Thoughts on Writing and Kazakhstan’s Present “Soviet” Reality

I cherish an older book dating back to 1925 written by a female author, Mrs. Charles E. Cowman. I love the following passage about a musician who played from his heart.  This passage is taken from Streams in the Desert which illustrates a point I try to drive home with my Kazakh students about writing from their hearts. 

“Paganini, the great violinist, came out before his audience one day and made the discovery just as they ended their applause that there was something wrong with his violin.  He looked at it a second then saw that it was not his famous and valuable one. He felt paralyzed for a moment, then turned to his audience and told them there had been some mistake and he did not have his own violin.  He stepped back behind the curtain thinking that it was still where he had left it, but discovered that some one had stolen his and left that old second-hand one in its place.  He remained back of the curtain a moment, then came out before his audience and said:

 “Ladies and Gentlemen: I will show you that the music is not in the instrument, but in the soul.”  And he played as he had never played before; and out of that second-hand instrument, the music poured forth until the audience was enraptured with enthusiasm and the applause almost lifted the ceiling of the building, because the man had revealed to them that music was not in the machine but in his own soul.”

Two years ago when I came to this institution of higher learning where I am currently teaching, there was already a “machine” in place.  Especially true for first year students with the one mandatory Academic Writing class. For emphasis, let me repeat, this was a class where the Kazakh students were only required to take ONE writing class while taking TWO academic listening classes!!! If anything, these Kazakh students who don’t have an adequate grounding in writing in Russian or Kazakh from high school, should have been required to take THREE writing courses in English in order to be on par with any university in a western environment. To become good writers, we all must put in our hours of writing practice.  No different from the great Paganini who put his time in with endless hours of playing his valuable violin.

 When I arrived on the scene and was finally permitted to teach, (there was much dilly-dallying about my coming on board, more about that in tomorrow’s blog entry), I witnessed that the writing syllabus supposedly had rules that were “set down in concrete” about how to write a discursive essay and problem/solution essay by people who themselves do not write much in English.  Perhaps these same teacher-centered teachers know how to write in Russian but if trained under the Soviet system it perhaps was stilted sentences that were politically correct.  Back in the old communist days, truth was suppressed in favor of the party line.  The soul was squeezed out of existence and if you wanted to get ahead, you could not write down your TRUE thoughts no matter how big the problems were. (See yesterday’s blog quote about John Dewey’s theory of problems encourage thought.) What if you had thoughts on how to fix a problem but the bigger problem was that you couldn’t express it, especially in writing?

Let me step back with another question, what do I require from my Kazakh students in ALL my classes? They have to write a LOT and from their heart, NOT just go through the motions.  Especially not doing the simple-minded, plagiarist cut and paste kind of assignments like when I caught one Kazakh girl try with me recently.  For her very first writing assignment during Week One of the semester, it turned out that she had written something that struck me as odd.

The red flag went up with each passing week when I compared her in-class writings with her very first writing assignment sent to me electronically.  She claimed her grandma survived the hard times of the depression and that they had to sell the chicken eggs for one tenge each for a dozen.  First of all, eggs in the former Soviet Union were never sold as a dozen, always sold in ten.  Still true today.  Second, the grandma would have said kopeks and NOT tenge. (new KZ currency as of 1992) 

When I did a simple Google search, obviously my clueless student had lifted this example of an American’s grandma experience during the Great Depression.  How very disrespectful of her own Kazakh grandma!!! Where is the soul or love for her own grandma by writing about someone else’s grandma?  Even when I showed the two examples in my powerpoint to all five of my classes, this girl seemed unashamed.  She didn’t think she had done anything wrong. Later, when I had a chance one-on-one encounter with her, I emphatically said she had better write about her REAL grandma or I would make sure she would be removed from my class, that’s how seriously I take plagiarism.  I had caught her red-handed, but she simply said she was sorry. SORRY!?!?

However, how many of our writing teachers let plagiarized material go for the students’ own written assignments?  It takes extra time to do in-class writing exercises, it takes time to look up the turned in written assignments to make sure it is NOT plagiarized.  Writing takes time!  Teaching writing takes time!!! But if the students’ writing is from their hearts and if it is expressing thoughts that can eventually solve problems, writing is worth it!!!

How many of our writing teachers actually have done the writing assignments they require of their students?  How many of these teachers are bored out of their minds reading through the same material that has encyclopedic, blah blah facts to them?  I tell my students that they must be so invested in their paper that I don’t care if the grammar is out of place or the wrong words might be used, at least they are practicing their writing skills. Paganini did not become a virtuoso overnight. No doubt he played wrong notes all the time in his practice sessions. But he practiced, as we all should in our efforts to write.  I speak for myself.

How many of our writing teachers have plagiarized themselves into a degree of distinction, such as Candidate of Science or MBA or some other masters equivalent?  Naturally, they would steadfastly refuse to admit they stole words from someone else, without the proper attribution. However, if their words in English (i.e. e-mail messages or lack thereof) were scrutinized today compared to their thesis paper done in English to get their coveted degree, they would fall woefully short.  They would be just as guilty as the clueless girl who thought it was okay to copy an American grandma’s experience as her own grandma’s life story.

I strongly believe that writing teachers should LOVE to write and LOVE to read what their Kazakh, Korean and Russian students are writing.  If these two conditions are not met, these “selfish”-made teachers should get out of the business of teaching, especially in a westernized university where writing is how one is promoted.

Tomorrow I will write about my observations of  the “givers and takers” at our “westernized” university.  These two groups of people are in every university, every corporation, and every community.  The “takers” siphon off energy from an organization, no matter what their mission statement is.  Regrettably, the “givers” have to carry the load for the free-loaders of which there are many.

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