The P-word

After reading 23 rough drafts from my second year students and finding just one that is [apparently] completely plagiarism-free, I decided to make the last half of today’s American Studies class about what I euphemistically called “academic culture” in the U.S. I’ve been struggling to get my head around the culture of casual plagiarism here, to see it from a less biased point of view, and understand the factors that go into making an academic environment in which the professors and administrators condemn this kind of blatant plagiarism, but in which literally 95% of students still feel comfortable simply copy/pasting their essay from Wikipedia. I framed my lecture this way:

There are two reasons you should write your paper yourself and not simply copy it:

1. The assignment was to write a paper. You have shown me that you are very good at reading, at comprehending what you read, and at choosing relevant information from what you read and putting it together. But this assignment is meant to test your writing skills, your ability to produce your own sentences and language.

2. If you go to study abroad in the United States or in Norway or Germany, you have to understand that this is taken much more seriously there. If you do this in the U.S., you get expelled. Maybe not the first time, but if you do it three or four times, you’re a goner.

That second one blew their minds. They seemed to take my talk seriously, and I tried not to make it too preachy. As I told them, I was trained from fifth grade in how to cite sources and use parenthetical documentation, and it’s not fair of me to expect them to figure it out in two weeks. But, I do expect them to produce their own sentences. So, we’ll see what I get when they turn in their final papers.

Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.

In search of a key

The key situation at SAFU is pretty absurd. All classrooms and offices stay locked all the time, until someone needs to use the room and gets the key. The default location for all keys is a little office at the entrance to the building called the vakhta, which Multitran translates as “watch” or “reception desk,” but which is really a kind of troll at the gate situation. Not to speak unkindly of the vakhtyory who work there and guard the keys– they are all perfectly pleasant. At the beginning of the day, a bunch of keys are taken to the dekanat, or dean’s office, which is now (due to renovations) on the second floor, where they sit in a little key tray made out of cardboard. The keys to some of the department offices, as well as many classrooms (but not all of them) are there for most of the day, and anyone, student or teacher, can go and get [almost] any key.

Even though last week was the official start of classes for students not in night classes, there weren’t that many teachers around in my department, or kafedra, due to the fact that the third years [I think] were on some sort of vacation, and a lot of teachers were on a different kind of vacation. There were several days I found myself the only English teacher in the building. Usually, the secretary opens the office on the third floor first thing in the morning, but she is also [maybe] on vacation, so it fell to me to find the key. A simple feat, one might think, but alas, it was not so. Apart from improving my Russian language skills, I have had to learn a whole new visual language of the kafedra key. Here, for your edification, is a basic phrasebook of key language:

  • Padlock on the door means no one has been there yet, and the key is [probably] still at the vakhta. You must go back down to the first floor to ask for it.
  • If the door is locked but the padlock is not there, someone has been here and has taken the key with them. A piece of paper stuck to the door will [probably] tell you what room they are in. It’s fine to interrupt their class in order to get the key from them.
  • If there is no one in the room indicated by the paper on the door, try the dekanat.
  • If it is not in the dekanat either, check the teachers’ lounge, the American Studies center, and the German kafedra. Sometimes people decide that those places are default locations for the key, or the secretary takes it there for a short break.
  • If it’s not in any of those places, go to the fourth floor and prowl for any English class. The teacher there probably has it and just didn’t mark their room number on the door. (This happens most often in the evening, but can happen during the day as well.)

Once I’ve found the key to the kafedra, there is still the matter of the classroom. Russian universities don’t work like American ones, where you have the same class in the same room every week. Room assignments change from day to day and week to week, all dictated by the dean’s office and announced each day on a posterboard schedule hanging in the hallway outside the English kafedra. Ostensibly this has to do with the general lack of classroom space and resources such as TVs and rooms with screens for projectors. But in practice, I’m often assigned a room with a TV when I don’t need one– and sometimes I don’t get a TV when I do need one, even when I’ve asked for it.

For example, last week I requested a room with a TV for my video class. But, because the class is still listed under Elena’s name, instead of mine, they weren’t able to give me what I asked for. So, I was left TV-less for the day. In a moment of inspired resourcefulness, I remembered that I’d used the flatscreen TV in the teachers’ lounge for this class before, checked the schedule to see if anybody else was assigned that room for that period, and quietly told the students to go there, without asking or telling anyone else. Success!

Earlier in the week, I was assigned the Swedish room, whose key, unbeknownst to me, can only be obtained by a teacher. Usually the students get the key and congregate in the classroom before I even get there. Not this time! In a crazy, haphazard, rule-free system, this one key has a special note on it warning that only teachers may touch it. And then, later, I was assigned a room that remained inexplicably locked despite the students’ efforts. I went to the dekanat; no key. I went to the vakhta, where I was informed that the room was the personal office of Andrea, the German teacher, and that they had a special note saying that only she could be given that key. I went back to the dekanat and explained this to them, to discover that they thought I was Andrea the German. They gave me a different room.

Dealing with this very free-form system is its own special kind of frustration, but offers its own special sense of satisfaction when conquered–especially when once you get inside the classrooms, you have the kind of engaging, enthusiastic, productive classes I was lucky to have this week. This semester is already looking good!

the English kafedra