My First Academic Conference / Моя первая академическая конференция
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.