THE CHALLENGES OF ESTABLISHING A NEW DISCIPLINE:
INTRODUCING COMMUNICATION STUDIES IN RUSSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION
Submitted for the presentation at the National Communication Association Convention Reaching Out Reaching In, November 20-23, 2003, Miami Beach, USA
A few years ago, when I was starting to explore in what way Communication Studies and communication education are represented in Russia, I would have hesitated to give a definite answer. Today I can be more certain in stating that Communication as an area of study is new to Russia, but there is a growing practical need and social demand for this kind of knowledge and skills, education and training, and consequently, for research. Whenever I go to Russia, I have numerous meetings and discussions with students, professors, managers, and business people who recognize, in one way or the other, the necessity of developing and implementing communication programs and curricula. If a couple of years ago the first RCA conference-2002 was among very few with communication as a theme, today I receive through the RCA mailing list information letters about conferences in Russia that have a communication agenda almost weekly.
So on the one hand, we have this trend - a growing interest in learning more about communication and communication skills and in introducing communication programs at the university level, on the other hand, there are many factors that make this process difficult, and my presentation will focus on some of those challenges. In this paper, I categorize them as (1) challenges associated with academic, pedagogical, and educational policies traditions; and (2) challenges rooted in socio-cultural practices and traditions.
Challenges associated with academic, pedagogical, and educational policies traditions:
1. Centralized curriculum.
The content and structure of what is called the pedagogical process (teaching and learning) in Russian universities is centralized (structured and controlled) through the Ministry of Higher Education. Professional specializations (majors or degree programs), which are offered by a state university, are the ones that are represented in educational standards approved and administered by the Ministry. Communication is not yet on the list of the existing standards. The closest is the educational standard called "Linguistics and Intercultural Communication," introduced in 2000. The absence of a formalized educational standard makes it difficult for many universities to introduce a communication program on a full scale, though some institutions are introducing selective communication courses in the part of curriculum known as a regional component of the curriculum. Independent (non-governmental, non-state) universities have more flexibility in structuring their curriculum and, as a rule, a communication component may be included there more extensively (Institute of Management, Business, and Law in Rostov is an example).
This fact, that Communication is not yet recognized as formal educational standard or as a separate major, has various inhibiting effects on the development of the discipline in Russia. One of the most obvious difficulties is that teachers who decide to teach communication courses cannot find sufficient instructional support for their course - there are not enough instructional communication materials of good quality. In addition, this non-recognition of the discipline on the official level has financial consequences. Many scholars who have communication agendas have reported that, while seeking grants and sponsorship, have difficulty in getting them because, as a rule, the category of communication is not on the list of topics for grants and financial support at Russian foundations.
2. Knowledge-transmitting approach in teaching.
The process of teaching in Russia is traditionally structured into two major types of instructional activities: lectures and seminars, where teachers traditionally provide knowledge and students acquire knowledge and demonstrate how they can apply it to new contexts. Though today methods of teaching may vary strongly from school to school, overall the Russian pedagogy may be characterized as less interactive in its methods of teaching than, for example, the US pedagogy. In this knowledge-transmitting approach it is essential that, in order to teach a discipline, there must be textbooks available. And though there are more and more communication books on the market today, there is still a lack of Russian communication textbooks, which makes its teaching that much more difficult, both for students and teachers.
3. Lack of Internet and information technology competence.
One might say that in the era of the Internet the absence of printed textbooks is not a major issue - there is an ocean of instructional communication materials that can be found on the web and incorporated into a teaching process. However, for many Russians, including not only university students, but university teachers and scholars, the Internet is not yet an everyday tool of their professional life:
- People do not have sufficient technical equipment: they do not have computers at home, or their computer at work is very outdated, or there is no easy access to the Internet
- People do not have sufficient skills to search for and to process the information they need. In this sense, many university faculty may not be more skillful than their students (for example, my colleagues sometimes ask me to find western resources for their research topic, though they have a computer on their desk with access to the Internet, just as I do. Or in the context of the RCA development, two of its leaders - myself and vice-president are "on good terms" with a computer, others may not be used to computer-mediated interactions and organizational management, and this often creates difficulties in our team work)
The number of people using information and communications technologies in everyday life is growing in Russia - over 12 million people (11 % of the entire population) used the Internet at least once in six months in Summer 2003 (versus Spring 2003 - 10%). However, 16% of those users live in the capital, Moscow. In comparison, the percentages in three largest Russian regions are: Siberia - 13% of Internet users, the Urals - 6%, the Russian Far East - 4%. Thus, the Internet -users situation in Moscow is considerably different from many other regions of Russia.
Only about 4% of Russians have a computer at home and 1% have Internet access from home. In the capital of the country the indices are significantly higher. In Moscow 16% of the residents have a computer at home, 3% can access the Internet from home, and 30% of the population access the Internet, while in Siberia only 10% of the regional population accesses the Internet. The majority of the Internet users in Russia are young people between 18-25 years old, however, in Moscow the most active group of Internet users are people 25-35 years old.
It is also worth mentioning that for this analysis, I had intended to find any survey results on measuring specific computer-oriented skills among Russian students and then comparing those to similar skills among faculty, however, those results were not available.
4. Lack of conceptual foundation in understanding communication and communication studies
Many Russian scholars, including those who make efforts to introduce communication courses in their institutions, still do not have a conceptual understanding of how multidimensional and diverse the area of communication studies is, how many perspectives and methodologies co-exist there and what school of thought those methodologies stem from.
In education research in Russia that addresses communication issues, the lack of a conceptual foundation of communication is sometimes stunning. An example: A researcher (of US Ph.D. level), whose dissertation study I was asked to review for the defense, demonstrated a very limited understanding of what communication is as a process (the study focused on how, in teacher preparation, to develop teachers' communicative skills). In that approach, communication was predominantly viewed as teachers' ability to express effectively their ideas and emotions and to organize, or structure, the teaching-learning process. The interactional nature of communication as a two-way process was not even implied. And it is particularly disheartening because many ideas that constitute the core of modern communication studies in the West (its two-way, interactive and dialogical nature or its social, collective or transactional nature) can be found in the works of Russian thinkers and scholars - Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and the Leontyevs to name a few. Yet, that knowledge still has to make its way into applied communication research and into communication education and teaching among practicing teachers.
Along with the issue of a conceptual foundation in understanding communication as a field there is an issue of understanding communication research methods. This issue, in my view, also presents difficulty for many Russian scholars who are trained in the areas of education and humanities. Those scholars - and quite often they are the ones who become interested in a communication agenda - show a lack of training in quantitative methodology or sufficient understanding about the variety of research methods, and this certainly does not help in designing rigorous communication research. Examples: in a recent book on the methodology of educational research by a distinguished member of the Russian Academy of Education the issues of reliability and validity are not even in the table of contents. Also, a Russian PhD student, who was asking me to conduct a survey of US schools on teacher-student interactions, did not seem to have any concern about sampling and generalizability issues while designing that survey. Unfortunately, this approach to quantitative aspects of research is not uncommon among Russian scholars trained in humanities and education.
It is important to mention that there is a growing amount of interesting sociological research
in Russia, which addresses communication issues without defining them as communication (often those studies are classified as studies of management): studies about the types of leadership in Russian organizations, differences between female and male leadership styles (Chirikova, 2003), team building strategies in Russian organizations, etc. ( I can recommend for this purpose quite an interesting journal on organizational culture and management, called "Personal-Mix," St. Petersburg, www.personal-mix.ru). So we can probably anticipate that in the near future there may be a possible merge between the social sciences (sociology) and the humanities (language studies and education) on the common ground of communication studies. In the meantime, those scholars who are determined to facilitate the development of communication research and education in Russia - and many of those scholars are RCA members and activists - focus on the following strategies:
- RCA site development - a primary way to introduce Russian scholars, by means of the Internet, into the "ocean" of communication studies.
- Publications in the RCA journal Vestnik or the RCA newsletter Bulletin - we publish and welcome the submission of the articles that describe the history of this area of studies, its diverse structure (as it exists in the West), and its practices, including communication education.
For example, for those of you who are planning to participate in our conference in Rostov, I would like to stress that it will be very helpful if you precede any presentation with a brief theoretical introduction of the broader theoretical or methodological perspective. For example, if the topic of your paper is on family communication, say a few words about family communication and its focus of study, how it is different from psychology of marriage; or if it is on health communication, characterize that context and its focus within modern communication studies. It will help Russian scholars to place that particular perspective into a broader conceptual perspective and thus will serve the purpose of introducing the diversity of approaches within the discipline. It will also help Russian scholars to better identify the "methodological language" of your approach (such as, for example, rhetorical criticism or communication ethnography).
5. Lack of trained trainers
Many university teachers, particularly in regional universities, who are enthusiastic about developing and teaching communication courses feel that they need to be trained and advised on how to develop a syllabus, a course, or what instructional activities to use. Particularly those who are teaching communication courses by using US textbooks - like E. Griffin's "A First Look at Communication Theory"- feel they will benefit from initial training, including not only didactic or instructional training (what to teach and how to teach), but also cross-cultural and intra-cultural training (recognizing what aspects of the western instructional practices cannot be readily copied in the Russian instruction). The RCA leaders recognize that need and try to contribute to this process of professional training by :
- organizing biannual summer schools and workshops (the first was held this past summer)
- preparing publications on how to develop and teach different communication courses (the next publication in the RCA journal Vestnik is scheduled for Dec., 2003)
- encouraging US universities to participate in partnership programs with Russian universities or exchange programs and to invite Russian scholars for short internships
So far I have been describing what I see as the challenges in communication studies development that are rooted in Russian academic, pedagogical and educational policies traditions. It would be useful to conduct a systematic research to find out more specifically how each of these factors effects the development and implementation of communication research and education in Russia. However, along with those factors, there are quite a few challenges that can be characterized as socio-cultural. These are conflicting dynamics or dialectics that influence the process of establishing new communication norms and practices in Russia today. To be even more specific, I mean contradictions between traditional cultural communication patterns and today's requirements. The RCA's organizational development is, in my view, a good illustration of these conflicting dynamics. As a leader of a developing organization, I will use my own organizational experience to elaborate on some of the issues that I see as characteristic of general communication practices in Russia.
The first issue relates to the way of how some Russian academic professionals, many of whom are established scholars and professors, might view the standards of professionalism and professional communication. Basic principles of professional communication commonly expected in interactions among western professionals, such as team discussions, soliciting or giving timely feedback on the issues that relate to the entire group, or informing the entire group about progress on an issue may not be recognized as important by Russian academics. In contrast, status, rank, and academic position are normally emphasized and recognized as publicly important, and are expected to be respected by others. Often when we are working on a project, I find that my partners may not relate to who can do what or who has what skills, but instead who has power of status, title, or authority. For example, when working on a list of the conference organizing committee, Russian organizers (most of them are scholars and educational administrators) would tend to include as many "big names" as possible - people who may not do any actual work on the conference but have impressive titles and ranks and as such can be viewed as an attraction for possible participants. In Russian, we refer to them often as "wedding generals" (the metaphor goes back to a character in A. Chekhov's story, a general who was invited to attend a wedding to bring more status to it). Or, while making any other formal list of academic participants, Russians would tend to announce as many personal titles as possible, while their US counterparts would most likely go only with their names and institute affiliations. In projects requiring teamwork and group effectiveness this "status-oriented" approach can be counterproductive.
Another interesting set of communication dynamics that I observed in organizational interactions, represents another cultural pattern, which I define as a lack of experience among Russian academe in creating and managing organizational structures - in other words, a lack of knowledge and experience in organizational development and management. This includes the following characteristic patterns of organizational behavior (I outline them briefly here, though each of them can be elaborated into a separate topic of analysis):
People in a position of leadership, expect privileges and respect, but are reluctant to do routine organizational work or to find other resources to have that work done (sometimes justified with a statement like: "I am a Doctor of Science, not a student to be engaged in clerical work")
- If it presents too much of a problem, a tendency to put organizational issues aside or to ignore them, instead of openly discussing them.
- Expecting that someone else ("the authorities") will find the missing resources or solutions for what seems to be a problem; a lack of motivation to create alternatives within existing resources on their own; an expectation that things somehow "get done by themselves"
- In group discussions, emphasizing responsibilities of others and minimizing their own
- A lack of the experience and skills to work as a team, or as a group, provide each other with feedback, and strengthen interdependence (instead, there is a dynamic to "appeal to an authority" - often, when there is an issue to discuss and the group members are invited to express an opinion to the entire group, they either do not respond at all or send their opinion to "the authority", and not the entire group)
- Lack of knowledge about computer-mediated communication and lack of personal computer skills in processing and managing information
All the above mentioned characteristics can also be tied to a broader social phenomenon, which I view as another difficulty in establishing new communication practices. It is a lack of individual participation in social life or what in Russian is referred to as "social passivity." With respect to the RCA, it is often quite difficult for the RCA leaders to get any response from regular RCA members: in paying membership dues, in giving their responses to a short survey, participating in any electronic interchange (similar to CRTNet), etc. On a broader scale it can be characterized as the lack of a democratic citizenship experience in developing non-governmental public institutions, organizations, or movements. And though the situation is changing, it is changing slowly. A statistical illustration on how Russians view themselves in terms of democracy, from a Sept. 2003 Monitoring.ru Group survey shows that 46% of their respondents agree that today's Russia is a democratic society, 51% disagree, and 3% are undecided (http://www.monitoring.ru/press-cener/facts/article_1701.html).
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize again that, despite the challenges stated above, there are various indications that the interest in communication studies, research, and education in Russia is continuously growing and is forming a more distinct shape. Examples in addition to the ones mentioned earlier are:
- The RCA is functioning and is expanding its activities. Among those who contact us today, interested in joining us or working with us, are sociologies, journalists, editors of business and management journals. This is a new trend, compared with a few years ago. For example, when we were founding the RCA and forming the Coordination Committee, the majority of interested parties were language scholars - three out of five current Coordination Committee members are linguists.
- The RCA is organizing its second communication conference, to be held in Rostov next May. The selection of sections is fairly wide, including: communication theory and research, instructional communication, organizational, interpersonal, computer mediated communication, etc. And though we hope that many Russian scholars from various disciplines will take part in it, we also hope that our US colleagues from a variety of communication disciplines can participate in those sections.
- A group of Russian scholars plans to develop and present to the Ministry of Education a draft of an educational standard in communication, thereby forming the foundation for a new specialization (major). These issues are planned to be discussed at the Rostov conference as well.
- There is new collaboration being practiced between Russian and US universities. The collaboration takes various forms, including an international program on communication (like in Moscow State), joint communication courses taught long-distance or by means of e-mail correspondence (like between my students of Ivy Tech State College, where I currently teach, and the Rostov Institute of Management, Business and Law, or between Perm University and Kansas State). My Russian colleagues whose presentations follow will elaborate on their experience in this area.
I know that many members of this audience are interested in working, and some have already been working with Russian scholars and universities, and I hope that this brief analysis will help you to strengthen your collaboration and to continue it with even better understanding, motivation, and effectiveness.
- Chirikova, A. Is There a Female Style of Leadership, and What Is It Like? (2003). Personal-Mix Journal 4 (17). / A. Чирикова. Существует ли женский стиль руководства, и каков он? Научно-практический журнал по вопросам управления организацией "Персонал-Микс, 4 (17), 2003. Retrieved November 14, from http://www.personal-mix.ru/published/print.phtml?at_=590
- Internet in Russia Survey / Опросы "Интернет в России". Выпуск 4. Лето 2003 (2003). Retrieved November 7, 2003, from the database of the Public Opinion Foundation / Фонд "Общественное мнение": http://bd.fom.ru/report/map/projects/internet/internet03/o030401
- Information Technologies Group, Center For International Development, Harvard University. Readiness For the Networked World Assessment: Russia. Retrieved November 3, 2003 from http://www.cid.harvard.edu/ciditg/research/Final%20RussiaReadinessAssessment.doc
- Russia and Democracy (2003, October 1)/ Россия и демократия 01.10.2003. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from Monitoring.ru Group: http://www.monitoring.ru/press-cener/facts/article_1701.html
- State Educational Standard in Linguistics and Intercultural Communication (2000). Moscow: Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation / Государственный образовательный стандарт высшего профессионального образования. Направление подготовки дипломированного специалиста 620100 - Лингвистика и межкультурная коммуникация. Москва: Министерство образования Российской Федерации, 2000.
Text in Word
Olga Matyash, Ph.D.,
President, Russian Communication Association
Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, USA
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