Professor Senem Konedareva: At AUBG one can develop their full potential
Professor Senem Konedareva, who teaches Bulgarian and Cultural Studies at AUBG, says that to her, each language is a whole new universe. She has had the desire to share her knowledge about language, culture and the relation between the two ever since she studied those subjects as a Master's and a PhD student at the South-West University in Blagoevgrad. Her interest in linguistics and intercultural communication led her to obtain additional specializations from Potsdam University, Germany, and Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and then work at the department of Bulgarian language and culture at Ankara University, Turkey for one semester. When teaching, Professor Konedareva likes to think beyond the conventional, to experiment and innovate, things she says are all possible -- and encouraged -- at AUBG. Read our interview with Professor Konedareva to learn more about her work experience, teaching and research interests, and things she likes doing outside work.
What are the three most interesting things you believe the AUBG community should know about you?
If I have to define myself with three words, let's say, I would define myself as curious, workaholic, and persevering. These are my adjectives.
What is your academic background and experience obtaining a PhD from Bulgaria’s South-West University?
I graduated with a Master’s degree in 'Bulgarian Philology' and a specialization in 'New theories in Modern Linguistics' from the South-West University. Аfter a pause and having worked on other creative projects, and having the professional experience already at AUBG, I decided to pursue a PhD within the same field of study and went back to my university and academia.
When I started my PhD studies in 'Bulgarian linguistics,' my lucky star led me to my professor Lilia Ilieva – one of the prominent linguists in Bulgaria who holds a worldwide recognition. Prof. Ilieva is the leading professor of the scientific project "Gutenberg revolution and Bulgarians" and is part of a team of colleagues working on old printed books significant for the development of Bulgarian language and culture. The topic of my PhD thesis was ‘Evidentiality in Bulgarian language – typological aspect” and it took me four years to develop and successfully defend it. This is a Bulgarian morphological category and specific feature, developed in the language under foreign cultural influence (debatable) and it is a peculiar feature for our language which differentiates it from all other Slavic languages. By that time, the topic was a hot potato in linguistic scientific circles and there were thousands of studies, scientific meetings, linguistic colloquiums and discussions on the investigations of the feature in different structured languages. As for Bulgarian language, much of the data presented by the foreign scholars was limited and in many cases not correct.
Having spent countless sleepless nights reading and discussing ideas with my professor -- who was challenging me, encouraging me, pushing me to continue my work -- we made it to the end. I owe her the first spark of my passion to study and teach languages and cultures and their fascinating interrelations that develop different sociocultural phenomena. Her passion for language and culture studies inspired me to read, compare, and again read. She is my living encyclopedia in languages – their development, their structures, hypothesis and theories, authors and scholars – classics and modern. This is only one small illustration of the capacity of the faculty working in the Bulgarian Language Department of the South-West University. I am proud to be an alumna of this department and grateful that I had the chance to meet all my professors who are world-recognized specialists with international experience and publications in prestigious scientific journals.
My professional development was a natural continuation of my scientific interests. Since the very beginning when I entered university and conducted my first fieldwork as part of my class project in Sociolinguistics, I knew what I wanted to do. I started with my Bachelor’s degree in Bulgarian philology, persistently continuing with a Master’s and specialization in New theories in Modern Linguistics and ended up with a PhD in Bulgarian Linguistics and Evidentiality.
Which was the first work position you have had? How has your career progressed since then?
Well, my first work experience started with a short internship in a small-town school, while I was still working on my Master’s thesis. But my first real job was as a private Bulgarian language tutor in the far 2000 when I met my American friends – David Pitman (AUBG VP of Finance), his wife Debbie Lastinger – phycologist and ELI instructor, Tracy Santa – professor of English and writing, his wife Dina Wood, also an ELI instructor, and their/my girls – Bebe and Maggie Santa Wood. Then my AUBG journey begun. My American girls were smart, curious, open-minded, questioning and debating all my theories. I was 26 and I started to learn from them. The house was full of books, I helped them with Bulgarian language and culture and they helped me master my English. Then I entered for the first time the AUBG Library and started to work on my TOEFL exam.
In Fall 2014/2015 I taught Bulgarian Language and worked on my PhD thesis scheduled to be defended in the summer of 2015, when my colleagues from the Modern Languages and Arts Department invited me to design the foundation and required course for the newly designed and approved Minor in Modern Languages and Cultures - Introduction to Language and Culture Studies. The providence was giving me a chance. To teach language and culture studies and to be part of my favorite department was my dream. Full classroom and hungry eyes – this is my place. I feel the adrenaline - I am excited, impatient to share it all – theories, methods, approaches, case studies, debates, discoveries, I am happy and desperate, and again, excited. This was my first semester as an Adjunct Assistant professor in the Modern Languages and Cultures Department.
2016 – new experience, my Turkish journey. Beginning of February on a cold, very cold day after a long night's journey, the bus took me to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. My friends were asking me “Are you sure, do you want it” – Of course I want it, this is a new adventure. On the next day, I entered the doors of Bulgarian language and Culture Department and started a new chapter of my professional career. Again full classroom with hungry eyes – beautiful young people. After one semester of teaching and doing research, I came home and resumed my responsibilities at AUBG, I came home after some stressful and some unpleasant events and accidents in the Turkish capital. But also with many new friends, lovely memories of my students, Turkish language classes, and a new field of development – intercultural communication, culture shock, stages of culture shock, managing cultural differences, and my personal experience. I started to work on the design of my second course – Language, Culture and Communication which was designed with the priceless help of my colleagues from the JMC department – Prof. Lynnette Leonard and Prof. Laura Kelly and my colleagues from the Modern Languages and Cultures Department. The course was integrated into the JMC Major and Minor, and the newly established Psychology Major and Minor, and the Modern Languages and Cultures Minor. When I shared my ideas with my colleagues they encouraged me, constructively criticized me, and advised me on the courses. Additionally, I am a person of details and had doubts. Are my teaching methods, and class structure correct, and developed enough? AUBG offers a liberal arts education, while my educational background is more major-oriented. I did not have a closer view of the different styles of teaching, research and course structures of the other European universities, and this led me to work on two additional specializations during summer 2017 in Charles University, Prague – Summer School of Linguistics – held in the beautiful town of Litomishl, Czech Republic, and summer 2018 at Potsdam University, Germany – three weeks summer training program for professionals – “Limits of variability – Language and Culture in Interaction.”
This is my professional development up to this very stressful COVID-19 year and online teaching – [filled with] stress, new experiences, books, new methods in teaching, experiments, and students’ projects.
When did you first become interested in teaching Bulgarian?
As I mentioned above, very early, somewhere during my junior year. After I graduated, my first experience was as a private Bulgarian language tutor with my girls – Bebe and Maggie Santa Wood, AUBG professors’ kids. Their mother invited me to work with Bebe, who was attending the school in Hilltop (the former AUBG student dormitory), there was a school established for AUBG professors’ kids. They attended the school only in the mornings and my work with my girl was in the afternoons. I taught Bulgarian language and culture and other creative subjects. I think this was the first sparkle of teaching Bulgarian as a foreign language, and this was my first experience. Later, as a member of the AUBG community, I taught Bulgarian language to Dean Lydia Krise and Jill Rasmussen - Residence Life Director, but this was for a short period. These people encouraged me to continue working on my professional development, they are the first to believe in me and gave me the self-confidence that I am on the right path.
Why did you decide to become a professor and what led you to AUBG?
When I entered the community of AUBG professors, students and administration, I discovered my place. I discovered the place where a young individual can spread their wings and develop their full capacity and potential in every sense – intellectually, professionally, and in terms of skills. I discovered a diverse, multicultural, tolerant, free-minded community of professionals and young scholars who did not have the barriers and the burdened mind of the young people educated under the communist propaganda, like me. For me, AUBG was a metaphor for freedom. And I wanted to be part of it. I officially became а member of the community as a staff later and officially entered the classroom as a Bulgarian language instructor in spring 2007. After that, I had to focus on my administrative duties and did not have a chance to teach officially at AUBG for a long period, only as a private tutor, but continued to develop and work on my professional development. I continued to study, participated in professional development programs, diversity and intercultural communication trainings.
Finally, last semester my colleagues from the Modern Languages and Cultures Department invited me to take on two of Intro to Bulgarian Language and Culture classes and from this Fall 2020 semester, I have a chance to switch my professional career and future development to this direction and continue working with AUBG students – challenging them, debating controversial topics, sharing ideas and projects.
What are your teaching and research interests?
My teaching interests are directed to teaching Bulgarian as foreign, experimenting with different methods. As you know Bulgarian language is not easy to learn – it has complicated grammar because of its long and rich history of development, starting from the old language to the modern language that is influenced by many sociocultural factors. Of course, I have special sentiments to my two babies – Intro to language and culture studies and Intercultural Communication. I am still very into the research of evidentiality in Bulgarian and will continue to do my research more intensively since I have plans to develop my dissertation and publish it. Also, I am interested to do some fieldwork in different Bulgarian minority groups and research topics in linguistic anthropology and intercultural communication – for example, there are special addressing practices and terms used by male and female members of the Muslim communities in Bulgaria that is not researched by any scholar until now which can be a gold mine for research.
My colleagues and I also have plans to work on a new Modern Languages and Cultures Major. We also hope in the future to work on a more interdisciplinary major that will be very suitable for the multicultural environment of AUBG.
How can you describe your typical workday at AUBG?
Starting early in the morning and having an intensive day. So, my typical workday starts early because I have some other responsibilities here at AUBG. My day begins with a cup of hot coffee and some fruits. After that going to my office and scheduling duties and responsibilities. Having additional meetings with students, discussing their projects, research topics proposals, and sources. Preparing for the classes, lectures, case studies, classwork, reviewing homework assignments, Midterm exams, Final exams. At the end of the semester and during the finals week of the semester, I am [extremely busy.]
What is it like teaching Bulgarian to international students from different backgrounds?
I am very excited because I always wanted to experiment with different methods of teaching Bulgarian as a foreign language. I had a big pause since I started teaching Bulgarian. Now, not only the sociocultural environment has changed, but also the language has changed. What I am trying to do in classes is to make my students dive into the living language, not only the standardized language with its grammatical rules and exceptions. Bulgarian is not one of the languages that are taught easily, it has a complex structure, and much of the complexity comes from using the Cyrillic alphabet. It happens very often when students enter the class with excitement to learn the language and after two, three, four weeks, they still struggle with the orthography. What I am telling them is that they need to be patient – a language cannot be learned for two of three months – the language learning process is long and needs determination and consistency. Thus, I have to experiment with many different methods of making the instructions useful for the students immediately after going out of class. Well, not an easy task.
What moments and students' achievements give you the greatest professional satisfaction?
Many. Amazing projects, devoted students, students that demand more work. In these cases, the professor feels satisfaction in a job well done. Working with young people demands devotion and constant development – to make the class interesting, the professor mush change it every year. To use modern up-to-date ideas, methods, examples. Students are involved more in the topics and their projects if they use their interests in the research – that is why I direct them on how to work on the projects, but also greatly encourage them to work on topics and research theories, questions and hypotheses out of their interests.
Also, my heart is with Bulgarian Folk Dance Club “Samodiva”. Their projects are always rewarding and very emotional at the end. It is the work done – to point that it is voluntary work, along with their undergraduate studies, between assignments and exams, quizzes, and all academic engagements, these amazing individuals have the strength to practice and rehearse late at night, go out on the stage and show their creativity in a different light – in the light of beings artistic – actors, dancers, writers, décor creators, interpreters, all voluntarily. Only because of the club, the adrenaline, and satisfaction to see their product recognized.
If teaching was not your profession, what would have been?
This is an interesting question. Probably, if I didn't find myself in class interacting with young people, trying to inspire them to want more from life, I would have been a stage performer.
What foreign languages would you like to learn to the extent you know Bulgarian?
Not only one, I want to learn many languages – Sanskrit, Xhosa, Persian, Japanese – and their unbelievable honorific system reflecting Japanese cultural values, and many others. A language is your door to a whole new universe. Thus, as many languages you speak, the many worlds you have in your mind. You learn to think differently. You can perceive the world differently. One cannot say that they can reach the limit of their knowledge in the language - the language is like a living organism, it is changing constantly, and it is a source of limitless knowledge.
What are the activities you enjoy doing in your free time?
Reading mostly. I read for my research, for my work, for my classes, to enjoy myself in my spare time when I have the chance.