Show Russia the Good Side

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September is upon us, and millions of Russian and American students, from fresh-scrubbed schoolchildren to grizzled doctoral candidates, are dutifully filing back into the halls of academe to resume the class struggle. While the primary school peons will perform much the same labor in both countries -- reading, writing, chewing gum and making paper airplanes -- the elite troops at the college level, where I work, will mirror each other rather less closely. Higher education in Russia and the United States has evolved very differently, producing undergraduates of distinctly different species.

You think "different species" an exaggeration? Well, take a walk in my Weejuns. The following quiz is based on actual classroom episodes in St. Petersburg and Moscow universities.

• Natasha, a third-year sociology major in my class on American images of Russia, submitted a term paper on John Dos Passos written in error-free English with the fluency and perception of, say, an assistant professor at an American college. As her instructor, what should you do?

(a) Congratulate the student on a job well done. (b) Wink, mentioning a tenure-track opening at Minnesota State that might interest her "friend." (c) Drag her by the hair to the nearest dean's office and read her the riot act on the first rule of real-world academia: Do your own work.

I wanted to do (c), of course, and finally did -- but minus the hair-dragging and minus the dean's office. What good would a dean do when the sale of term papers is routine here and this one was clearly a good buy? Natasha probably got a better deal than the current prime minister, whose graduate thesis featured 16 pages snipped directly from a foreign economics textbook -- a scandal that scandalized exactly no one. My only trump card with Natasha was: "If you go to some Western university as a graduate student and pull something like this, they'll send you home on the next plane." She turned in another paper on Dos Passos' Moscow adventures, complete with faulty grammar and some interesting thoughts, and we both learned from the experience. Win-win.

• Darya, a middling student in my Extreme English course, was fidgeting in her chair one day, extending her right arm at odd angles as I paced my usual rounds while addressing the class. Finding this increasingly distracting, I approached her and asked what she was doing. Reluctantly, Darya revealed the mobile phone in her palm with which she had evidently been broadcasting the day's proceedings to persons unknown. What's your best response?

(a) Ask the three key video questions: Did you get my good side? Was this local or network? Does this tie make me look fat? (b) Impound the telephone, which clearly has more features than yours. (c) E-mail a New York lawyer and ask who actually owns the intellectual property rights to this class -- you, the institution who pays you, or the student-consumers who pay the institution.

It's (c) again, predictably, although the lawyer's response -- "That's a very interesting question" -- fell somewhat short of definitive. In any case, American students would never try to televise a class without an instructor's consent (and especially from his bad side). Would they?

• Almost halfway through the semester, a new student named Vanya appeared at the weekly evening seminar I was teaching on Russian perceptions of the United States. After class, he asked to sign up for the course, explaining that the only reason he hadn't come the first six weeks was that another class he absolutely could not miss met at the same time. What do you say?

(a) Turn him down, explaining that a seminar is a special academic exercise, a search for and exchange of knowledge in which all the participants contribute as the instructor shapes the cumulative discourse. You can't recapitulate half of it for someone who hasn't been there, nor can such a person contribute equally to its continuation -- so harrumph and good evening. (b) Ask out of curiosity (and envy) just what class qualified ahead of yours as absolutely unmissable. (c) Upon hearing that it was Driver's Ed, throw up your hands and say, "What the hell, it's Russia: Sure, you can take the course -- if you give me a ride home every week."

See, they're a different species, all right. And at this point, so am I. Anyway, here's the syllabus, kids, let's get bookin'.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.