Teaching and Learning in Post-Soviet Russia
by Randy Hines
Randy Hines, professor of communications, spent five weeks in Russia as part of a Fulbright program teaching public relations and advertising to communication students and professionals. Following are his reflections from the experience.
As part of my Fulbright Senior Specialist assignment this summer, I was to tour a major newspaper, magazine and book publishing headquarters in Barnaul, a southern Siberian city of 700,000. It was set for Thursday. As I had been finding out, however, plans in Russia are tentative. I received a call Tuesday afternoon telling me it had been changed to 10:30 Wednesday morning.
“No problem,” I thought, since my morning classes at Altai Academy of Economics and Law end at 10 a.m. The caller from the publishing company then said I would be conducting a major critique session for the newspaper’s entire staff. The paper would send me via e-mail several other questions it wanted me to discuss.
I had met the company’s friendly publisher the week before when I had presented at the International Conference on Social Advertising (public service advertising). He had given me his weekly newspaper and encouraged a tour. When the e-mail arrived, it contained five other requests ranging from promotion ideas to journalist salaries to worldwide trends in journalism. All of that was expected in less than 20 hours.
Of course, the e-mail needed translation to English. I had had one month to prepare for Russia, and language instruction didn’t fit into the schedule of obtaining visas, buying tickets, mailing donated textbooks, e-mailing lesson plans to Altai Academy and finishing my classes at Susquehanna. Russian is not an easy language. Its alphabet has 33 characters. Many letters are foreign to Americans. A P is the R, for example. An upside-down V is the letter L.
I marked up the tabloid, but what could I say about a foreign-language newspaper? Quality newsprint created a clean appearance with no smudges. The front page was sharp with three skyboxes featuring inside stories. I recommended moving a small cartoon bumping against a large photo to a text-dominated area in the bottom corner of the page. To my pleasant surprise, many nodded in agreement.
Sharp color photographs were large throughout the 32-page tabloid. Good cropping eliminated wasted space. Inside pages were readable (for Russians, of course) with adequate spacing and column widths, usually. A few pages squeezed in six narrow columns, too many for a tabloid. One two-page spread was fun. It used a large but simple graphic of a downtown loop, with descriptions, colors and codes explaining the content. I even read one of the subheads: Retro Trams. (Those three P’s were a big giveaway.)
One editor asked about freedom of U.S. newspapers to write negative things about their government. I said many papers use their editorial pages to criticize President Bush’s policies on a regular basis. This seemed to amaze most of them. I’ve been told the government still controls quite a bit of news content.
My publisher friend also produces a weekly business tabloid, a monthly business magazine and children’s books. His tabloid for businesses encounters red tape and has to be registered with the government as an advertising medium because its ad content is 40 percent or higher.
As for my other duties, certainly teaching Russian students was a thrill. They were thoughtful: standing when I entered the classroom for the first time. They were talented: winning recent awards for their public relations and journalism activities. They were typical: chatting occasionally, a few coming in late, some forgetting to silence their cell phones. They were trendy: wearing expensive jeans and fancy tops rather than sweats.
SU students and faculty should appreciate our resources. The department had only one projector system, so many of my planned PowerPoint presentations were left behind for later use when it’s available. Handouts were rare luxuries, printed on the blank side of used paper.
The faculty also treated me royally, but a final-week incident brought me down to earth. I was told (that morning) I would be speaking at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate a new headquarters for regional journalists. The governor cut the ribbon as media snapped photos and shot TV video. He went in, drank champagne, spoke and then conducted a news conference. I was next. When I stood to speak, the governor left the room, as did four-fifths of the audience. I gave my speech to about 12 journalists who were polite (or wanted to hang around for more champagne).