Saturday, April 26, 2003

"The average Russian student"

In my Russian class, we are currently writing a short essay within the subject of ’words’ – the way they are built or formed, or how they have evolved through time. Possible subjects include “Expressive (‘diminutive’) nouns”, “Prefigal derivations of the verb быть”, ”The relation of the adjectives хороший and добрый”, and ”Differences and similarities of the two different words for freedom – свобода and воля” (my subject).
In my class, there is an older lady, who is a retired university level Swedish teacher. She used to love her job, and it seems that she has a very hard time avoiding to try to be a teacher now, too, although she is actually a student again. She always has opinions about the course, and the way the subject is taught, which often can be quite illuminating and constructive. However, that is not always the case.

Last Thursday, she announced that she was going to lobby against the existence of the essay we are currently working on. She thought it ‘scared people away’ from studying Russian, and should be abandoned from the course.
She, herself, actually likes working on her essay very much.

Now, we are actually studying Russian at university level, on the second semester. (Before you start on the first semester, you need to have studied Russian for two or three years in upper secondary school, or in some other way have acquired a similar level.)
This means that (a) it is an academic course that should concern itself with linguistic aspects of the language and not only ‘making yourself understood on the street’, and (b) that the students in this course do have a somewhat high level of knowledge of the language. Of course, there are certain differences between the students in the group, but we all are able to read and analyse somewhat difficult Russian texts, and have a thorough knowledge of more advanced Russian grammar.

When I asked her why she thought it should be abandoned, the first thing she replied was something like: “Well, this course is actually supposed to meet the level of students who have only studied the subject for two semesters, and nothing more than that!” She gave me an insinuating look when pronouncing the last part.
And yes, I have to make the deeply embarrassing confession that I have spent four months at Moscow State University before starting the second semester of my Russian studies here at the University of Lund. The studying there was rather laid-back, and we never really had any exams. If you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to learn much. I know several people there who didn’t learn shit, and only spent their time with other foreign students, talking English or Swedish all the time. Of course, I’m not like that, so I did learn a bit while I was there. I can speak Russian somewhat fluently (which is something you don’t really learn at university level in Sweden), at least. I wouldn’t have learned as much, though, if I didn’t already have a good head for languages.

Well, to return to last Thursday.

The lady in my class was thus insinuating that since I had studied more Russian than two semesters in Sweden, I didn’t have anything to say about the course and its contents. Maybe she didn’t think about the fact that not only myself, but also two other students in our small group of about twelve had been studying Russian in Russia for a certain period, which would mean that ¼ of the class didn’t have anything to say about the course.

I then replied, that she herself had not studied more than these two semesters in Sweden, but she still liked working on the essay very much.
She said: “But that’s my job! I’ve been an academic all my life! Of course I like writing linguistic essays! But that’s not the point! I’m talking about the average pupil today, who has no interest in the academical and linguistical aspects of a language, but studies it to use it in everyday life!”

Okay. So, she insinuated that also everyone with a special interest in linguistics didn’t have anything to say about the course. That would exclude myself, once again, and herself. Probably also one or two other students in our class, who think linguistics is great fun. (Which means she was up in the following figure: 5-6 of the students in our group don’t have anything to say about the course and its contents.)
At this point I was getting very tired, and let her continue with her lecture about how you can’t expect of people that they should put down unnecessary time on old and dead things like linguistics, because they simply have no interest whatsoever in the subject. That’s what it sounded like to my ears, at least.

Instead, I pursued my mathematics. Of the 6-7 students that were left, two have Russian as their native language, so they obviously couldn’t have anything to say about the course, according to this lady. Of the remaining 4-5, three students only visit a couple of classes within the Russian course (for example, they might only visit the literature class and participate in writing the essay, but not visit the conversation and translation classes). They couldn’t, in her opinion as I estimated it, have anything to say about the course, either, because they only took a very small part of it. Which left two students in the group, who must be the ones she calls ‘average students’.
One of them is an economic, but with a great interest for languages. Actually, she might also fall into the category of people who can’t have opinions about the course, because they have a linguistic interest.
The other is a political scientist, who only studies Russian because it’s a bit fun, and because she is interested in Russian politics. If one is allowed to say it (in Sweden, one usually isn’t) she has not much talent for languages at all, and obviously has the greatest difficulties with the course of all.
And she is the one who is the ‘average student’ according to the retired Swedish teacher in my class.

Well, regardless of how little base her arguments have in the real conditions in our class, she still has a certain point.

The linguistic program in Swedish upper secondary school is one of those that have the lowest status of all (possibly it might be a bit higher than metal works and ‘children and leisure-time activities’ – yes, there actually is a program like that: you study three years at upper secondary school (classes 10-12) to be qualified for taking care of small children in kindergartens, or something – I haven’t quite figured it out).
The linguistic program actually has great potential: you can study at least three modern languages: English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian or French, plus Latin (obligatory) and sometimes Classical Greek (voluntary).
Still, no one seems to learn much, unless they are a bit like me, sponges that suck up every new word and grammatical structure they come across.

This might be because linguistics has very low status in society at large. It is plain to see in the fact that almost all linguistics students are women – a common sign of low status not only in university.
And whenever some elements in the government want to direct some additional support to certain subjects in school, it is always to mathematics and other subjects within natural science. The universities not very rarely keep away money and resources from the humanistic institutions and redirect them to scientific institutions.

Ah, but it used to be different ... When my history teacher in Germany, Mr. Gahre, wanted to study History at the university, he found that he couldn’t, unless he had taken a class in Latin. Which he hadn’t, so he had to pain himself through an intensive summer course before he was accepted to the History course.

Even in Sweden, it has been like that once, long ago. But during the last few decades, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in the Swedish school system. Some things have certainly improved: the school is free, and not only rich kids are allowed to study anymore, and the teacher isn’t allowed to beat the pupils.
But there is a certain point where the striving after ‘equality’ in school has gone wrong and been distorted. Instead of allowing everyone the possibility to learn whatever they want to by encouraging learning, it has in many ways turned to ‘lowering the level’ – in order to allow everyone the opportunity to learn everything, the level of the education is lowered, so that even the ‘weakest’ students – that is, those with no interest in learning the particular subject at all – can get a degree. Which, of course, hits back on students who actually are interested in the subject and have slightly greater learning capabilities. They are forced to hold back and wait for the ‘weaker’ students.
This creates a certain disdain of the ‘faster learning’ students, and of learning in general. It is very easy to adopt a stance, that regards everything that’s difficult too difficult. The ones who do often seem to think that the education should be kept down on the level of the students, instead of the education lifting the students to a higher level.

As is the case with the retired Swedish teacher in my class, such people often enough seem to want to speak for others. She herself finds linguistics highly fascinating, but she thinks she can tell how other people think and feel, and puts words into other’s mouths, saying it’s ‘too difficult’.
She wants even the ‘weakest’ students in the class to be able to pass the course. That is certainly not a bad idea at all, essentially. But the strategy for reaching the goal that she is speaking for is one that would lower the level of education, instead of making this higher level more accessible for ‘weaker’ students.
It seems that she wants to eliminate all elements of ‘higher level linguistics’ in the course, so that people who don’t know anything about linguistics won’t feel intimidated. But another strategy could actually be to facilitate the study of linguistics for those who have never studied it before, instead of just removing it. This could be realised by, for instance, actually adding a few linguistics lectures, and, in the case of the essay, maybe allowing for a broader spectrum of subjects, which, perhaps, could concern themselves slightly more with general history, sociology, business, or whatever (‘the Russian business language’ and things like that, which should actually interest an economist who is studying Russian with the intent of working in businesses with contacts in Russia). And it’s not like we don’t already have friendly and helpful teachers who are more than willing to aid and instruct us while working on the essay.

So, a note to myself, for when the time comes to fill out the ‘Course Evaluation’ form: You shouldn’t lower the level of education to allow for a greater variety in student background. You can instead maintain a high level of education, but make it more accessible to those who need more help.

And that’s not considering the fact that the political scientist girl in my class maybe just isn’t cut out for a master’s degree in the Russian language ...
If someone just wants to learn to speak a language to make themselves understood on the street, and to be able to read newspapers, why do they study it in the university? They could at least study Russian at a university in Russia, where they would have a much better chance at learning to speak the language in everyday life.

Hmm. Or maybe I’m just not realising how difficult things can be for people.