Institute of English Studies University of Warsaw

A brief history of the Institute of English Studies

The beginnings of English Studies at the University of Warsaw date back to 1922. That year saw the establishment of the Department of English Studies, which, not unlike other University units, initially had very limited resources at its disposal. It had only one professor, no junior academic staff and no library. It is worth noting that it was the second English department in Poland and is the only one to be active throughout its history.

This Department's first professor of English Philology was Andrzej Tretiak (1886–1944) [zdjęcie], who was also the first PhD graduate in British Literature at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Since he was the only professor in the Department of English Studies, he went to great lengths to ensure that his students gain comprehensive knowledge. That is why he lectured on subjects that lay outside his interests, e.g. linguistics and Old English grammar.

Prof. Tretiak soon received support from Dr Tytus Benni, who was the first phonetician teaching in the initial decade of the Department's existence. “It is no exaggeration to say that Tytus Benni is the founder of English graphophonemics as a discipline in Poland. He in turn inherited his interest in the study of the relationship between spelling and pronunciation from his master, Jan Baudouin de Courtenay” (Konderski et al 1978: 11)1.

At that time, all students at the Faculty of Humanities were taught intermediate and advanced English by the same teacher, Hilda Motler. It remains a mystery how she managed to teach speaking, reading, and writing to about three hundred students at the same time. Perhaps her secret was that “she was a severe and exacting teacher, boldly sarcastic when a student was idling his time away, and yet all of them had adored her and enthusiastically attended her classes” (Jabłkowska 1975: 14)2.

In the last few years before the Second World War, the Department of English Studies had about one hundred students. It gradually expanded its staff, as well as teaching and research. For example, the Department appointed Dr Stanisław Helsztyński [zdjęcie] as junior assistant and Stanisław Andrzej Mikułowski, MA, as part‑time assistant. The latter post was later taken over by Antoni Prejbisz, MA.

In the academic year 1939/1940 Prof. Tretiak was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. During the war, he continued to fulfil this function in the underground University. However, as he was a member of a clandestine society helping war prisoners, and the Germans began a search for him in 1942, he decided to leave Warsaw. In 1944, during a short secret visit to the city, he was found and later killed by the Germans.

The first years after the war were very difficult for the Department of English Studies, the same as for the whole University of Warsaw. There was a shortage of staff and facilities. Even worse, the communist authorities of the Polish People's Republic regarded Western philologies, especially English studies, with suspicion.

In the years 1945–1948 the Department of English Studies was managed by Prof. Wacław Borowy (1890–1950), a graduate of the Jagiellonian University, and since 1937 a professor of Polish literature at the University of Warsaw. “The dual literary interest in Polish and English writers was an unusual asset which enhanced the subtlety of judgement, clear and precise style, delicate irony and an extraordinary wealth of associations, that all made of his criticism works of art of extraordinary beauty and profound originality” (Jabłkowska 1975: 19).

In 1949 Prof. Stanisław Helsztyński (1891–1986), who had graduated from the Jagiellonian University, became the first post-war head of the English Department at the University of Warsaw. A “brief enumeration of his literary services cannot do him justice (…) since so numerous are his works and so manysided are his activities. Any brief record of his activities would be a failure in presenting his giant mind with appreciative fairness” (Jabłkowska 1975: 21).

Soon the Department's staff began focusing more on research and teaching in the area of linguistics. Two lecturers deserve a special mention in this context: Prof. Tadeusz Grzebieniowski [zdjęcie] (1894–1973), the author of English Grammar, Lexicology and Word Formation, and Dr Antoni Prejbisz (1909–1980), a leading expert in the methodology of English language teaching.

The further development of linguistics was greatly influenced by Prof. Alfred Reszkiewicz [zdjęcie] (1920–1973) and Prof. Margaret Schlauch [zdjęcie] (1898–1986). Before becoming affiliated with the Department in 1950, Alfred Reszkiewicz, then an MA, had taught at the Jagiellonian University. He was an innovative teacher as “his frequently repeated opinion was that the learner should be acquainted with new developments in linguistic theory” (Konderski et al 1978: 10).

Prof. Margaret Schlauch of New York University became employed in 1951, and in the years 1954–1965 performed the function of the Director of the Department. She was a recognized specialist in linguistics and mediaeval studies.

In 1950, as a result of ministerial directives, the Department introduced entrance exams and a four‑year programme, which obliged students to take employment within the school system after graduation. Starting from 1956, the Department offered an obligatory five‑year Master degree programme, which introduced more classes in linguistics and the English language, as well as new courses in American literature, frequently taught by visiting scholars from the USA.

In 1953, the literary scholar Dr Grzegorz Sinko [zdjęcie] (1923–2000) joined the team of the Department.

In the years 1968–1970 the Department of English Studies was transformed into the Institute of English Studies (divided into the following departments: English and American Literature, English Language, and English Applied Linguistics), whose first Director was Prof. Grzegorz Sinko [zdjęcie]. The second Director was Prof. Irena Dobrzycka [zdjęcie] (1909–2007) who held the post in the years 1970–1979. The next Directors were: Prof. Jan Rusiecki (b. 1926), Prof. Jerzy Rubach (b. 1948), and Prof. Emma Harris (b. 1946). In 2014 Prof. Małgorzata Grzegorzewska (b. 1964) became the head of the Institute.

The 1970s saw the establishment of two new departments. Firstly, the Literature Department was divided into two: the Department of English Literature and the Department of American Literature. Secondly, a new unit was set up: the Department of British and American Cultural Studies.

In the period between 1968 and 1989 the number of university teachers employed by the Institute grew to fifty four, while the number of MA students reached about three hundred.

In 1989, at a time when the ministerial control of study programmes was loosened up, the Institute staff immediately went on to create a new and innovative programme. The students were given extensive opportunities for specialization and for the choice of their classes (known as “courses”). Since 1993 the Institute has offered a part‑time study programme with the same curriculum as full‑time studies, while 1995 saw the introduction of complementary extramural master's studies in the Institute.

Since 1989 the number of staff has risen to more than sixty, while the number of students to about fifteen hundred. In addition, the Institute has greatly widened its range of activities. Since the early 1990s there has been a steady grow in the number of doctoral students supervised by the staff. Currently there are about more than a hundred PhD students. Furthermore, the Institute has become involved in supporting higher education outside the University: since 1991 the Institute of English Studies has supervised eight teacher‑training colleges in the Masovian, Łódź, and Lublin Voivodeships.

The changing location of the Department (later Institute) of English Studies reflects the slow but steady development of this unit. In the postwar period, the Department was located in one room in the Former Rectory Building (Gmach Prorektorski), then in two rooms in the Institute of Archeology, and later in four rooms in the building of the Faculty of Law. For the next few years the Department was situated in the Faculty of Philosophy.

In 1967, the Department was relocated to an annexe of Czetwertyński-Uruski Palace on the main University campus, where it stayed until 1991. Then, already as the Institute, it moved to the building at 4 Nowy Świat Street, where it remained until 2014, when it moved to Hoża 69.

Interesting facts:

  • Stanisław Helsztyński was born to a peasant family as Stanisław Skorupka. He studied English in Munster (1916) and in Munich (1917), at a time when he became friends with Stanisław Przybyszewski, a well‑known poet and novelist;
  • originally the academic year was divided into three terms (trimesters);
  • before 1950 students started their studies without entrance examinations and had no deadlines for completing their theses;
  • in 1949 Alfred Reszkiewicz graduated from both the Jagiellonian University and the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, under the guidance of Professor William H. Bennett;
  • in the early 1950s, the communist authorities closed down all English departments in Poland, except for the English Department of the University of Warsaw. The reason why the Department was spared might have been that one of its staff, Prof. Margaret Schlauch, was an active communist;
  • when in 1960 Prof. Stanisław Helsztyński went to the USA for a three‑month stay, he was invited by Eleonor Roosvelt to participate in a Memorial Day ceremony;      
  • in 1970, the Institute of English Studies introduced a three year PhD course in either the English language or Literature. The latter was the only such course in Poland;
  • Alfred  Reszkiewicz was the author of the first English lessons to be broadcast on Polish radio;
  • since 1993 full-time and part-time students in the Institute have been taught the same curriculum;
  • in 2007 the Institute for the first time admitted students to a three‑year undergraduate programme (bachelor's degree), and since 2010 it has offered full‑ and part‑time two‑year graduate studies (master's degree). The previous five‑year master's programme was gradually phased out.

1) Konderski, Stefan ― Piotr Ruszkiewicz ― Jerzy Wełna (1978), Professor Alfred Reszkiewicz on the English Language. Acta Philologica 7: 5-24.       

2) Jabłkowska, Róża (1975), “Prewar English Studies at Warsaw University: Luminaries and Graduates”, [in:] Zofia Dziedzic (ed), The Fiftieth Anniversary of the English Department, University of Warsaw, 1923-1973. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 13-23.