Why did you come here? A student asked me that last week as I was introduced to her class. A few classmates giggled. A few others gave the question-asker some pretty harsh side-eyes. In Novosibirsk, as in most communities, the biggest chunk of the population can be split into one of three groups: those who are fiercely proud and defensive of their communities, those who think that literally everyplace else on earth has to be better than their current residence, and those who wouldn’t care less where they are so long as paychecks and meals come at the appointed times. Naturally, at least two of those groups would be curious about why a person has come halfway across the planet to spend a year in their community and on their campus, so it was a good question. I told the group about my research, and my writing ambitions but sidestepped the specific geography because it’s a complicated answer. I’ll handle that here, today: this week’s Dispatch From Siberia handles where I am, why I’m here, and what I hope to get done. Hopefully this information will lay some groundwork that give perspective to the future explorations of my new home you’ll find posted here weekly.
Before I left Huntington, W.V. to embark on this trip, a couple folks went out of their way to console me for having been sent to Siberia. Because of a few of its historical role and reputation as a place to send undesirables or law breakers, Siberia has a reputation of last resort in the Western world—and to an extent, even Moscow. Fine, that’s fair. I mean, there is a Siberian throughway called the Road of Bones. (It’s nowhere near me, by the way—Siberia is one-and-a-half times the size of the U.S.) But it’s just one place, and like so many other locales, we focus on stereotypes when we think of Siberia and ignore the diversity of landscape, economy, culture, and yes—climate. So let’s start here, and with clarity: I wasn’t sent to Siberia. This placement isn’t punishment or an arbitrary assignment. I am not hammering away at renovations to the aforementioned bone road in between classes. I very much had a choice in the matter, and it started with Cub Scout Camp in the summer of 1988.
My formative years were the last years of the Soviet Union. In school, on television, and in daily life, we were taught—subtly and sometimes very directly—that the giant landmass across the earth was a dangerous place full of dangerous people. I bought it—until I met one of them. During my seventh summer, a young woman on a student exchange from the U.S.S.R. was employed at Cub Scout day camp I attended. At that camp, we made some sort of indescribably odd neckwear/name badges out of stamped leather. During the week we adorned them with colored beads that represented accomplishments in swimming, archery, fitness, cooking and all other manner of outdoorish things. The clear bead was simpler, but far more important. It was our Russia session: an hour spent listening to the young blonde woman talk about her home. About school. About food and her cat and playing games with her friends—all things that sounded simple and normal, and not nearly so threatening as television had suggested. She humanized a place I’d been taught to fear, and kindled a sprit of exploration I’ve never outgrown: that afternoon, I became very invested in sorting out just how many other normal, benign things I was being asked to fear or dislike. This sliver of understanding weighed heavily on my mind as the next few years unfolded and the world changed, form those last televised clips of missile parades to the exuberant teens gashing away at the Berlin Wall. I remember Mom telling me to hurry up and finish getting ready for Sunday school while I watched the tanks of Boris Yeltsin’s coup rolling into Red Square. Even at that young age, I was captivated by Russia, and what my neighbors thought of it, what Russians thought of us. I wanted to explore it.
The picture below, then, represents the culmination of a three-decade dream. It’s a simple picture: a selfie I took while sitting on a suitcase so I could finish my coffee before venturing into the Metro. But it’s the first evidence of me in Russia. For this particular dream of exploration to come true, these are some of the things that functionally needed to happen: Communism had to fall. The Fulbright program existed in the U.S.S.R., but expansion of the program to include research like mine didn’t happen until the government changed. I had to pursue a bachelor’s degree in an exploration-based humanity (journalism). I probably could’ve grown far wealthier or more important by pursuing other fields, but I needed one that fed off my curiosity about people and the world. But then, I needed to change careers and pursue a terminal degree. That wasn’t enough though: I needed a full-time, single-institution academic job, which happened when I joined the English faculty at Marshall University. Then, the harrowing application and selection process for a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship—nearly sixty pages of application documents and a yearlong screening process that wound through U.S. discipline experts in literature, diplomats, and a bi-national group of experts and scholars. By this point, the 17-hour flight was nothing.
So, what am I actually doing? Nothing much: I’m just trying to solve America's adjunct crisis, improve English as a Second Language pedagogy, and re-think how we teach writing as an art by trying it in a culture that seldom teaches creative writing as an institutional pursuit. Every year, graduate programs churn out hundreds of accomplished and qualified creative writers, many of whom aspire to teach. The handful of poets and prose authors who ultimately become employed generally do it through part-time adjunct employment as teachers of first year composition. While the comparison might be a bit of a stretch, this is how I see this method: it’s like a professional baseball team drafting someone in the first round, and then sending them to play football, tennis, hockey, and badminton for three years, at which time they’ll be summoned to the major leagues and expected to preform flawlessly at baseball. Also, they’ll have no insurance and will probably have to work at a coffee shop, too, just to make rent. It’s not an ideal system. While teaching composition is noble and important, it’s not the specialty of these writers and it’s not their goal. Corners get cut. Bad habits set in, like rushed grading or flippant attitudes toward office hours or class planning. Their writing suffers. It’s a gross system in which both student and teacher both get shortchanged. One semester during my adjunct years, I taught 27 academic hours at four universities. I’ll spare you the details, but it was good for precisely no one.
Meanwhile, the second language learner population of both international and domestic students continues to grow. These students need to improve their writing. New teachers need to be trained in order to help younger second language learners improve their writing, listening, and reading skills. What if the creative writers and second language learners could be matched together? My research focuses on prose, particularly: the choices we make when writing a story are slow-motion versions of the choices we make in conversation. And despite being maligned for imperialism and all other manner of complaints that have been piled upon academic creative writing in recent years, the contour of a writing workshop is a perfect scaffold for someone who wants to get better at conversation in a new language: first, they make choices slowly, in written form. In prose, we sculpt dialogue, consider dialect, choose strong verbs and precise nouns. Then, we read the work of others and consider the effectiveness of those choices. We conduct a workshop and debate them. We take our work home and consider alternative options, revising in some instances and ignoring suggestions in others. Through the process, the comfort level and speed of decision making steadily increase. My research, then, is to teach writing workshops to second language learners of English while a team of colleagues measure the results. If it works, the hope is that creative writing coursework can be grafted together with existing ESL curriculum. In the end, the result could mean more jobs for talented writers and better instruction for students who want to converse clearly in a language that is not native.
MFA programs in the U.S. (and the general value of attempting to teach creativity) are constantly subject to critique. Almost always, that critique comes from a person who has had the privilege of studying under some gifted writer, and who has then seen fit to, revise, re-envision, flatly pan, or dismiss the system. Critique is good. Critique without perspective is less good. So, I'll engage with students who are interacting with their first formal education in creative prose. I'll pay attention to strengths and skills they've developed through other means, speak with working writers in the community, and gather information about how Russia and neighboring countries have fostered their own literary cultures through individualized approaches rather than formalized studies. Quite simply: before we think about critiquing the American-style workshop made popular at the University of Iowa and taught in myriad forms and fashions during the last century, it might be useful for someone to explore how it's done elsewhere, and to what effect. I'll do that while I'm here.
The primary research project for this trip was dreamed up with some help from my friend Liudmila Kukhareva, a lecturer at Petrozavodsk State University. Last summer, she brought a group of students to Minnesota for a month of classes. I was able to visit for a few days, and we noticed that Russian students were particularly good at the technical aspects of English but tended to struggle or become shy when asked to enter situations that required conversational agility. Our discussions of this phenomenon led to the project described above. I was originally slated to join her in Petrozavodsk, where we would have worked on the project together. As so frequently happens in the U.S., though, there were some institutional complications with that placement and when it became clear that the project couldn’t take place there, the Russian Fulbright office quickly and responsively helped me to identify other sites for research. Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia (1.5 million) and unofficial capitol of Siberia, quickly caught my attention amongst the candidates. Located north of Kazakhstan, west of Baikal (the world's largest freshwater lake) and a couple hours east of the border between Europe and Asia, it's a city in the middle of Russian geography and culture.
A fast growing city with vibrant theatre and arts scenes, the largest opera house in Russia, and a major transportation hub for surface, air, and water travel throughout Russia, Novosibirsk seemed a great place to live and a prime spot for the other half of my work: composing, revising, and publishing original fiction. A few miles to the south is the lovely and brilliantly quiet village of Akademgorodok, which I was able to visit this week, and which strikes me as a brilliant approach to learning: a city built solely for academics, particularly those who specialize in science and technology, where the country’s most brilliant minds are placed in close proximity and encouraged to share projects, ideas, inspiration, and coffee. As I mentioned last week, the café scene is vibrant. The city is full of quirky upstart businesses and has a growing hipster foodie and fashion scene, and it’s just generally a cool, young, vibrant town. Well, during the day, at least. Since buses stop running at 8:30 p.m. and my Russian language skills aren’t yet solid enough to order a cab home, I’ve had an early curfew so far. In just a few moments, though, I begin my first Russian lesson with a professor who works in a language school that happens to be in the same building as my flat. More on that next week—same time, same place. For now, best wishes from unseasonably warm Novosibirsk.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.