Tamás Nyirkos

What is your area of research? How long have you been working in this field? How long have you been lecturing at PPCU?
My main research topics are democratic theory and political theology. At first sight these seem to be two separate fields, but they are in fact very close to each other. The concept of political theology includes all those “secular” ideologies which are in some way similar to “religious” ones, and democracy is no exception. Tocqueville was quite right to say that in democratic thought the people hover above the entire political life of the state as God does over the universe. I’ve been interested in this similarity ever since I began my studies in political philosophy at Eötvös Loránd University, where I earned my doctoral degree in 2011. I started teaching at PPCU right after that, in 2012.

Have you got any recent teaching experience at foreign universities and with the students of these universities?
I taught at the Catholic University of Portugal, the University of Lapland in Finland, and the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania. I was a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame, and gave lectures at Saint Louis University in the USA. I also supervised a joint program of PPCU and Radboud University in the Netherlands for two years. We receive teachers from these universities on a regular basis as well, and I’m not just being polite when I say that some of my best friends and colleagues are from there.

Your lectures here, at PPCU, are very popular with foreign students. To what reasons do you attribute this?
It is not my task to evaluate my own lectures, but if they are as popular as you suggest, it might be because we offer some courses that are absent from the regular curriculum of political studies elsewhere, like the “Politics of World Religions” or “Ideology and Violence”. I also try to make them as interactive as possible. Some even say that my lectures look like seminars sometimes. I cannot give up my terrible American accent, of course, but I get a lot of positive feedback, fortunately.

How easy is it to find the way to your guest students, to reach them and to get on with them?
It would be foolish to say there is no difference between South or North European, Asian, African, or American students (for I’ve had all of those), but cultural differences are sometimes overemphasized. On the level of personal communication, I’ve never faced any serious difficulties.

Are you able to make time for your foreign students out of the tight timeframes of the lectures?
Absolutely. The most rewarding experience is when you can deal with highly motivated students before or after classes. When they ask for help in their own topic, or when they organize extracurricular activities. I never refrain from that. Right now, for example, I have a reading group of students who are more interested in philosophy than in political science strictly speaking. They don’t get extra credits for that (neither do I), but we’re having fun learning together.  

Can you contribute to broadening your foreign students' horizon about Hungary and Hungarian culture?
At least I try to. Even though it is not my primary task to teach Hungarian culture, I always cite examples from Hungarian history and Hungarian politics in my classes, explaining how our Central European experience or our attitude toward politics is different from others’.

What do you like about teaching foreign students?
If one teaches Hungarian students only, it can easily become a routine. Foreign students surprise you more often. It helps to keep you intellectually fit, so to speak.   

How can you introduce your foreign students to our university, its past and its spirit?
PPCU is a Catholic university, and the word “Catholic” or “universal” is very important to me. The main feature of our intellectual heritage is exactly this universalism. An attitude that lies behind everything we do, or say, or convey to others. I can only hope that this attitude comes through, not because I have a certain method to convey it, but because this is what I and most of my colleagues are made of.    

Do you ever give your Hungarian students advice on where to spend their Erasmus scholarship? What aspects do you take into consideration when you do so?
Erasmus scholarship is a wonderful opportunity, and we have a lot of equally great Erasmus partners. I only ask my students to choose one that is truly unique and will help them to distinguish themselves and their prospective research projects from others. The most popular destinations may not always be the most useful. Learning something exceptional or learning a rare language may advance their career better than just joining a fashionable trend.

Last but not least, when you have spare time, how do you usually spend it?
I sleep a lot. I also like going to sauna, which is quite natural for someone who was born in Finland. In my younger years, I played in a rock and roll band, and I still entertain myself playing the guitar at home. I like travelling, and I love ships. But the greatest enjoyment is to read good books or to write less good ones on democratic theory and political theology. I wouldn’t be where I am if my job was not my hobby as well.