On Three-Hour Lectures and Soviet Style

During the 20-minute break in my 3-hour Soviet Cinema class, I catch Professor Dvinatina for a quick question. After a couple minutes of discussion about how well Petersburg About Love (2016) captures the state of the modern Russian film industry, she elegantly responds, “Dasha, it’s lovely to talk to you, but I really need to smoke right now.” Which is fair. So we end up chatting outside while she smokes. This is the best way I can characterize my academic experience in Russia so far.

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Welcome to the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg University! This part of SPbU is located in a different part of the city than the main campus, so it gets its own sign.

A few words on the institution I chose: I attend the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg University, through the Bard-Smolny Study Abroad Program (let’s shorten this long name with its historical nickname – Smolny). Both the program and the college are results of a collaboration between Bard College and St. Petersburg University. What’s different about the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences is its untraditional approach to academics. It mirrors the idea of liberal arts as perceived in the United States and Europe – a very big departure from traditional Russian, or even Soviet, academia.

This collaboration creates a rather odd result: lots of high-class faculty, lots of students who don’t know what their direction in life is (which is incredibly odd in this culture!), lots of female students. Male students are few and far between, to the point where professors sometimes refer to the class as “ladies (and one gentleman).”

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On the outside, this long, important-sounding name. On the inside, just “Smolny.”

Another effect of this cross-cultural collaboration is that, in the main academic building, English is heard as often as Russian. Everyone speaks English. Super-well. And casually. I feel so out of my league. Most local students have either been abroad at Bard College through a similar study abroad program. They can calmly and confidently say they know the States – in most cases, they’ve traveled more across America than actual Americans. When faced with this information, I realize that I am no longer a weird creature from a faraway land, but rather yet another one of those stars-and-stripes bros they’ve seen before. It’s comforting.

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A photo of the inner courtyard of Smolny. I took this photo in August, back with the sky was blue and plants were green. Now this area is as gloomy as the constant SPb rains.

One of the staples of the Bard-Smolny Study Abroad Program is its Russian-as-a-Second-Language program (RSL): an 11-credit set of courses, ranging from translation, to academic writing, to phonetics, to grammar, to reading, to art & culture. All students must take it – except heritage speakers (like moi). I chose classes that would be most relevant for my level and comfort. Classes like phonetics and grammar I simply don’t need: I grew up speaking Russian in my household, so both my phonetics and grammar are based on instinct of “what sounds good?” rather than taught rules. Of the RSL classes, I decided to take Translation and Academic Reading/Writing, which are both subjects I wish to improve in.

Because of the RSL cut-back, I take 4 classes with Russian students. That’s where my frustrations and revelations begin.

These 3-hour classes are a strange mix of traditional Soviet pedagogy and liberal arts values. To iterate how bizarre this combination is, I’ll quote a local student about the Russian college system. Said student went through two years in the School of Philology at Moscow University, hated it, and then began her college education all over again at Smolny. Her words about her time in Moscow: “Professors would say in class, ‘God knows this subject at a 5, I know it at a 4, you can best get a 3 so don’t get cocky.’” (In the Russian system, scores function as the AP grading system does — 5 is perfect, 4 is ok, 3 is passing, 2 is failing. 1’s are not spoken about, but they do exist.) I cannot say this portrays a typical Russian college classroom, but it’s a good showcase of why students flock to the strange educational escape that is the liberal arts.

What I do know about the Russian system: it’s a form that stems from the strict style of Soviet-era pedagogy. Students listen to a lecture read by a bored professor and write notes, and rarely, respond when called upon to answer a cold-call question. Current professors not only grew up in this environment but they also perpetuate it for most of their academic careers – at least, until they have an opportunity to teach in a different style.

Classes at Smolny become a mix of these two styles, with these Soviet-born-and-Soviet-taught professors and students adjusting to the American hopes and dreams of a discussion-based liberal arts education.

  • Interesting hybrids occur: for example, in my PR & Branding class, the professor spoke, and spoke, and spoke, and joked, and spoke, for nearly 2 months, only occasionally calling upon the 4th-year economics students who know a particular esoteric economics question. I’d like to exclaim that this wasn’t horrible: on the other hand, I could listen to this professor speak about his experiences in the Russian PR industry of the 90’s all day. His explanations of how the American PR system needs to be tweaked for the reality of the Russian consumer markets have completely blown away how I think about these two countries and their radical cultural differences. In this way, I’m glad I had two months to just sit, listen, and take notes. Now that we students have listened and written down all the important information, we begin the interactive part of the class in which we actually create PR plans for fake cultural institutions and businesses in SPb. Soviet-style lectures meet discussion and communication.
  • In my class on Hollywood, which is a mandatory class for 4th-year film majors, the professor asks students to pair up and to present the theses in homework readings and report them to the professor, who takes said thesis, comments on it, and spontaneously, enthusiastically, commandingly lectures from that point, extrapolating to such great tangents for another 5 minutes, that often I ask myself, “The student commented on the myth of the Wild West in the American mindset; how did Professor Artuh get to female portrayals in gangster films?” Then I realize another connection between American genre theory and how logical connection between her points show a trend of American genre theory. Again, an attempt for discussion in a liberal arts environment that then turns into a Soviet-style lecture, but it’s not horrible: instead, it’s enlightening.
  • Then there are professors who ask questions and delve into discussions, no matter how trivial they are. The first example that comes to mind is the professor of my Russian novel class, Feodor Nikitich Dvinatin – an academic celebrity. He played on a winning team of the academic TV gameshow called “What? Where? When?” (“Что? Где? Когда?”) and had a KVN team named after him (KVN [Club of Funny and Inventive People] is a collegiate league of humor teams who compete for laughs on national television). His lectures are from a sitting position in the front of a classroom; he chooses to engage students with one-on-one discussions, asking what they think and know rather than telling them what they think and know. It’s a refreshing point of view, even though this class feels the most out of my league. Not only do I try to read all the said Russian novels in Russian, but discussions in class rest mostly on books of the discussed authors that most students have read during their school years. I rarely contribute, but the discussions headed by Professor Dvinatin keep me occupied and taking notes. Hopefully my insecurities over my Russian will face enough for me to join the debate.
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While exploring the main campus of SPbU, I found a garden of stones brought from different universities across the globe. Standing guard over them is the Nose, the eponymous main character from Nikolai Gogol’s short story. The silhouette of the spire underneath the nose is the Petro-Pavlovsk Cathedral.

With all these cool experiences of cultural academic comparison come honestly rather lonely moments. Most students don’t talk  to each other. After four weeks of silence, I struggled to chat with some folks before my PR and Branding class and I mentioned, “Well, I’m an exchange student, I don’t really know anyone…” and this art-history-major-gal next to me responded, “Hah, most of this class is 4th-year economics majors. This is the first time I’ve talked to anyone here either.” At least I know I’m not alone in this lonely classtime struggle.

Part of that stems from the fact that the idea of a campus doesn’t really exist in Russia, so many elements of a traditional liberal arts education inside that artificial bubble also don’t exist. Clubs are hard to come by and hard to maintain: I’ve started attending Model UN and am joyously participating, but many students come and go as dorms for first-year students are located two hours away. Introspective 4 am chats happen in bars, on sidewalk curbs while waiting for the bridges to lower, at the host family’s kitchen table over tea instead of in dorm common rooms.

As for the workload? I honestly don’t know how to quantify that. All I know is that I came for the chance to learn outside my comfort zone and all my wishes are being granted.

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My walk home from school along Kryukov Canal and the overgrown trees outside of the island of New Holland, St. Petersburg’s man-made shipyard from the times of Peter the Great.

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One Response to On Three-Hour Lectures and Soviet Style

  1. Surprisingly, it is not much different from my experience at Moscow State University 20+ years ago. Russian college culture apparently changes very slowly. Thank you for sharing!

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