Posts tagged Orality

Taking Exception to Kazakhstan being a “Dumping Ground”

Writing about Kazakhstan’s history is a highly complex one, no wonder I was having trouble writing my paper for an upcoming TESOL conference in Denver, Colorado.  After I had a long talk with a fellow American expat who has lived in Almaty for 16 years, I was able to create a handout with three graphic tables showing Kazakhstan’s different eras. Once done, I made swift progress with my paper titled “Kazakhstan’s Orality vs. Infoliteracy: What’s a Teacher to Do?”


Yesterday afternoon I had talked to a Kazakh man who teaches Kazakhstan’s history at our university and I showed him my one page handout.  He said that only because I’m an American could I get away with stating what they all know to be true.  I think I fulfill a purpose at our university in finding out from the oral histories of people in Kazakhstan, not just for Kazakhs but for Koreans, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Uyghurs, etc.  For the most part, the Kazakhs are known as a very peaceable people but with very clear memories still of what happened in their own families and country.  I, as the American, can be neutral when finding out as a curious outsider, what actually happened during the 70 year era of the Soviet Union. Any information about the inner workings of this totalitarian state formerly known as the U.S.S.R. had been purposely blocked.  Still is, not much is written in our American history textbooks and they are mostly all positive and glowing about the former socialist state.


Last night I stayed longer at the office than I had intended but it was meant to be since I got negative feedback from a Russian colleague friend of mine about my one page handout.  I simply showed her the three figures and she immediately took exception with Kazakhstan being known as the Soviet Union‘s “dumping ground.”  She loudly disagreed with me on that term.  I said that I have to give my American audience in Denver some kind of quick, historical background before I can really talk about “infoliteracy.”  She said that I was very biased.  She also stated that it means that if her mother came down from Russia that I’m saying that her mother was “garbage!!!” 


NO, what I meant was that there were many nationalities (Korean, German, Ukrainian, etc.) who were dumped off of railroad cars in the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan. Often the oral testimonies I’ve heard is that the Kazakh people helped these exiled people find food and shelter.  My friend kept shaking her head and arguing with me.  She said that we as Americans used to be called a “melting pot” but now better known as a “salad bowl.”  Yes, those are much nicer terms than “dumping ground.”  I’m wondering what term she would use instead to help explain the throwing together of about 120 different nationalities in Kazakhstan???  Apparently, Stalin wrote a book in Russian titled “The Nationalities Question” or something like that.  Supposedly Stalin had his own agenda about mixing things up.

However, I am trying to put myself in my Russian friend’s shoes with how she feels. And she DOES FEEL strongly about this issue. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the Karaganda penal system as a political prisoner and perhaps he was the first to coin the phrase that Kazakhstan was the USSR’s “dumping ground” in his famous book “One Day in the Life of…” Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, through and through.  But for my friend, Kazakhstan is where she was born as a kind of Russian “immigrant” and her Russian parents had jobs here in Almaty with the communist party. 


If one does a quick google search, there are other authors who write using the word “dumping ground” and Kazakhstan together. True, there were many other different “dumping grounds” that Stalin used such as Siberia, it was not just Kazakhstan.  Yet the network of gulags encompassed about one third the land mass of Kazakhstan, so that’s a LOT of prisoners from other former republics of the USSR to keep behind barbed wire.

In the very well built up memorial at ALZHIR about 20 kilometers outside of Kazakhstan’s capital in Astana, you can watch a video at the end of your tour of the three tiered building.  In this video, President Nazarbayev states his purpose in putting money into this memorial in order to remember these sad facts of Kazakhstan’s Soviet history.  In so many words he says, “It is not Kazakhstan’s fault that it was used as a ‘dumping ground’ for the USSR.”  He further stated that too often Kazakhstan is blamed for housing all the political prisoners, however, the Kazakhs had no say in what was happening on their own soil.  The directives came from Moscow and the politically elite.

From a historical point of view, many Russians and Ukrainians came voluntarily to Kazakhstan to open virgin farming land (there is some good land) during the Czarist period.  Particularly at end of 19th and early 20th century during the Stolypin land reforms, which might be vaguely analogous to the US Homestead Act.  It gave peasants and small farmers the right to own land. Unfortunately, I don’t think my friend’s parents came down for the farming that failed on Kazakhstan’s soil.  No, apparently my friend’s mother taught history as a school teacher during the Soviet era.  My guess is that she promoted whatever was in the Soviet approved textbooks that were published in Moscow.  That would certainly have the Russian bias to it and thus NOT the Kazakhs take on history.  No wonder my friend takes extreme exception to my using the term “dumping ground” when referring to Kazakhstan.


Earlier yesterday I had been talking to an Australian friend of mine who has had similar encounters with Russians who were born in Kazakhstan and who have this strange “derangement disorder” of not confessing to the sordid side of their communist past.  The Kazakh man who currently teaches his own Kazakh history is right, he could never say what I had put in my handout.  I’m beginning to wonder how Kazakhstan’s history will ever get sorted out with the pressures from the Soviet past still looming large.  I’m sorry that my friend thinks I’m biased but sadly she does not see herself having her own biases.  Anyway, we have to agree that we disagree on issues relating to USSR history and Kazakhstan


What I found with a quick google search:

 Stalin’s Dumping Ground, By Jeri Laber

As representatives of Helsinki Watch, a colleague and I traveled southeast in the Soviet Union, almost to the Chinese border, to visit the vast and little-known Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where serious abuses of human rights have occurred, not just in recent years but also in the past.[1] Kazakhstan‘s steppelands were among Stalin’s favored sites for labor camps and exile communities, and we had been told, accurately as it turned out, that the region would reveal the scars of the Stalin years more vividly perhaps than any other Soviet republic.






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Paper Presented in Karaganda – “Kazakhstan’s Orality vs. InfoLiteracy”

 The Kyrgyz proverb “Getting education is like digging a well with a needle.” [Bilim iyne menen kuduk kazghandai] is a familiar saying shared by the Kazakh culture as well. When exploring how to successfully teach Information Literacy, it would seem a very deep well to dig indeed.  This paper will use the proverbial “needle” to define terms such as Orality and Info literacy, as well as explain my own experience teaching composition and how writing relates to the oral traditions of Kazakhstan.


What is Orality?

All cultures learn to communicate orally, in fact, according to Walter Ong’s (1982), a 1971 study showed there were 3,000 languages and only 78 had a written literature. Given those same odds in today’s volatile age, it is necessary for diplomacy between nations to better understand oral cultures rather than vice versa.  Ong argues that “many of the contrasts often made between ‘western’ and other views seem reducible to contrasts between deeply interiorized literacy and more or less residually oral states of consciousness” (p. 29).


Obviously Walter Ong’s seminal work in 1982 needs to be unpacked in greater detail, yet the focus of this paper is to look beyond his research to the present technology age of computers.  However, before I proceed, I am intrigued by the work done by Lev Vygotsky’s devotee, Aleksandr Romanovich Luria.  In 1931-32, Dr. Luria researched the oral cultures of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as a neuropsychologist.  He did extensive fieldwork comparing oral and literate subjects in remote areas which will shed some light on Walter Ong’s life work concerning the term he coined of “Orality.” 


What is Information Literacy?

According to Caroline Stern as cited by Christine Bruce (2002) there are at least five different kinds of literacies: 1) Alphabetic – write name; 2) Functional – read and write; 3) Social literacy – communication in cultural context: 4) Information literacy – critical location, evaluation and use of information; 5) Digital information literacy – application of information’s literacy in the digital environment.  In the same powerpoint produced by Bruce, Patricia Breivik (2000) defines “info literacy IS NOT…teaching a set of skills but rather a process that should transform both learning and the culture of communities for the better.”


Kazakhstan’s Digital Inequality and Digital Divide

President Nazarbayev is no doubt very aware of the tension between his own Kazakh culture of oral traditions and the technological world he is surrounded by in our globalized economy.  He ordered by Presidential Decree on September 15, 2006 to build the “Information Technology Park” in Alatau IT City, near Almaty with completion sometime in 2011. A quote taken by Nurlan Zhagipavov may exemplify the President’s thinking:


“It seems to me that the intelligent people and business elite of the country must join and create joint educational projects so as to restore and save the High School.  Liquidation of ‘digital inequality’ has to start from this” (p. 35).


A year before in 2005, UNESCO gave funding for a grant titled “Kazakhstan: Electronic Library in Rural Areas for Reducing Digital Divide.”  Strides are being made at the university I teach at, to help our incoming first year students to understand the power of the electronic library right on our university campus.


What are Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants?
The two phrases “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” were coined by Marc Prensky (2001) in an article he wrote by that title.  According to Prensky, the definition for “digital natives” is what my typical university students are in today’s classroom, “they are all native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”  The quandary most older teachers who fit the “digital immigrant” category are facing, according to Prensky, is they “speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”


According to Prensky (2001) Digital Natives are used to receiving information very quickly, they like to parallel process and multi-task.  However, Digital Immigrants have little appreciation for these new skills the “digital natives” use because they are totally foreign to them.  Digital Immigrants prefer to teach the way they learned, “slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually and above all, seriously.”  When I heard Marc Prensky speak at a tech conference in 2002, sadly he quoted an American high school student complain, “Every time I go to school, I have to power down.”  Despite oral traditions still being extremely important in Central Asian countries, I believe writing teachers of the 21 st century, the world over, need to keep pace with “Info Literacy.”




Bruce, C. (2002). Seven faces of information literacy: Towards inviting students into new experiences,, retrieved on Oct. 25, 2008


Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.


“Purchases on the Internet? Reality!” (2008). World Monitor, Kazakhstan, 3(14), 34-35.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, NCB University Press, 9(5).


“Special Economic Zone – Information Technology Park.” (2008). World Monitor, Kazakhstan, 4(15), 46-47.





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Kazakh Faces at Astana, Alatau Sanatorium and Turgen

Just as I was about to put this in my blog, one of my blog readers asked about the Alatau Sanatorium I stayed at for a CATEC (Central Asia Teachers of English) conference this past June.  I presented at CATEC with a colleague friend of mine and will do something of the same next week in Astana and Karaganda for another conference.  The title for both presentations is “Kazakhstan’s Orality vs. Info Literacy.”  It will be fun to travel with another new friend of mine within our Language Center who will be presenting her own paper.

During our mid-semester break, it was GREAT to travel to Astana to visit some of my husband’s Kazakh friends from his agricultural past working for USDA of 16-17 years ago.  We were served a very Kazakh meal of Beshbarmak (Five Fingers) by our gracious hostess Cholpan.  Her husband and Ken friend, Kanat gave us a tour of the Farming Institute which used to be THEE place for the former Soviet Union. 

Kazakhs are known to be very generous and hospitable but I’m also learning that some can be very spiteful and vengeful too.  I think there are those who would LOVE to go to this upcoming conference but are mired down with committee meetings and trying frantically to keep up with the pace of our university.  Perhaps they would rather be dancing like these Kazakh girls above who were at the Alatau sanatorium or on horseback similar to photo below when we went last spring to Turgen to do some trout fishing.  In any case, for every happy and kind Kazakh face, there are those who are showing a happy face which is trying to cover up a very vengeful and mean spirit inside.  Human nature is basically sinful no matter what country you are living in.

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