Monday, April 25, 2011

Funny Story About Russian Students

To brighten up everybody's day, I want to share a story about my days as a university student back in Ukraine. I will begin with this very old joke about Russian students that my non-Russian readers have probably never heard.

Researchers ask an American student, "How long will it take you to prepare for an Advanced Placement exam in Chinese if you never studied Chinese before?" 

"Well, about 3 years," the American student responds.

"How long will it take you to prepare for an Advanced Placement exam in Chinese if you never studied Chinese before?" they ask a European student.

"Probably about 18 months," the European student answers.

Then, the researchers approach a Russian student who is smoking in front of the university and ask him the same question.

"Do you have the textbook?" the student asks.

"Yes", the researchers say.

"OK, then," the Russian student responds, "let me finish this cigarette and I'll go pass your exam."

When I was a university student in Ukraine, I hardly ever showed up for any classes. It wasn't easy to survive in the Ukraine of the 90ies, and I worked day and night to provide for myself and my husband. In every course, the final oral exam constituted 100% of the final grade. Lectures consisted of professors reading chapters from the textbook out loud. There were never any discussions or anything that even remotely resembled discussions. So, obviously, I, who was a very highly paid translator, considered these classes to be an awful waste of time. Before the finals, I'd just get th textbook, read it, memorize stuff from it, and rattle it off at the exam. I was considered a stellar student, too.

There was this course in International Relations that I didn't attend once during the semester. This course used to be titled "The History of the Communist Party" and was still taught by the same KGB guy who had taught it during the Soviet Union. The exams had this weird structure where you could show up any time over the course of several hours, get a paper with questions from the professor, prepare your answer for 15-30 minutes (without consulting anything, of course), and then recite your answers to the professor.

It so happened that I arrived early for the exam in this International Relations course. The classroom was empty. There was just this professor sitting there. I had no way of knowing whether he was my professor and whether I was even in the right classroom because I hadn't attended a single class that semester. 

"Are you here for the exam?" the professor asked.

"Yes," I responded tentatively. I knew I was there for an exam, I just didn't know if I was there for his exam.

"So come in and get the paper with the questions," he said.

I got the paper with the questions, hoping that the nature of the questions would elucidate whether I was in the right room with the professor who was my professor and not, say, a professor of quantum physics. When I got the paper with the questions, however, things did not become any clearer. I had no idea what the questions even meant, let alone what discipline they could belong to. There was, for example, a question about the combined tonnage of some country's warships during the 20ies. I knew that the only way out was just to bullshit my way through the responses.

When I approached the prof's table, he really saved me by asking in a severe voice, "So are you interested in international relations?" 

"Oh, I love them!" I gushed feeling happy that I was at least in the right room. Then, I made an impassioned speech about how the young people of today were criminally indifferent to the world around them and had no political stance. Our grandparents, however, really changed the world with their passionate Communist beliefs, and so on, and so forth.

"OK," the professor said. "I'm guessing that you have no idea how to answer any of these questions, right?"

"Not a clue," I confessed brightly.

"Fine, you can go," he said. "I'm giving you a B."

So if you think that people in the KGB were all humorless and cruel jerks, think twice.


Anonymous said...

That's just ridiculous. No academic integrity whatsoever. Is it easy to bribe professors over there?

Clarissa said...

Oh yes. Super easy. I'll post a story about that too in a while. There is no secondary or higher education inm our countries. Especially in the Humanities. None.

Anonymous said...

I've seen similar behavior in Turkish students at my university. The concept of failing a class seems to be foreign to them. They're also very bad when it comes to cheating and lots of them fail classes because of it.

Clarissa said...

Actually, copying passages from books and articles (without attributing anything to the sources, of course) was considered the only correct way of writing an essay. Writing your own stuff was the surest way to failing.

Rimi said...

"Writing your own stuff was the surest way to failing."

Funny you should say this. At my Indian uni, we were required to always write papers (per course per semester) on texts or case studies NOT taught in the course, using concepts taught in the course. If we used obscure case studies or texts, we had to submit a copy -- scanned or pdf or photocopied was fine. Attendance wasn't compulsory, though. "Don't come in and doze, or disturb the ones who are interested", our professors said on the very first day of college. "Only come if you're interested".

In my very posh US uni, however, use of such original text was severely discouraged. We had to limit ourselves to taught texts, chewing the cud over things that thousands had gone over before us (Heidigger or Marx, for example) and we could safely copy from thousands of papers and books, changing the words or attributing. Crowded footnotes meant awesome intellect.

Also, attendance was compulsory. I know you're very big on class discussion, but you teach language, mostly. I have been stuck in three hour classes filled to the brim with inane or plain ignorant (as in, didn't do the readings but want participation points), *this* close to beating my head against the closest wall. This concept of the classroom as a place where the disempowered demography (students) can speak their minds might be charmingly democratic, but it was a phenomenal waste of my time. I've lost so many precious research hours listening to how being ostracised for pimples in high school was an example of political hegemony.

Clarissa said...

And what about this invention of the devil called "a project"? It consists of a student compiling some stuff found online and delivering it to the classroom in a droning monotone. Many of my colleagues promote this atrocity. I have now been forced to cancel oral presentations altogether in all of my courses because I can't find a way to convince students to stop doing that.

Pen said...

I tend to avoid these types of projects, because I can almost never understand the teacher's feedback. In my opinion, research consists of gathering information and forming a conclusion based on analysis. As such, the basis of a project should the analysis. For our projects in history, we are given the following advice: "the visual presentation should give me the facts. The oral presentation should tell me why I should care about the facts." If we're presenting about the role of Brazil and Argentina in World War I, she wants to know what was significant about this role. Why did they have a role? Why might that role have been limited? Why should we even care about the role played by these two nations when most of the fighting was between European nations? The clear expectations make my project that much easier, because I know how to prepare.

On the other hand, my English teacher recently gave us all an assigned topic (mine was "the role of religion in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692"). This could easily have been a very interesting topic. I might have gone so far as to write up a detailed analysis of the role of religion in the ideological split between Salem Town and Salem Village. I could have taught the class about the ideological causes of the Salem witch trials. But another person had already been assigned the trials, and another had been assigned Salem social life; I was told that morphing my topic to include such an argument would make these other presentations redundant. In the end, I got this feedback: "instead of reading from the presentation, talk about your research." This was exactly what I was told not to do! Needless to say, I was very confused.

My advice: make it clear that you want analysis, not narration. It's much more entertaining to hear about the parallels between The Scarlet Letter and the Vietnam War than to go on about the meaning of the characters' actions in the context of the piece (I actually succeeded in getting into a debate with my classmates when I completed this project, which was simply delightful). I'd want to know about parallels to other pieces, reality, anything. I would even go so far as to recommend avoiding the use of Power Point presentations. Topics could be phrased as questions beginning with "to what extent" or something like that. Using discussion questions as topics might work, as well--they're questions the answers to which are based in analysis and already assume that the intended audience already has factual knowledge of the subject.

I apologize if my response was rather long-winded and my advice useless. It's just that I once went through a class in which two presentations per quarter were required. And in each scenario, I was advised to only state the facts--apparently, I was going too far in adding my own opinions to the mix. As someone who is used to analyzing, making connections and finding new questions to be explored, this advice was very frustrating.