Increasing cross-cultural understanding through personal interactions in a Russian mass media course—Irina Anatolyevna Six (2019)
In response to the rapidly changing nature of relations between Russia and the West, a course was updated to focus on mass media and interpersonal communication to increase student understanding of Russian communication.
Post-Soviet Communication (COMS 503/SLAV 503) is a class on Russian mass media that seeks to build students’ historical and cultural background knowledge to help them interpret media in Russia and about Russia. While the course had originally been designed to focus on business communication with Russia, given the current state of international affairs, the emphasis has shifted to mass media and communication (both cross-cultural and interpersonal). The course typically draws communications and Russian majors pursuing careers in public service.
The goal of this course transformation was to reexamine curriculum development in light of changes in the broader society, both in international relations and in the skills and knowledge students today bring into the classroom. The aim was to help students develop a framework for understanding both Russian and American perspectives. One of the primary means that has been used to assess students’ progress is a final project consisting of a paper and presentation in which students choose a topic to examine from Russian and American perspectives. In the most recent iteration of the course, a requirement was added that students also personally interview a Russian or someone with expertise on Russia for their views on the topic. This aspect of the final project allowed for students to gain confidence in communicating cross-culturally and improved their understanding of Russians’ perspectives on topics beyond what the mass media portray.
Students’ overall course performance improved over the previous two years, but the greatest improvement was manifested in the quality of work produced in their final papers. Communicating personally with Russians and Russian experts added a depth of understanding previously absent on this assignment that could not have been obtained from a media source.
Recent events between Russia and the U.S. have greatly increased the importance of this course and the need to improve understanding of Russia for students, particularly those planning to enter public service. Adding the interview component represented a powerful means to accomplish this end. As the situation between the U.S. and Russia is constantly changing, this course will likely also need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of the day. What will remain is the critical importance of students understanding the history and values of Russia so that they have the necessary skills to interpret what they see in the media and develop in their ability to communicate cross-culturally.
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Post-Soviet Communication (COMS 503 and SLAV 503), which is cross-listed between Communication Studies and Slavic Languages & Literatures, began in 2006 as an undergraduate course with a commercial communication and marketing focus. At that time, there was a high level of interest in business between the U.S. and Russia. I developed and taught the course for about two years under a course development grant, after which time it was put on hold.
However, the political situation has changed since that time, with relations between Russia and the West rapidly deteriorating. Russia is perhaps more misunderstood now than during the Cold War, at which time Russia was widely studied in the U.S. Today a deficit of expertise on Russia exists here, which must be addressed in order for understanding to take place and common ground to be found between Russia and the West.
For this reason, our department decided to resume Post-Soviet Communication as part of a new minor introduced in Russian Business and Professional Culture, which was created as part of an effort to modernize and improve the Russian program to attract more students by addressing current interests and making apparent the practical implications of what they are learning. The new minor includes three years of Russian language, as well as two courses I designed on modern Russia: Russian Business Culture and this course, Post-Soviet Communication, which has been updated to give it new meaning.
Most students in the course now are juniors and seniors from a variety of majors who are pursuing the new minor, many of whom intend to go into government service upon graduation. There are students from other programs such as Communication Studies, however, who enroll in the class out of pure interest. There is no prerequisite for the course, and the class size varies, generally from eight to 17.
New course format
Russia is in the news, and in order to understand Russia, students must have more professional preparation than what the mass media supplies. Yet in the U.S. today, there are not many people who know Russia very well after the fall of the Soviet Union. My challenge in this course, therefore, has been to transform the curriculum and instruction to respond to changing international relations and the needs of a younger generation who have grown up in a post-Soviet era. The goal of this course transformation was to reexamine curriculum development in light of changes in the broader society, both in international relations and in the students entering the class.
In its new form, the focus of this course is mass media and communication (both cross-cultural and interpersonal) in Russia and about Russia. The course traces the historical emergence and evolution of concepts frequently communicated in Russian mass media, with lectures and readings drawn from anthropology, history, journalism, linguistics, sociology, politics, literature, film, and popular culture. The aim is to develop a framework for understanding both Russian and American perspectives.
This poll shows the students’ responses to an in-class poll from Fall 2017 (N=8) about common Russian stereotypes. Part of the purpose of the class is to help students challenge and dismantle these stereotypes as they come to more nuanced understandings of the history and culture of Russia.
It has now been more than 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the generation of college students today knows very little, if anything, about the Cold War and the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. Therefore, in order for students to understand what they are seeing in mass media today in regard to Russia, they must be given the historical background. Without this, they have only their stereotypes about Russians to operate from, which are shown in a poll students took at the beginning of my Fall 2017 course (displayed above). Since most students in the course intend to go into government service, it is crucial that they learn this history in order to better understand Russia and how the country presents itself in mass media, now and in the past.
The primary goal of this course is to show Russia today: why it is changing and what is changing—and to not be afraid of it, because when people understand something, they are less likely to fear it. This course aims to help students develop as citizens of the world, to have a broader vision, and to understand other cultural approaches to problems. Every topic I teach, I ask, “What was the challenge of the time for Russia? And how would you communicate the challenge to the people inside the country and around the world?” The students often can speak the language and have read textbooks, yet they lack cultural awareness. I have found that students respond very well to this supplement to their language instruction and do seek to understand when they encounter something they do not comprehend.
As explained in the syllabus, when students complete this course, they are able to:
- Examine the evolution of the Soviet and post-Soviet traditional (newspapers, magazines, TV, cinema, radio) and new (Internet, digital broadcasting) mass media segments.
- Evaluate the structure of Russian media industry.
- Assess press freedoms in post-Soviet Russia.
- Reflect on the cross-cultural differences in interpersonal communication.
- Develop some skills and concepts essential for successful communication in Russian culture.
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The gradual transformation of this course and current changes have come as a result of the shifts occurring both on the world stage and within the current generation of students entering the university. Therefore, adjustments have been made to the content and format of the class to respond to the current needs of students headed into public service focused on Russo-American relations. Additionally, assignments have been re-worked to help students develop stronger skills in cross-cultural communication built on a foundation of understanding of Russian history and culture.
As part of one class discussion on propaganda, students were asked to compare and contrast the iconic 1943 American poster of Rosie the Riveter with the 1926 Soviet poster (right) titled Emancipated Woman-Build Up Socialism. They analyzed what the styles communicated and the major differences in the role these styles acquired in their home countries.
The course consists of two weekly class meetings, both of which had formerly been lecture classes. In the new form of the course, the first class of the week is a lecture and the second is a discussion, used as an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned about Russian history and culture to analyze and understand mass media. The lecture is an important component of the course, because I bring unique experience of the Soviet Union being from Russia myself. There are readings on these subjects, but they would be harder to navigate for students without the additional perspective and personal experience that I bring.
The class discussion on the second day is used to evaluate materials using the information from the lecture and assigned readings. For example, we might watch videos and discuss them, or compare items such as posters and newspaper articles from American and Russian perspectives of the same topic, as seen in this discussion when students compared Russian and American war propaganda. At times we also compare sources from Russia across time, for instance to examine how the portrayal of Lenin changed throughout history and why. In order to make these evaluations during the discussion, however, students first need the information supplied through the readings and lecture. Students’ learning in class is informally assessed via their participation in the discussion, which is not possible without doing the readings and coming to the lecture.
The course materials consist of one book that is an introduction to Russian history, as well as other book chapters and articles (three to four total per week), with some Russian readings translated into English. The materials help students achieve course goals because they provide access to a different culture and way of thinking. In class, I show them mostly Russian video clips if I can find translations or create translations myself. The goal is to expose students to media they would not otherwise see because they live in the U.S. or perhaps lack the necessary language skills to access it. I want to show them culturally important materials to Russians and in doing so perhaps expose and confront misunderstandings students have. I desire for them to see that other resources on the world exist and are accessible if they seek them out.
Increasing tensions between Russia and the West have presented challenges in the development and maintenance of materials for this course. First, several sources that I have used in the past are no longer available, as Russian and American positions have changed and therefore materials are frequently removed from the Internet. At times I go to use a Russian news site that I had used only days earlier to find that it has been removed for political reasons. Russia recently labeled nine American news agencies as “foreign agents” and banned them in Russia. As a result of these unique challenges, methods for archiving web materials became necessary, as it is unlikely that links to materials I have used in the past will still work the next time I teach the course.
Second, Russia is in the news daily at this time, and materials must be continually curated in order for the course to stay current. My desire is for students to be able to use the information they are learning about Russian history and culture to develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of what they see in the news, requiring that class materials be responsive to current events. For this reason, I start class by asking what they have read or seen in the news that week and challenge students to use what they are learning in class to interpret the stories they are seeing.
The class is organized into 12 main topical units. In order to assess whether students are achieving the learning outcomes throughout the course, they upload two assignments for each unit: responses to three questions based on the content of their reading assignments and then an essay of 900-1,000 words. The reading questions are very concrete and ask students to summarize the reading materials. This ensures that they have the foundational and historical knowledge needed to analyze and discuss materials in class discussions.
The weekly essays, graded by rubric, involve critical thinking and are intended to bring students’ thinking to a higher level – to examine the whole topic and formulate their own opinions. While in the past I had used different types of assignments to assess learning, I have found the course works better when assignments are consistent and students know what assignments to expect, what level of work is expected from them, and when assignments are due.
The final culminating project for the class is a paper and presentation called “Russian Perspective,” in which students choose a topic that interests them, examine it from the perspective of American and Russian sources, and interview at least one Russian or expert on Russia for their opinion on the topic. The project requires application of the knowledge they have gained throughout the course to understand a contemporary issue from a Russian perspective.
My hope with this project is that students will learn to listen to different opinions and perspectives in order to develop a more intelligent, facts-based assessment beyond simplistic storylines seen in mainstream media. The final project challenges students to view a particular issue through Russian eyes using a historical lens as well as Russians’ perspectives currently, compare that with how the issue is portrayed from an American perspective, and examine the reasons for why those differences exist.
Many examples of this dissonance in perspective exist between Russia and the West, such as many Americans’ negative sentiment toward the word “communism,” which to Russians is not a commonly used word but does have a positive connotation (it is the name of the political party, but the government is socialist). Yet just as Americans framed communism negatively, Russians framed imperialism negatively as the final stage of capitalism, where there are rich and poor, with the less fortunate left homeless on the streets dying of hunger. Imperialism is a word commonly associated in Russian thinking with the U.S., even though it is not a word most Americans would use to describe their country. As this example demonstrates, both Russia and the West have crafted narratives through the media that do not represent one another fully or accurately. Therefore, the final project challenges students to examine a topic from both perspectives and to address any preexisting assumptions they may uncover.
2017 changes to the final project
The most significant change in the 2017 iteration of the course was that I required students to talk about their chosen topic with a Russian and expert on Russia for the final project, which seemed to overall improve the quality of their work. This element was also added as a category on the rubric for the project, which assesses both the efficacy of the interview portion and cross-cultural understanding of the topic. Communication is not something students learn in books only; it is a skill they acquire by doing. Therefore, applying a “learning by doing” principle, I wanted to move the class to a new format that would allow students to improve their understanding of Russian/Soviet culture by speaking with native Russians in a natural setting outside of the classroom. While this had been an option for students previously for the final assignment, it was not required. Connecting our students with Russians did encourage a more natural dialogue (and all the mistakes and maneuverings that it entails!) and built confidence in them and better awareness of foreign cultures.
The format of the final project has changed somewhat in the past two years given current political tension with Russia, however. In the past, students could choose to analyze Russian news sources and/or speak with a Russian overseas about a topic. For those interested, I arranged for them to speak via Skype with Russian university students, and the opportunity to speak with someone their own age was particularly eye-opening for them. For logistical and political reasons, however, this is no longer optimal. First, the nine- to ten-hour time difference made arranging a time to communicate very difficult. Second, the political climate has shifted dramatically in the time that I have been teaching this course. I am afraid Russians now feel very hurt and misunderstood by Americans, and questions from our students about perspectives on controversial issues could cause further tension. For this reason, I decided to shift the now-required interviewing aspect of the final project to Russians living in the U.S. or American professionals who have lived in Russia or are very familiar with Russian perspectives.
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Adjustments to the course seem to have had a positive overall effect on learners, although this is hard to say definitively given the low course enrollment in 2017. Nonetheless, the D/F/W rate went from nearly 35% in 2015 to zero in 2017, with all students earning a B or higher.
While it is difficult to determine which factors are directly responsible for this change given the small numbers, the consistency of the assignments and addition of direct communication with Russians seem to have greatly increased student learning and understanding of the subject matter. Students responded well to the shift to a regular schedule of predictable assignments being due and with the reading questions and weekly essays, which likely contributed to an improved completion rate.
In examining the work that students produced for the final project in the 2016 iteration of the course, it is clear that the additional requirement in 2017 of speaking with a person about the topic greatly aided in the depth of students’ understanding of their topics. In the work produced by students in 2016, students’ analyses lacked depth, and it seemed that students struggled more to understand the perspectives of others. For example, in this example of an A paper and presentation from 2016 that was overall of a high caliber, the analysis fell short of fully capturing the true Russian perspective on the topic because it included only media sources. The paper examines bias in two Russian media sources, one of which has a reputation as pro-Ukrainian and the other as pro-Russian. The paper is well-crafted and well-sourced yet unsurprising. The student went into the project knowing the bias she was looking for, and, as expected, she found it.
In Russia, the media is quite controlled, resulting in a limited number of narratives that are often not reflective of the opinion of the general public. The student writes that it is “nearly impossible to access the true will of the people,” but this is not entirely true. Unlike the U.S., opinions of the people are generally not reflected in the traditional media but rather through other means such as Facebook. This paper would have been greatly improved by talking with Russians themselves in order to gain a greater understanding beyond the binary positions represented in the media. A Russian interview partner for this project could have helped provide her with access to nontraditional sources for her research. While a variety of opinions are represented in the American media, the media in Russia are not sufficient sources for gaining a comprehensive understanding of Russian perspectives on an issue due to the level of state control. This student did an excellent job with the analysis of the information she had, though it would have been further strengthened by highlighting Russian understanding of the situation rather than accepting the media accounts at face value.
Post-transformation student work
This example of an A paper and presentation from the transformed version of the course demonstrates the value and depth that the new interview requirement added to the students’ research on the reasons for the resurgence of state control of the media in Russia. As the student points out, while the traditional American/Western perspective points to a handful of key events as being responsible for tightening controls, interviews with people living in Russia as the change occurred revealed that there were far deeper reasons.
In light of the interviews, the student could see that beyond a few isolated events, there were logical reasons for Russia’s turn to a more tightly state-controlled media, as the country was in shambles following the collapse of the Soviet Union. State control is a product of survival, and many saw it as the only way to survive when the nation was collapsing. Seen in this light, Putin’s move toward consolidation of power provided a force of stability after a long period of hardship in which the country’s reputation was tarnished. State-controlled media allowed for the country to take back authority of how it was portrayed internally and abroad, regaining this power from the oligarchy which owned and controlled media outlets. The student learned as well that the Russian press was not as strictly controlled as is often assumed in the West. As clearly seen in this example, the interview component of the final project allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the topic beyond what could be obtained from traditional Western sources.
Perhaps of greatest benefit, this project seemed to have increased students’ comfort and confidence in communicating cross-culturally, as well as understanding its importance.
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Improvements in student work over the past year indicate that the adjustments to the course have been effective in improving learning outcomes. Adjusting the focus of the course to matters of mass media was necessary to make the course relevant in today’s political climate. Heavily supplementing the course with Russian history became necessary in order to build the foundation that students needed to interpret present-day events they see in the media. Finally, creating a consistent set of assignments so that learners know what to expect increased completion rates for assignments, and this aspect of the course will be maintained for future iterations of the course.
The single greatest improvement in students’ work has stemmed from their personal interactions with Russians and Russian experts for their final projects. Hearing the perspectives of real people on the topics they were researching revealed to them that there is often a deeper layer to the truth than is shown in either the American or Russian media. When reading previous years’ final projects prior to this requirement, the difference in quality and depth is readily apparent. However, despite being exposed to multiple Russian sources, some students still struggled to integrate Russian media into their final presentations.
In the future, I would like to revise the lecture topics to help learners engage with and understand news they hear in the American media about Russia.
Language and the contemporary nature of the course make it particularly challenging to teach. First, it is incredibly difficult to find the right sources with a good translation that bypass the need for knowing Russian language. There are so many nuances lost in translation. When students read a text in English, they interpret it as an English text. How do you make them look beyond the language to see the cultural values at work?
Second, the more contemporary the course, the harder it is to teach, because history is something in the making. Situations can change dramatically over a short period of time, and it is hard to explain the shifts. There are countless aspects of the situation with Russia that are not black and white now. They are gray, and in the moment we cannot comprehend them completely.
Helping students understand what they see happening in the present is so important, yet the best frame of reference for interpreting events is the past. Doing so requires studying history but also taking an interdisciplinary approach that looks to other fields such as linguistics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and more. As soon as students start to understand the why, I can see the effect, the sparkle in their eyes. They start to understand culture more, how everything is connected to something. As soon as they can trace where something observed is coming from, it amazingly influences their understanding of Russian culture and people. For this reason, beginning with a historical foundation and layering on fieldwork that involves discussing issues with real people provides an experience that transfers to other courses and yields benefits in enhancing a student’s intercultural competency.
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