow up and where have you studied and worked?
I grew up between Pernik and Sandanski in Bulgaria. I now live in Sandanski, which is a wonderful small spa resort on the south side of the Pirin mountains. It has one of the best parks in the region and is a great place to live. I came back to the house of my childhood after years of living in the U.S. and then France. After graduating from Sofia University, I pursued a PhD in American literature at Harvard University. Students often ask me how I got accepted at Harvard. Well, I aced the exams in English, logic and math (the GREs) and I was good at writing essays. I also had the full support of my professors. Literature has been a major part of my intellectual life from very early on, so continuing my studies in this field just seemed the most natural thing to do. There was never a question about it. And a good university in the U.S. seemed to be the best way to move forward.
What led you to AUBG?
I came back to Bulgaria for a number of reasons, but the main one is my strong sense of duty, to humanity in general and to my country in particular. One must help make things better in any way one can. I believe that whatever talent one might have, one must put it to good use for the common good. And what better way to do that in my case than writing and teaching? The American University in Bulgaria is the best one in the region. I am extremely happy to be here. I love the interactions with students and my colleagues.
What are your favorite teaching topics and research interests?
I teach American literature and composition classes. Of course, I love teaching literature. People often assume that studying literature is boring or too specialized. But literature is about our inner lives and our ability to understand ourselves as part of the world. And the world today has become extremely complex. We live in environments that are saturated with discordant messages. Literature develops your capacity to distinguish the music in it all, to see beauty and order where before you could see only blurry outlines and noise. Composition, or rhetoric as it was called until a century ago, does something similar but at a more basic level. You learn to work with language in a way that is much more sophisticated than what you need to get by in everyday situations. Being able to use language well gives you the power to pursue your goals and ultimately to live better. I enjoy teaching all of these things. As a teacher, you also learn in the process. When a class is going well, it is quite an amazing thing. Some kind of mysterious spark passes between all the minds involved.
What are some achievements in your professional field that you are especially proud of?
Seven years ago, I founded an online journal for literature, philosophy and science in Bulgarian (peatnekoga.com). The journal is now well established and considered to be among the best here. One of my passionate interests concerns the relations between poetry and science, and through the journal I have managed to create collaborations with people in various fields. I look forward to developing these ideas further, including at AUBG. There should be more platforms bringing together mathematicians and poets, physicists and artists, etc. We inhabit the same planet, the same universe, we should speak to each other more.
If teaching was not your profession, what would have been?
Given other circumstances, I think I could have been a botanist and a gardener. If I had a million dollars, I would create a botanical garden and organize exploratory picnics there, with an orchestra accompanying the events and everything, the way they used to do these things in the 18th century.
Has AUBG helped you develop personally and professionally and in what ways?
Teaching is always challenging. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you intellectually fit and mentally alert. AUBG has given me the opportunity to meet wonderful people and develop both my teaching and research.
What is most challenging about your job? And what is most rewarding?
The most rewarding experience for a teacher is to see her students’ minds at work. There is nothing more beautiful than thinking. We all have the tendency to avoid thinking and act from habit, repeating ready-made phrases and attitudes that we unconsciously absorb in our environment. When you put your mind to work, when you actually start thinking critically and you start asking questions, life changes completely. You grow up, you become responsible and can stand face to face with the world. But there is something in human nature that resists the effort and the biggest challenge is to overcome the habitual inertia we all succumb to every now and again.
Apart from your hard work in your professional field, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Among my greatest joys outside teaching are riding my bike on country roads and learning about plants, rocks and birds. Life is so short, the things to learn so vast.