People love to ask me, “What are the biggest differences between Russia and America?” Anyone who’s been forced to listen to an earful of my I.S. or one of my Russia-raves knows that this is actually one of my favorite things to talk about. Unfortunately, I often find it to be a touchy subject—hard to address diplomatically and thoroughly without yacking everyone’s ears off or saying something jerkish. My I.S. taught me that perceptions are everything in culture and it’s important to understand that “difference” doesn’t always have to be a negative, but it’s hard to make any sort of point without saying something offensive, wrong, or overly generalized. So here’s my attempt to share with you a few of my observations.
PLEASE NOTE: I’m not trying to offend anyone. I’m not trying to criticize anything or pass judgment on right and wrong. You should all know by now that I really do love and respect Russia and Russian culture and all of its idiosyncrasies. I’m just trying to present answer everyone’s favorite question—heavily biased, of course, by my own cultural upbringing.
Since my main role here is as an educator, I’ve gained a great deal of insight to (and opinions on) education in Russia. There’s a lot to be said about the on-going reforms of the Russian education system, and I have my own ideas on the benefits of more choice and critical thinking, but I’m not really qualified or informed enough to comment on any of that. And as much as I complain about abysmal attendance and student apathy, this still isn’t my biggest hurdle. No, what discourages me the most is the lack of what Wooster syllabi always called “academic integrity.”
No one here has to sign the Wooster Ethic or anything like that. And if there were syllabi, they wouldn’t each contain a whole paragraph about the consequences of cheating and plagiarism. Here, as far as I can tell, it’s not an offense that results in failure and a stain on your permanent record. It’s actually quite normal. And I don’t mean a few stolen sentences here and there—I mean entire texts copied and pasted straight from the internet. It’s a well-known secret that you can buy yourself a nice PhD quite affordably. I read an article that mentioned a study wherein 24 out of 25 random PhD dissertations from one of Russia’s most prestigious universities were found to be more than 50% plagiarized. A year ago, this would have astonished me. Now, though, I’m really not surprised.
Don’t get me wrong: I do have students who do their own homework, and they do it very well all on their own. I am extremely proud of these students, because this definitely does not seem to be the norm. Most find an article on the internet and then read it to me. Some even have the gall to find a Russian text, put it through Google Translate, and then read that to me. To “make a presentation” literally means copying huge blocks of vaguely relevant text onto Powerpoint slides and then reading it to the class. This isn’t just for English class though: I’ve watched the copy-paste paper-writing and presentation strategies put to use in other “real” subjects as well.
And what really gets me is that they don’t even try to pass it off as their own work. They know I know they didn’t write it, that they sometimes don’t even understand a word they’re reading. They readily fess up to abusing Google Translate and Wikipedia. They actually seem genuinely unaware that this would be considered completely unacceptable and even illegal in other countries. This is how you get students who have studied English for 10+ years and can make beautiful and perfect presentations on extremely complex topics in English but cannot answer a question about how they spent their weekend or tell me their own opinion on anything. Often, my students seem utterly perplexed at the very idea of saying something spontaneously and in their own words.
This sometimes makes the liberal-arts-valuing American deep down inside me want to rage and tear out her hair. Thankfully, it’s not all my students. But it is something I’ve had to work with—usually through creativity and explicitness in tasks and assignments. It’s something I’ve had to get used to and understand and just try not to judge too harshly.
As a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to get my students talking. One technique I’ve found to be effective is to give them a deliberately controversial article—one that I know will ruffle their feathers and stir up disagreement—and ask what they think. It’s a great way to spark conversation, and it’s fascinating for me to hear their opinions.
After Women’s Day, I made my students read this article. Playing the devil’s advocate, I took one of their most beloved holidays and turned it on its head. 100% of my students, all young women themselves, completely disagreed with the ideas presented in the article (which, if you didn’t rush off to read it, takes a feminist perspective of the holiday and criticizes the status of women in Russian society). One by one, they all told me how they agree with Russia’s only female General, who said “I think it’s better for women to get married, have children, and bring up their sons who will serve their Motherland.” Unanimously, they agreed that the best, most important function in a women’s life is raising a family. They seemed to have no qualms at the article’s presentation of women as underrepresented and politically powerless and no desire for any change to the situation.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing or a good thing, and I’m not saying that being a mother isn’t important. I’m merely saying it was interesting how strongly and unanimously these views were held, and how greatly they differed from what I’d expect to hear from a group of 19- to 21-year-old American women.
I wasn’t surprised at what I heard: you can observe these deeply embedded views in all aspects of Russian life. It’s in the very-much-alive chivalry of men. It’s in the strict divide between things that are masculine and feminine. It’s in the promises of everyone I meet to find me a husband, always voiced in the manner of presenting the most practical solution to a grave problem. It’s in the mountain of birthday wishes wherein everyone wished me to find my knight in shining armor and have many babies.
Again: I’m not saying this is inherently bad or wrong—just different.
That’s probably enough for now. Please remember, this wasn’t meant to offend or judge or complain. I guess loaded questions are bound to have loaded answers…