Brief History of the Department
The Brno English Department was founded, as the second in the country (like the university), in 1920. Strictly speaking, this simply meant appointing a professor, František Chudoba – our Founding Father – as head of what was to be called the Anglický Seminář. Remarkably, at almost the same time he was chosen by the Ministry of Education to serve as “Czecho-slovak” lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at King's College, the University of London. In fact this made him a second Founding Father – of Czech Studies in Great Britain. For two years he shuttled back and forth between London and Brno, getting the two institutions running. Chudoba was a literary scholar, but as the sole professor also had to lecture on grammar and the history of English. The department also boasted a local man, Samuel Kostomlatský, who taught practical English, and a succession of brilliant young English assistants who dealt with conversation and British life and culture. It was one of the smallest departments at the Faculty of Arts, and the number of students was limited – English was still a kind of niche interest – but Chudoba was a prominent figure in Czechoslovakia's intellectual and cultural life between the wars, and under him the department made a name for itself.
Like all Czech universities, Masaryk University, too, was closed down in November 1939. Pensioned off, Chudoba focused on his monumental life's work, Kniha o Shakespearovi, the first volume of which came out shortly after his death in 1941. (And it was indeed monumental: the two volumes – Vol. 2 came out in 1943 – add up to 1669 pages.) When the department was reopened after 1945, continuity was represented by Chudoba's best student, Karel Štěpaník - also a literary person – and Samuel Kostomlatský. But a newcomer from Prague, Josef Vachek, was the one who set the tone for the next forty years or so. Vachek was a member of the Prague School of Linguistics, and under his influence the department took on a new rigour and a new direction.
In the immediate aftermath of WW II, English was wildly popular, and large numbers of students were eager to study it. But the rigorous standards in the department acted as a self-regulating selection process, and then after the Communist coup in 1948 the status of English as the language of the imperialist enemy meant that severe restrictions were placed on admission to studies in the department. For the next twenty years the English Department was a continually changing entity: at one time part of the German Department, at another part of the Department of Western European Philology and Phonetics, then a Department of English and German Studies, and finally, in 1962, the Department of English and American Studies. Through all this, it continued to grow, bringing in new teachers and promoting new initiatives. On the scholarly side, the department’s journal, Brno Studies in English, dating from 1959, was a pioneer, the first such journal at the Faculty of Arts devoted to one particular language and cultural field. And from the student point of view, 1965 marked the first production of the department's theatre group, the Gypsywood Players. Both are still with us, flourishing in their seventh and sixth decades respectively.
The period after 1968 was tough. The department had perhaps the weakest kádrový profil at the faculty. This meant, among other things, that for most of the period it never had an official head but only acting heads and, on one occasion, an external head from the German Department. And this was certainly a factor in the decision taken by the Ministry of Education in the early 1980s to close down the department completely. But the external problems had little effect on the spirit of the department. Much of the credit for this goes to the tandem who in fact provided the continuity for those years: Jan Firbas, as it were the department's moral compass (as well as its most distinguished scholar), and Joseph Hladký, its éminence grise. Together they steered the department through the grey seas of “normalization”.
Everything, of course, changed in 1989, and the early 1990s were a period of phenomenal growth, with the department suddenly becoming one of the largest at the faculty. More than that, this was a period in which the department took on the role of an innovative pioneer. Its single English programme was unique in the whole of the Czech Republic (and is now the norm at the faculty and elsewhere). The creation of streams in which students could specialize – literature, linguistics, cultural studies and translation studies – was also far ahead of its time, based as it was on a radical reduction of compulsory courses and a wide offer of electives. And its re-structuring of the five-year programme into fully independent three-year and two-year segments represented in fact an implementation of Bologna Process principles a good many years before the Bologna Process itself was in fact agreed on.
The past twenty years have seen not only a consolidation of the many changes introduced at the end of the last millenium, but the introduction of perhaps the first truly North American Studies MA programme in Europe, a major expansion of the department's doctoral programmes, increased research links internationally, and its emergence as an organizer of major international conferences such as its quinquennial International Conference of English, American and Canadian Studies and the 14th Conference of the European Society for the Study of English.
More from our History
Postwar personalities – up to the 1970s
Karel Štěpaník (1903–1970)
Josef Vachek (1909–1996)
Jessie Kocmanová, née Scott (1914–1985)
Jan Firbas (1921–2000)
Lidmila Pantůčková (1923–2003)
Jaroslav Ondráček (1929–1984)
Aleš Tichý (1931–1988)
Josef Hladký (1931–2008)
Aleš Svoboda (1941–2010)
Thomas D. Sparling
awarded by Masaryk University in English Studies