Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Novosibirsk November 11, 2008

Novosibirsk November 11, 2008

11:08 PM

It snowed all night, and was still snowing when I woke up. Not a blizzard, but pretty steady. That’s not the challenging part; the ice is just waiting for you to make a misstep, and send you flying. The walk from the dorm to the University is about 15-20 minutes. There is a road from the dorm to the street, about 250 yards long. The more cars that traverse the road, the more packed the snow gets, and the more slippery the walking. For a Floridian like me, learning to walk on ice takes time. Most everybody here just zooms down the sidewalks, including those Russian women with their stiletto heels (they’re like Lithuanian and Ukrainian women in this regard) just digging into the ice as they teeter but never fall. Me? I’ve got to look exactly where I’m going, and frequently sidestep the more treacherous looking patches. I’m usually good for 4-5 slips on the way to or from the University. Luckily, I hadn’t fallen in the midst of any crowd of people just waiting to confirm my status as a non-Siberian. The people who saw my dive were just a couple out for a stroll. I made a quick recovery and jumped right back up as if nothing happened.

(Written on November 12, 2008 at 9:30 AM)
The morning was spent making sure that the PowerPoint was ready to go and my notes matched up. I really wanted to mark on my notes when to move to the next slide, but that’s a little too compulsive. It took about 3 hours of preparation in order to feel comfortable.

In the late morning, I placed a call to Ian to let him know that the computer wasn’t hooked up properly. I remember my colleague Paul Smith mentioning that he had the same problem. Ian called me back and said to come on over and they’d get it worked out (“no worries” is his mantra). I got all my stuff together, dressed like a lawyer, and headed over to the university.

There are about 7,000 students at NSU. Almira says it is one of the smaller universities, but one of the most highly regarded. If the proof of that is in the looks on the faces of the students as they hustle from class to class, that indeed is the case. It was solidified for me when we had our first class session, but that comes a bit later. The campus is in a beautiful setting. Akademgorodok is a large community about 30 kilometers from Novosibirsk. It is a center of learning. There are multiple institutes of all kinds, as well as commercial sections, cultural buildings, and private industry. My online friend Luc from Ohio spent some time here earlier this year, working with some folks in the computer field. There is much more to explore here, once I get the teaching schedule set, and it isn’t snowing so much. Plus, although the Ecco shoes I bought in Kiev have NEVER given me a problem, all of a sudden I have blisters on my toes, which even I know can be aggravated by walking. Up until now, I’ve mainly just gone from the dorm to the main building, except for Monday when Almira walked with me from the University to her institute. I’ve got another 8 days here, so I plan to see all of Akademgorodok before I leave.

It must be very dry here, or my sinuses are acting up, because I’m always clogged. Random thought.

I was wondering how I was going to do this: I’m wearing a suit for class, and I brought dress shoes (soft-soled). How am I going to negotiate the treacherous ice patches in those shoes? Solution: wear the Eccos with the treads to campus, and carry the dress shoes in a knapsack. See what we can do when we are forced to adapt? One of the real highlights of this program is seeing how well we can figure out how to do things in a foreign country with not a lot of the amenities of home. So far, so good.

When I arrived at the University, Ian took me to the IT guys. Macs are a problem apparently. They were trying to figure it out when one of the guys triumphantly marched into the room with a sheet of paper spelling out exactly what needed to be done. Following the directions, the computer was configured to allow access, both for the wireless network on campus, as well as the cable in the dorm room. What a feeling! We (I) get so tethered to the internet that being without it is like being without Twizzlers (in joke). But it truly is the case when so far away from home. We are eleven time zones away from Florida, and when I log on, it’s nighttime there, and I have to catch up on all the emails and news from the previous day. If I had access to the internet in the room I’d be able to IM or Skype at a time that would work for both here and Florida. The only other option is to go to the University early in the morning or late at night. That is, until the IT boys fix(ed) the problem. (Read on). As I left the IT room, they asked if I needed anything else. They said they could give me some viruses if I liked (IT humor is universal).

So, anyway, I went to Ian’s office, logged in wirelessly and was in heaven for about an hour and a half. When I unplugged to go to class, I was SO looking forward to being able to come back to the dorm and connect.

Switching over to the dress shoes, I made my way to the meeting place for the class. Almira said that the students would be waiting in the hallway outside of a specific classroom, and I was to meet her and them there, then figure out where the class would be held. We needed to see how many students there would be before deciding what room to use, and we needed a computer to be able to use the PowerPoint. As I stood in the hallway, feeling totally out of place but oddly serene, I saw that there were quite a few students milling about. Good sign. Almira came up and told me which room we would be using, so we walked in. Sitting around an oval table were about 18 students, mostly women, notebooks out. Almira (one of the nicest persons I have ever met) told me exactly what she was going to do: she was going to begin the class in English by introducing me, and then speak in Russian to the students to get a sense of when they would like to meet. She polled them, and asked me if it was alright to meet on Thursday at 12:30. I said that whenever they wanted to meet, I was available. She then turned the class over to me.

I’ve always tried to start these classes in Eastern Europe and here in Asia (!) by introducing myself in the native language. So, here’s how it went:

“Menya zavoot Scott Richardson.” (My name is Scott Richardson).
“Ya iz SeShAh.” (I am from the USA).
Ya ne gavaryu pa Rooskie.” (I don’t speak Russian).

I said that I thought that I had said what I intended to say, and they said that I had.

Mostly bright faces, much giggling, and we were off.

I gave them a little personal and professional background, using the PowerPoint. I even threw in the picture of Brendan and me walking across Abbey Road. “Do you know what that is?” “Yes, Abbey Road.” Good start. Smart people.

Part of my interest in this program is being able to travel to interesting places, get a sense of the world beyond our shores, and convey a desire to promote communication and understanding. If we communicate, and understand one another, we may be able to prevent conflict, and enhance our futures. This is what I conveyed to them.

We talked about the class structure, and what my plan was, ending with the mock trial. Not too many of them had read the syllabus, so some of this was coming, not necessarily as a shock to them, but definitely as something they had never done, nor were likely to ever do again.

It was then their turn to introduce themselves, stating their names (which I will never remember), their hometowns (mostly from Novosibirsk; one from Akademgorodok), their course of study (there are four divisions in the faculty of Economics: Economics, Management, Economics and Law, and Sociology). Finally, I wanted them to tell me what their expectations were for the class. Part of this exercise was to get an idea of their level of English-speaking ability. Almost everyone said that their expectations for the class were to learn about the American legal system, as well as to speak English for an hour and a half each session. I took the opportunity to tell them something that I truly believe: that I greatly admire their educational system which emphasizes the learning of foreign languages (one person here asked: “How can Condoleeza Rice claim to be an expert on Russia when she can’t speak the language?”). I lamented our system in the US, which makes a feeble attempt at teaching foreign language, but doesn’t require mastery. I commended all of them for their English, and asked “How many of you speak more than two languages?”, thinking I was asking about Russian and English. One of the students replied “You mean foreign languages, other than our native Russian?” Touche. Half of them speak English and one other foreign language. How so far ahead of us they are. We are in a cocoon. We will be surprised when we emerge to see that the rest of the industrialized world is lapping us.

Several of the students want to be lawyers. In fact, two of them want to practice criminal law, and one wants to go to law school in the US. She wants to talk to me more about that later. She has been to Minnesota twice, and wants to apply to many law schools, but she is concerned about cost, and her grades. She is very aware of the LSAT, so I told her that I would show her the web site which lists the average GPA’s and LSAT scores of the American law schools’ recent entering classes. I told her that I thought many law schools would be interested in students from foreign countries who want to study law in the States.

It seems that most, if not all, of the students were very familiar with our governmental system, including separation of powers. However, I got the impression that they were not aware of the doctrine of judicial review. So I spent a (very) little time talking about Marbury v. Madison, the 1802 case which established that principle. Then I thought it would be a good idea to demonstrate its practical application by discussing the recent Supreme Court case upholding the right of the alleged enemy combatants in Guantanamo to seek judicial review of their detentions. We talked about the fact that the president and Congress tried every which way to limit the detainees’ rights to challenge their detentions, but that the Court ruled against the other two branches of government and said “we say what the law is, not you.” This case hopefully demonstrated the legal principle, in the context of a case which hopefully had some appeal to them here.

When we got to the structure of the federal and state court systems, it seemed that everyone was writing notes. This was the nuts and bolts of the subject matter. The jurisdiction of the various levels of the court systems was of particular interest. We concluded just before addressing the subject of sources of law.

After class, Almira said that she thought we got off to a good start.

By this time, it was 5:45, and had been dark for an hour. Eager to get connected to the internet at the dorm, I carefully made my way over the ice field. Funny, no one else was having too many problems walking. Cracking open my computer, attaching the cable, and mashing the on button, I was so hopeful. But life is full of joys and disappointments. No matter what I tried, I could not get online. The computer said I was connected to NSUNet, but nothing. Choices had to be made: do I go to the cafĂ© around the corner, hope that no one else is using the outlet, and order some tea? Or do I go back to the university area, eat dinner in one of the restaurants recommended to me, and then go into the building and attempt to use the wireless network? There was also the issue of a pending invitation from Ben the Texan to meet up with him and his English students for a drink. Sensing that my need for an internet fix was more immediate, I opted for the solitary path. Good thing, because when I got back to the University at around 9 PM, there was an outlet in a wall in a corridor which offered some privacy. So I plunked myself down on the floor and plugged in. Success. There were a lot of emails that I needed to respond to, as well as send some with some pictures that won’t make it onto this blog.

Dinner: the most memorable part was at the end, when a beautiful woman stepped onstage to sing in Russian to the accompaniment of a guitarist and a synthesizer, to an audience of five. Four, after I left.

One final stop at the market, and back “home.”

It is about noon, the sun is trying to poke its head through the clouds, and I am going to go to the University to go wireless, try to get the IT guys to fix the situation in the room, and make a guest appearance at Ian’s English language class for Oriental Studies students.


Michael M said...

is the posting time listed your time or U.S.?
sounds like you are handling your adventure well.

Scott Richardson said...

The posting is your time.

More Then Twist in My Sobriety said...

Your citation about Akademgorodok was listed in "Random quotations about Novosibirsk" section of

Scott Richardson said...

Thanks. I just checked and didn't see it. Do they change them every so often?

More Then Twist in My Sobriety said...

They appear randomly on the right side.

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