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"None?" I said a moment later.
A hand shot up near the back row.
"Yes?" I said.
"How old are you?" said a student.
"How old am I?" I said, "57."
"Are you married?" said another. "Do you have children?"
"Why these questions?" I said.
"This information wasn't provided in your introduction," one said.
"If my best friend wants to be on a planning team, and she'd be terrible because she is loud, won't let anyone talk and doesn't work for the company, how do I turn her down?" said another. "She'd probably be angry with me for life."
Ahh, back to the seminar topic I thought, safe at last. "Good question," I said. "I'm glad you brought it up."
Several weeks later, Lena Azheyev, a librarian working on her PhD, who did undergraduate work at Iowa State, told me that Russians like to ask personal questions and will do so very quickly, while never asking a person what their occupation is. I said that I notice Russians stand very close to one another. She informed me that their sense of personal space was very close, often much closer than Americans were used to.
Teaching at the Academy got off to a very festive note. September one is opening day for all universities, high and elementary schools in Russia and is considered a holiday, a national education day holiday. People purchase new clothes in much the same spirit as some dress for church on Easter. When I walked over to the Academy at 10 A.M. the area around the entrance was packed with students in jackets and ties, new dresses and the air was filled with squeals of joy and laughter as people hugged each other and pounded one another on the backs. Others were decked out in costumes and practicing steps for their upcoming performances. A huge banner hung over the door, technicians were arriving last-mute with speakers, and the faculty was being bunched up to one side. There I joined them.
Inessa Gafarvova, administrator for the International Program and my immediate supervisor, dressed in a long elegant gown, welcomed me. With her serving as translator I listened to poems read by several students, watched a remarkable dance performed by members of the first year class (When did they have time to rehearse, I thought), heard many stirring speeches peppered with admonishments of staying healthy, not smoking and drinking, and my name called to step forward and gave a wave while welcomed to the community. The celebration ended with a balloon launch, ribbon cutting and doors flung open for us all to surge inside only to get caught in a huge traffic jam as security checked IDs. I asked Inessa if all school openings were this elaborate and she relied no, the Academy's celebration, being an arts college, was more artistic than most, but the spirit was the same.
Securing housing was a little confusing only as a result of a lack of understanding. The Academy offered to arrange housing for me in their hostel, or they could try to find me an apartment. Staying in a hostel didn't sound appealing recalling some I had been in during my youth, but nothing happened with the apartment, in part because of internal miscommunication. However it turned out the hostel was far better than most apartments or hotels I've encountered anywhere in Russia outside of an international tourist hotel in Moscow and has become a bit of an attraction for visiting friends, forcing me to make my bed on a daily basis for the first time in my life I think.
Determining my teaching schedule was more like a fog slowly becoming a cloud and now, a few weeks into it, getting a solid feel even though various adjustments are still being made. The challenge has been that I am the first American teacher they had and for us trying to accommodate each other's expectations and desires. I was often asked what do I want to do, how long do I want my classes to be, how big and how often. I'd respond by asking what's their normal class length (70 or 140 minutes, the latter with a ten minute break in the middle), class size and schedule so I could adjust to their structure. My thoughts for some relatively small classes (for small group discussion) rapidly evaporated, and the sizes now range between thirty-three and eighty, excluding visiting faculty and administrators, and held largely in a lecture format with me speaking for about 40 minutes (including translation) with the balance for Q&A.
In general I teach two arts administration courses to a total of two hundred and eighty-seven students; one series, for students of socio-cultural activities (non-institutional arts planning) that covers: The Creative Economy, An Overview of the Arts in the US, Arts & Culture in Rural Areas, Community Organizing, Strategic Planning, Budgeting, Leadership Development, Recruiting Volunteers, Program Development, Cultural Access, Arts Education, Arts and Healthcare, Marketing the Arts, Cultural & Eco Tourism, Fundraising, Program Evaluation: Measuring Results, and Management. The another is for socio-cultural service (cultural and performing arts centers, museums and other formal arts institutions) eco and cultural tourism and covers; Strategic Planning, Arts Education, Arts and Healthcare, Marketing the Arts, Cultural Tourism, Fundraising and Management. All participants will be broken into small work groups to develop mission statements and strategic plans.
I have thirty-one additional students in decorative arts that I'm teaching the fine art of rustic furniture making (possibly the first college level class offered on this topic anywhere in the world); this to have been limited to a class of eight, but when thirty-one signed up all were admitted. To say that classroom-work shop is a bit jammed is an understatement. Stepping into the crowded room was a surprise, but no less so was being handed a monster bouquet of flowers by the arts supervisor. It was clear that reducing the class size-wasn't an option, not after that introduction and a welcoming speech equally superlative.
In addition, I have picked up various ad hoc classes of English students (this adds another 36 students a week), have a bi-weekly discussion group with the English-Foreign Language faculty, get asked to edit articles and reports translated from Russian to English, and get asked about once a week to speak to English classes in other academies or high schools. While visiting the Buryat History Museum a curator, hearing from the front desk that an "Englishman" was in the museum, rushed out, handed me eight pages of exhibition copy, and asked if I could edit before I left (it ultimately took me four hours at home). So a fairly full schedule.
The faculty and administration staff couldn't be nicer and more supportive, most especially the Assistant Director (and I believe Academic Dean) Olga Kuznetsova, who has more patience than anyone I can recall ever meeting. Especially at the beginning of a term it seems that every faculty member, and half the student body, wants to see her immediately no matter who she is with, and many speak in full volume and try to elbow others in front out of the way. Nothing seems to faze her. With good humor and lots of intelligence everything gets sorted out, all while sharing a space with two others. At times I think she sees me as comic relief. My hat goes off to her. She could give lessons in diplomacy to the United Nations.
I have been provided a desk space in the Socio-Cultural department, unless locked out then I bounce to Library Science and Foreign Languages in descending order down the hall. Petty thievery is a big problem in Russia and people keep any and all doors locked whenever stepping out even for a few moments. As a matter of fact, I have to go though four locks just to get in or out of my apartment (all keys and door handles turning the exact opposite as in America) and a guarded front door. Having a Mac iBook (laptop) allows me to be a bit of a nomad working wherever a space pops open.
A delightful plus to being at an Arts Academy is that the halls are literally filled with the sound of music. All manner of music and song is pouring out windows, through doors and from students practicing on chairs in the halls. With the forty-fifth anniversary of the Academy coming up on September 26th, preparations are at a fever pitch no less than the dance department that seems to have every spare large space and stage filled with twirling bodies. A clear statement of the Academy's artistic bent is reflected in the lecture hall I use where the raked seats and tables look down on a wood-floored stage on which I stand.
While students leap to their feet when I enter a room, a pleasant touch I must admit, the cultural education continues.
"Yes, you have a question?" I said.
"Do American teachers always sit on desks?" said a student.
"Ahh, often," I said. "Don't Russian teachers?"
"No, I never have seen such a thing."
"You teach different."
"You walk around and have a conversation with students, ask questions, use slides, tell jokes, use short sentences, and make your notes available electronically."
"Teachers read their reports to us and we take notes."
"You were late for your class," said Inessa. "I was worried about you. I tried calling but your (cell) phone didn't answer."
"I was in my apartment writing and lost track of the time. The schedule said the class started at 13:00, but since I'm not used to a 24-hour clock - I think only the military uses it - I was thinking that my class wasn't until three or something. Then I realized it was at one. I tried to dash over, but trying to go through four locks slowed me down say nothing of door handles turning the opposite way and, as you know, as soon as you are in a rush they jam."
"The television news crew was here and everything."
"I'm sorry about that, but as soon as I got through the doors the floor lady wanted to give me a new tea pot and explain how to lock and unlock doors."
"Olga tried calling you as well."
"Since I don't speak Russian I was having a hard time explaining that I was late for a class and she was not to be deterred."
"Let me see your cell phone."
"So I dashed over, I'm glad the television crew was still here and the students were able to be rounded up."
"Your cell phone ran out. You need to recharge it."
"It is? How can you tell?"
"You have to call this number."
"Well that explains the lack of calls."
"I'd take you to the kiosk to get your phone recharged but you have another class."
"I do? It's not on the schedule."
"It is with the first and second year English students and their teacher are waiting for you. The students are all telecommunications majors. I can make you a new schedule if you wish."
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475