In the Spotlight:
Senior Lecturer of Norwegian/Coordinator for Norwegian Language and Culture
Since 2006, Professor Gergana May has brought a passion for teaching and knowledge to the West European Studies and Germanic Studies departments. A native of Bulgaria, Professor May’s interest in the Scandinavian languages and cultures she would eventually teach began “somewhat randomly” with a desire to experience new and unfamiliar languages after studying Russian, German, and English in high school. She chose Scandinavia because “it seemed exotic” and wasn’t one of the commonly studied areas in Bulgaria. From there, she fell in love with the works of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen: “I have been engaged in a long term relationship with [his writings], rediscovering them every time I read, working through my personal crisis by engaging with them, constantly learning something about myself and the world every time I opened the pages.” She went on to write her dissertation at the University of Washington on the philosophical aspects of the plays.
Since coming to IU, Professor May has taught language courses in Norwegian as well as courses on literature and culture in Scandinavia. In both summer and fall semesters this year she will offer a new course on the tales of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, a course she says she has wanted to teach for a long time. “I think that Andersen is largely unknown to the North American audience,” she writes. “That is, he is known as a children’s author and his tales have become most popular through their Disney (mis)interpretations.” The course, though, will explore Andersen’s popularity for both children and adults in thinking about the themes he uses as reflective of his time as well as of the broader human condition. Andersen’s tales, Professor May writes, “address through their specific language and through their other intricate features the nuances of being and the contradictions of existence.”
In fact, studying Scandinavian culture and literature in general offers a particularly situated view of Western Civilization, Professor May posits, making it an important and attractive field of study. She argues that the populations of the Scandinavian countries possess a unique perspective from “the edge of the world” where they are able to both fully participate, as well as observe from the outside, which, artistically, yields fascinating results. “Approaching Europe with high expectations, the Scandinavian artists eventually remain unsatisfied and have to embark on their own creative journey, on their own creative discovery,” she says, “and the results are astoundingly innovative.”
Beyond the study of Scandinavia’s rich culture, studying a Scandinavian language is also advantageous, Professor May advises. “Proficiency in a less commonly taught language will make any job applicant stand out in a pile of resumes,” adding that Norway is an attractive country for scholars, having consistently topped the United Nation’s Human Development Index in recent years. Furthermore, Scandinavian literature and culture is becoming increasingly popular on a global scale. Literature from this area is making its way around the world in the form of Scandinavian crime fiction, and two writers from Norway, the playwright Jon Fosse and the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, have conquered Europe’s reading and theatre audiences. The popularity of these two authors means that their work captures, “something special from our zeitgeist,” Professor May says, and this area represents an exciting new subject for research for her.
As far as teaching these subjects goes, Professor May says her favorite class to teach is a course on the plays of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen and the Swede August Strindberg. “But I really enjoy all the courses I teach,” she says. “They allow me to explore and reflect anew on topics and themes that have occupied me persistently.” Interacting with students is her favorite part of being a professor; she says her students are “curious and smart young people with an abundance of energy.” They are also among the many people who appreciate Professor May’s enthusiasm both for research and in the classroom.