Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2012

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Skipper Amanda Clark '05, left, and her crew, Sarah Lihan, will sail for the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics. Photo by Mick Anderson/US Sailing.

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Live from Russia

Live from Russia
Students get a first-person perspective on cultural issues from their peers across the Atlantic. Photo by Bob MacDonnell.

A team-taught class provides a lesson in cross-cultural communication

by Amy Martin


Sitting with her students at a conference table in Shain Library, Andrea Lanoux repeats an assertion from a video they have just watched: Americans are exposed to up to 3,000 ads a day. Then she turns to a large, flat-screen television. “Does that describe your experience in Russia as well?” she asks.

“Yes,” says a Russian student sitting in an auditorium of St. Petersburg's National Research University Higher School of Economics. “I've actually seen some of the ads in the film.”

The response sparks a class discussion via videoconference — with 10 students in New London and 14 in St. Petersburg — about how young people consume and respond to advertising in the U.S. and in Russia.

This conversation, for Lanoux, is a dream more than four years in the making. An associate professor of Slavic studies and faculty coordinator of the Mellon Initiative on Foreign Languages (see “Enhanced Language Programs,” page 23), she is a passionate advocate for integrating culture into language study.

“When I began teaching Russian nearly 20 years ago, we would spend most of our time drilling students on grammar and teaching them to be able to talk about themselves,” says Lanoux, who joined the College in 1999. “Now, we teach students to communicate — not necessarily perfectly and not necessarily about themselves — by understanding cultural contexts.”

This change — and the rapidly expanding availability of technology — started Lanoux thinking about team-teaching with a Russian colleague. Over the past four years, thanks to three trips to St. Petersburg with Connecticut College students in her Russian 101 classes, Lanoux developed a relationship with Irina Shchemeleva, a professor of English at the Higher School of Economics. Together they developed the College's first team-taught class via videoconference: a discussion-based course on youth culture in Russia and the U.S.

“The Net Generation: Contemporary Russian and American Youth Cultures” launched last fall with 13 Russian sociology majors and 11 American Slavic studies majors (one of the American students, Nathaniel Pope '12, attended the class in St. Petersburg, where he was studying abroad for the semester). They met via teleconference for 90 minutes each Tuesday; on Thursdays, Shchemeleva and Lanoux led separate discussion sections with their own students. The class was conducted primarily in English — in part because Shchemeleva could not get approval to teach it otherwise — but included a bilingual online discussion board in both English and Russian.

Jyoti Arvey '14 describes the class as a “clash of cultures” that taught the students to be more critical of common stereotypes. Alexandra Wolf '12 adds, “Americans don't have access to a lot of Russian culture, so we have many preconceived notions. It's great to be able to ask them, 'Is this true?'”

For Lanoux, the mix of students and cultures created a new dynamic in the classroom. Rather than just lecturing, she found herself helping students analyze and understand the viewpoints expressed by their Russian peers. And with Russians in the room, she could not generalize about their culture without being challenged. “I may believe that the majority of Russians think a certain way,” she says, “but now we actually have people in the room representing other opinions.”

Pope enjoyed getting a Russian perspective on articles written by Western scholars and journalists about Russia. One such article portrayed a pro-Putin youth group, Nashi, as a powerful and wide-reaching social force.

“But when we discussed the piece with our Russian peers, they were pretty amazed that the group had garnered so much attention in the American media,” Pope says. “Not a single one of them knew anyone involved in the group, and they indicated that the group's political presence was fairly weak.”

For the Russian students, American-style education was its own surprise. The discussion-based course, with assignments requiring independent analysis and comparison, was completely foreign to students in an educational system based on lectures and memorization.

“I had thought language or the technology would be the real barrier, but it turned out the real barrier was culture,” Lanoux says.

The final presentation, a group research project, required the students to explore complex topics like teen suicide and racism and racial identity in Russia and the U.S. Each group included at least one Russian and one American student.

“At times, the students experienced real miscommunication,” Lanoux says. “It was a very valuable exercise in cross-cultural dialogue.”

Shchemeleva says that Russian and American students were surprised to learn how little they knew about their foreign peers' beliefs and values, and how they live, study and spend their free time.

“Our discussions showed that though we are considered to live in a 'global village with a global culture,' we are still very different,” she says.


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