Semiotics (from the Greek term σημεῖον semeion, which means sign) is the study of signs in all their varieties, their uses, and the way in which signs are employed to create meaning. Semioticians are the people who engage with semiotics. This domain of study, called by The New York Times an “arcane field”, has now gained moment and has fascinated many students, academics as well as marketing specialists. Estonia has become a place of pilgrimage for the many want-be-semioticians, seeking to be initiated in the “science of signs”.
The fall 2009 semester marked the beginning of the International Master’s program in Semiotics at the University of Tartu. This makes ten years of semiotics in Tartu. The program, fully taught in English, has reunited students from all over the world (Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Romania, Russia, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, USA) with diverse background. The MA in Semiotics requires two years of study (three semesters of lectures and the writing of the Master’s thesis in the final semester) and has a quite interdisciplinary bent. Its unique blend of international vocation coupled with good teaching staff makes the Semiotics MA in Tartu an ideal place for prospective students of ‘the doctrine of signs’. The University of Tartu is one of the few academic institutions in the world offering BA, MA and PhD programs in Semiotics since 1993. The Department of Semiotics (Faculty of Philosophy) was established in 1992 and is one of the leading centre of semiotics in Europe.
Undoubtedly, Estonia is a unique country for engaging with semiotics. Tartu in fact is the crossroad of two schools of thought – the semiotics of nature and the semiotics of culture. Both Juri M. Lotman – legendary figure for the semiotic of culture, founder of the Tartu-Moscow semiotic school, and now successful brand for the department – and the Baltic German Estonian-born Jakob Von Uexküll – whose Umwelt theory paved the way to the development of Biosemiotics – have their roots in this tiny city of the Baltics.
The curriculum offered by the MA in Semiotics reflects this theoretical legacy. The core of the program involves four main areas of study: a general module and three specialty modules, namely, Culture, Nature and Society. The ‘General Module’ aims to broaden students’ knowledge by studying classical works in semiotics, revising basic concepts and theories, reading Jakob Von Uexküll and Juri Lotman’s works as well as focusing on the main figures of the history of semiotics. In addition to traditional lectures, MA Semiotics students follow group seminars in which excerpts from milestone publications are read, commented and discussed. Methodological issues as well as MA thesis projects are discussed and addressed in specific seminars (Methodology for Semiotic Analysis and Master’s Seminar) in which active participation, group discussions and feedback from teaching staff are the key features. The ‘Culture Module’ includes: Cultural Semiotics and Theories of Cultures, Semiotics of Translation, Semiotic Analysis of Art and Multimedia. The ‘Nature Module’ offers: Biosemiotics, Ecosemiotics, Zoosemiotics, whereas the ‘Society module’ encompasses Sociosemiotics and Societal Theories, Communication and Power, Semiotic Analysis of Subcultures.
The strength of the MA in Semiotics at the University of Tartu is that it offers the international students to study semiotics from very heterogeneous perspectives by means of different schools of thought and teaching traditions. Also, the relatively small number of students (circa 15 students per year) facilitates the creation of a fruitful learning environment encouraging dialogue and active participation. Besides compulsory subjects, students can choose some elective courses offered by the University of Tartu.
Despite the tradition of Juri Lotman and the semiotic study of culture is a symbol and heritage of the university, the dominating paradigm in the educational panorama in Estonia is “biosemiotics” (which study pre-linguistic meaning making). If among your professional or academic interests there is semiotics or if you are a fan of Charles Sanders Peirce, Juri Lotman, and Umberto Eco, then Tartu should be in your top ten place to visit.