Monthly Archives: May 2012
The semester is wrapping up. I’ve been busy grading papers and trying not to dwell too much on the fact that I go back in three weeks.
I can’t even fathom it. The time has gone so fast.
So now I’ve begun to do a little reflecting and I found something I wrote to my friends a couple of months ago. I can’t believe I’ve never shared it with you. But here it is:
I was guest lecturing at a private language school, as I was recommended by the university. I was teaching a group of 11 – 12 year olds at the elementary level. We were doing an activity where they were given drawings and they had to describe what was happening in the pictures to a partner. One boy was having a hard time, so I took a look. The picture was of people waiting at an airport, but the way it was drawn was kind of overwhelming even for me. So I told him to start with something he knew and continue from there. I pointed to the airplane and asked him to identify it. He did so correctly, and then I asked him what the people were doing. He then began to describe it (rather well, actually). At that point, I decided to teach them what to do if they are speaking English and want to say something they do not have the vocabulary for. I had them come up to the board and write a word that they knew in Russian but not in English. I then had them describe this word in English. One clever boy gave a word that had no English translation—kokoshnik, which is a type of hat. I explained that if they could use what vocabulary they know to describe what they don’t know, they could still communicate and be understood and they would probably be told the proper word to use. I would then tell them the English translation (if there was one) of the word they had chosen.
The person who learned the most from this, however, was me.
I went to a gathering at my friend Lena’s place and seeing as my friend Max was in Thailand at the time and my friend Katya was busy working, I was with no one who spoke English. I was okay with this, because normally I speak Russian, but it’s helpful to ask for the words I’m looking for when I don’t know. However, remembering the lesson today, I decided to take my own advice and use what I already know. And you know what? I’ve never spoken Russian better.
My friend Mike has said to me many times: “You have everything you need to be a complete person.” It wasn’t until recently that I realized what he meant. I have the tools and the parts, I just have to put them together and use them.
I think I have discovered myself. I feel a sense of understanding that I have never experienced before. And lately I noticed that people’s attitudes toward me are changing for the better. I am being more respected. What actually highlighted this change for me was that I think I have found a romantic partner who will treat me right. My friend Mallory told me after I broke up with Mac: “You must be confident in yourself and the right people will come to you.” I was tired to being mistreated by myself and others, so I finally decided to work on understanding and accepting who I am. I am certain now that I have reached that point. I feel I am where I need to be in terms of personal progression.
When I said Russia has done me a lot of good, I really meant it. It has done wonders for me. I think you will see it when I return to the States.
Going back over this has reminded me of the cycle of back and forth in terms of personal progress that I have made, but I think overall I have moved forward. And it feels fantastic.
When I get back, I’m going to have a coming back party with my friends, get a new haircut, work on getting a full-time job, and spend time with my family. I think these are the best possible things I can do for myself.
I am truly torn about coming home. On the one hand, I am going to miss everyone here in Russia. I have made a home here. Really, it’s the first time I’ve been able to make a life I can call completely my own. But on the other hand, I miss everyone at home, more than you can imagine.
I hope the changes in me become apparent to my loved ones. I know they have been waiting a long, long time to see me become more confident. I think this time they’re going to. I have my ups and downs in confidence from time to time, but it’s been getting better overall.
I must go, moyi druz’ya, but take care and be well.
I was recently asked to speak at a conference being held by the Institut filologii i yazikovoy kommunikatsii [Institute of Philology and Language Communication], which is the institute of the university I teach in. The theme was on cross-cultural communication through text and dialogue. I had a heck of a time trying to think of a topic, but my friend Katya suggested that I talk about comparative academic discourse in Russia and the U.S. I decided to modify this a bit to how teachers and students communicate. But here was the most interesting part…I was asked to do it in both English and Russian.
I loved the idea of writing and giving a speech in Russian, but it disconcerted me that they asked me to do it in both languages. I had no idea how to approach it at first, but in the end I decided it would suffice if I simply did the introduction in Russian and the rest in English. I wrote the speech and submitted it, satisfied that it fulfilled the requirement.
But it was a different story when I actually got there.
It turned out I was one of the five keynote speakers. Which was fantastic! However, my heart sank as I realized everyone was giving their speeches all in Russian. Even the professor from Korea was giving his speech in heavily-accented Russian. Why did they ask me to do it partly in English, then? Not everyone there spoke English well, if indeed they spoke it at all, as many of them study other languages than English. I tried to reassure myself, reminding myself that this is what they had asked me to do.
Finally it was my turn to speak. I am not afraid to speak in front of large crowds. I was not nervous at all on that front. What made me nervous was that I would be looked down upon for not doing my speech entirely in Russian. I know that I have very good writing skills in Russian and I’m more than capable of writing a speech in it, but that didn’t mean the people present would know that.
So I began to speak in Russian. I could see the surprise on the faces of some of the people there…many of them were not aware that I spoke Russian so well. I explained that I would begin in Russian and continue in English. At the end of the introduction, I actually got applause. I suppose I should have been flattered.
You’re probably wondering what I said. I think you will find it interesting, so I have copied and pasted the English part of my speech below. If you have questions, by all means ask in the comments for this post. I’m always happy to answer.
I hope you enjoy, moyi druz’ya!
Until next time, be well.
COMPARATIVE DISCOURSE IN ACADEMIC SETTINGS
Comparison of the university systems
In order to understand the differences in discourse, you must first gain an understanding of the differences between the university systems in both nations. The setting of an academic environment ultimately determines the nature of discourse between professor and student.
In American universities, the students determine their own curriculum. They have the ability to choose from a variety of classes in their chosen field as well as experiment with courses outside of it. Very often there are specific required courses or required types of courses each student must take, such as mathematics, science, and history, but it depends on the university. Here in Russia, the students are put into groups based on their field of study and together they follow a pre-determined curriculum.
Exams are one way that students and professors communicate. In Russia, they are mostly spoken exams. In the U.S., they are almost always written, in part because the number of students in a university classroom in the U.S. is generally much larger than in Russia. In any case, exams are used in both countries to demonstrate to the professor that students are learning and understanding the material. The professor determines, based on given criteria, what score the student gets. This feedback signals to the student what level of knowledge they have reflected.
That brings up one more important difference: classes in Russian universities are generally much smaller than in American ones. This is one thing I love about the Russian university system. It means that the students can get more attention. My sister attends the University of Florida, which is about the same size as SFU in terms of the number of students. Her classes, however, are often so large that the university will show the lectures online! That is to say, there are often HUNDREDS of students in a single class, especially the introductory courses.
I should note that the physical setup of the classroom in both countries is very much the same, usually rows of desks before the instructor’s desk and a blackboard or whiteboard. This structure makes it very clear that the professor or instructor is the leader within the classroom: it is he or she who leads the events and the flow of learning that occur there. However, as I will explain later, the nature of this leadership position in both countries is very different.
There is also the concept of the “cтароста” prevalent in many Russian universities. There is no such thing in American universities because there is no group system. I find the староста to be interesting. It reflects that attendance in Russian universities is supposed to be stricter than in American ones. In the U.S., it is not so unusual for a student to not attend the course and to simply show up for exams and presentations; professors are usually not strict about attendance. Of course, I’ll add that it depends on the professor. Some professors fail students for not attending enough.
Communication between students and professors: Groups
Within the classroom in an American university, the dynamics of student-professor interaction is quite different from that in a Russian university. In the U.S., professors are far more inclined to use what is known as the Socratic method, meaning that classes are conducted on a discussion basis rather than a lecture basis. It requires more active participation on the part of the students. In general, the professor will pose questions related to the topic of the day, with extensive readings assigned beforehand which must be completed by the students before the next class. The students in turn must generate discussion based on these questions and the readings that they have been given. Here I will now refer to the nature of the leadership position that I mentioned before: the professor, in this case, acts as a facilitator of discussion. He or she ensures that the students stay on topic and also uses his or her knowledge to question the students’ assumptions.
Within the classroom of a Russian university, on the other hand, I have observed that it is far more likely to be lecture-based; notice, however, that I said “more likely” and not “always”. I shall note that the likelihood of using lecture methods in a Russian university largely depends on the course subject. At least here in this university I have seen that language courses, for example, are generally more interactive than, for example, a history class. In any case, the general role of the professor is to conduct lectures.
I have heard the difference in the way professors run their classrooms in the U.S. and Russia described respectively as informal and formal. I will openly disagree with this. In my experience, it depends on the professor. Every professor has a different teaching style that gets reflected in the individual classroom dynamics. As an example, some professors in the U.S. prefer to combine lecture and discussion, others solely use discussion and others use solely lecture. I have had professors who fell into all three categories. Categorizing the methodology of American and Russian university instructors solely as “formal” or “informal” is misleading.
In group settings, I have found that the discourse in terms of register and vocabulary in Russian universities is just as formal as in American universities. There are unspoken rules about civility and politeness when class discussions are being conducted which are generally followed in both countries. Respect for others’ ideas is highly encouraged and the way in which students communicate with the professor and with each other requires diplomacy and tact.
Communication between students and professors: Individual
The differences in discourse in Russian and American academic settings become much clearer when you look at discourse between an individual student and a professor.
In the U.S., the most acceptable ways of contacting a professor are by e-mail and by visiting during the professor’s office hours. Talking on the telephone, unless there is an emergency of some kind, is considered too informal and too personal. E-mails must be formally written and polite, including a greeting and a proper ending. When talking face to face, it is generally more relaxed. Despite this less formal feeling, the student, at least, must always continue to be polite. Professors are generally expected to be polite as well, but not as much as the student. For example, when I would speak with my Russian professor, he would use “ты”, not “Вы”, when addressing me. I imagine that if English had such a distinction with the pronoun “you”, it would be the same in general for all student-professor interactions. This reflects the idea that the professor is an expert and a leader and therefore deserves to be addressed with higher respect than the student.
In Russia, I see that it is appropriate for students to contact their professors by phone, e-mail, and during office hours. While there must also be a sense of politeness no matter what way they communicate, both students and professors use “Вы” to address one another. This shows mutual respect. I actually found this quite startling. That is to say, I always use “Вы” when I am addressing someone I don’t know or someone I want to be polite with—including my students when I speak to them in Russian—but I wasn’t aware that was the general practice. In my view, this puts professors and students on a more even level. To me, it seems that students and professors in Russia have less formal interpersonal relations with each other. Ironic, considering that Russians use the more formal, polite version of the word “you” in such settings!
The university I attended in the U.S., New College of Florida, had a unique way of professors to communicate with students. Instead of providing scores or marks, professors are required to write evaluations about the students’ work for the course. They are supposed to give polite but honest feedback to the student about what they did well and what they could have done better on. This is not a common thing in American universities; this is unique, because New College is a VERY small school (only 800 students in all), small enough that professors can spend time evaluating each student. Though it is an unusual system, I bring it up because it explains my own teaching style here at SFU. I not only give my students a mark on their work, but I always explain why they received the mark they did. I find this is an effective way to tell my students what they need to work on and it often gives me an opportunity for me to offer them personal praise for their successful efforts, which I know they appreciate.
In the end, you can see that the ways in which students and professors communicate with one another in both the U.S. and Russia have some importance differences, but they are not completely different. This is not to say one system or academic culture is better than the other. That would be like saying that American culture is better than Russian culture or that Russian culture is better than American culture, neither of which is true. In some ways the academic cultures are similar. As we have seen, expectations of behavior for students in both countries have much in common: they are expected to do their work, show politeness to their professors and each other, and participate where it is appropriate.
March 17th was St. Patrick’s Day for all of you back in the U.S. For me, it was a rather interesting intercultural event–“Studenchestvo bez granits” or “Students Without Borders”. (I should note that “studenchestvo” is better translated as “studentship” but that’s not a word I ever really hear…so “students” it is.)
The university had asked me months beforehand to set up a table representing the U.S. Naturally I agreed. At the time there was another Fulbrighter, Linda, who was teaching computer science at the aerospace university here in Krasnoyarsk. She was also informed of the event and was assigned to help. It was fantastic that she did…she brought peanut butter, bread, and Coca-Cola as samples for the students.
The event took place at the Sibir convention center. I didn’t know how large it was going to be…it was larger than I expected, though. There were so many countries represented there…besides the U.S., there were tables for Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Japan, China, South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, and even a general table for African countries (I found out that table was being run by people from Cameroon, they were really cool); they had a few Russian ethnic republics as well, such as Yakutia (the Sakha Republic) and Tyva.
We were there for several hours, answering questions, asking questions of others, handing out sample peanut butter sandwiches (which were a hit, by the way, as people came back for more), playing games, and listening to songs being sung on the nearby stage all the while.
The coolest part was that I got to meet so many people from different countries. I gave out my contact information to a lot of them (and many of them contacted me after the event by Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, as well as Facebook itself). It was fantastic. I also got to learn about different cultures, even though it was just a glimpse…people helping to run the event were often wearing traditional clothing and many of the tables had prepared traditional foods to try. It was all beautiful. (Side note…to my female readers, if you get the chance to go to Yakutia at some point in your life, the jewelry they have is GORGEOUS! I asked if there was a place in Krasnoyarsk I could purchase any, but I was told I would have to actually go to Yakutia.)
Moyi druz’ya, this is why I chose to do this. I have the opportunity to share my country and culture with others as well as learn about other countries and cultures from people I would never get the chance to meet if I hadn’t left the U.S. This is why I encourage everyone to try to travel outside of their rodina [motherland, homeland] at least once in their life. It is the best gift you can give yourself. Why? Because you will not only understand others better, but also yourself. And you will be enriched for it.
Until next time, be well.