This year is my second year at Mount Holyoke College and my third year in the States. Yet even after so much time here, there are still moments when I realize how culturally different Americans are, and I feel like screaming, “I don’t belong here!”
I contacted my friend Dmitry, who is finishing his third semester as a Fulbright Fellow at Iowa State University, to ask him how he was feeling about American academics so far.
We both went to university in the same city in Russia, so I thought it would be fun to compare notes. As it turned out, we didn’t always agree on how the American style of education is different from what we’d experienced before, or why.
Anna: I will never forget when in my first year in the U.S. a girl sat next to me in the front row of a morning class and, as the professor was speaking, put her breakfast on the table and started eating. First, she peeled an egg. Then she spread jam on her toast slowly. I thought to myself: “Oh my god, I hope the professor won’t notice!”
It felt so awkward to me and all I wanted at that moment was for the professor not to notice her eating. Later I learned that in an American classroom eating and drinking are totally acceptable and it doesn’t upset me anymore when I see Mount Holyoke students eating their breakfast or lunch in class.
In one of my classes at my Russian university I felt thirsty and went to get a drink. I wasn’t even going to drink it in class; I just put it on my table. However, when the professor noticed that, she paused to scold me. Yes, right in the middle of her lesson!
The view that eating in class is impolite to your professor is actually so deeply entrenched in me that here at Mount Holyoke, if I have to skip my breakfast or lunch and sit through two classes in a row, I just can’t make myself eat in class.
Dmitry: I agree, in Russia it is not appropriate to eat in class. Some American students were very surprised by the fact that universities in our city don’t have any water fountains in them; to drink you need to go to one of the small shops or cafes on campus.
However, what most people here don’t understand is that we don’t have this everlasting desire to drink water every 15 minutes or so. I was surprised when I realized people here can’t go anywhere without carrying a bottle of water with them. For me it’s not such a need to drink water all the time.
Anna: The real issue is how Americans and Russians perceive the academic environment. In the United States, this environment is more informal and relaxed, while in Russia it is much more formal.
Dimitry: When I see undergraduate classes in the U.S., I notice that students do so many things while trying to listen to the professor at the same time: they are on Facebook, they use their laptops, they browse their phones, and they eat. They don’t really dedicate all their attention to the lecture.
It’s a little different in graduate classes, though, as students are more motivated to learn, and it feels that they understand that other things are not as important at that time. I don’t compare productivity, as that is hard to do; rather, I compare discipline approaches by Russian and American students.
Anna: In my Russian university, there was a clear link between dressing and discipline. Wearing any kind of hat in a classroom was considered a sign of disrespect, so if a professor spotted anyone doing that, he or she would pick on the student. Wearing winter clothes inside the building could also be regarded as a sign of disrespect. It was not unusual to see a sign on the door reading “You must take off your coat before entering.”
My university authorities actually went beyond that. They created a schedule of student groups to be on duty and make sure no one wore their coats in the building. I know someone who took off her coat but instead of leaving it in the designated place took it with her to the dining hall. She got into a big conflict with university authorities and eventually got expelled. This is how serious Russians are about discipline in the academic environment.
Dmitry: I don’t want to sound rude, but around half of the dressing choices of people here in Iowa would be totally inappropriate in my Russian university. And it’s worse for warm months, when 90% of students wear shorts and 50% wear flip-flops in classrooms. It would require a different article to write about all that shocked me when I observed local fashion.
Anna: At my U.S. college I recently had a conflict with another student, and even though we resolved it quickly and peacefully, a professor who happened to witness it interfered and took a side. This situation would be unimaginable at my Russian university. In Russia, there is a clear line between students and professors. I have learned that in the U.S., however, professors think it’s their duty to support the welcoming and peaceful environment on campus.
Dmitry: In Russia, it’s just not common to bring personal conflicts to someone else’s attention at all. U.S. universities have a rather more official method of conflict resolution, especially if it arises between a student and a professor. For example, you can file a complaint to a university official and be sure it will be given enough attention. Such a complaint can also be anonymous, which is valuable.
Besides, students rate their professors when the semester ends and can leave anonymous feedback on their overall experience with the professor, personal qualities included. Students here have their rights and anonymity protected more than in Russian universities.
Anna: One more thing I was surprised to find out about American professors is that they like talking about their lives in class. For example, one of my professors told the class about her child’s food allergy, another talked about his son’s problems in school, and another talked about squirrels trying to break into his house.
I guess it’s perfectly normal in the U.S., but many of my Russian professors didn’t talk about themselves at all, and those who did didn’t do it that much or with that much ease. Again, I believe the reason is that in Russia the atmosphere in class is more formal.
Dmitry: I must disagree here. In my Russian university, professors could tell us stories of their personal life, and they engaged students into conversations sometimes. Not always, but it helped to decrease the distance between the professor and students. For example, I remember my professor telling us how he was running away in his skis from a bear. In the U.S., on the contrary, my professors don’t talk about themselves.
Tangent: On personal conversations
Dmitry: Talking about personal things – and this I must say is my personal view – is not a very American thing, compared to how people communicate in Russia. In the U.S. I noticed that people who are not your close friends don’t tell you personal things. They never share their feelings, never share deep thoughts and never speak of bad things – it’s just not polite. To me it distances people from each other, and it makes each person isolated from society.
Anna: I disagree. I’ve found my American peers quite open. They do talk about personal things, sometimes even to an extent that I find inappropriate.
Dmitry: What really shocks me is not what professors talk about, but how students leave the class on their own, in their own directions. In Russia if you study together, it is a bit impolite to stay away from other students. I would know a lot about every classmate of mine; here I don’t even know students’ names. The class doesn’t seem like a group of students; people don’t seem to be interested in communication and that just seems strange.
Anna: That is because Russian students attend all their classes with the same group of around 15 to 30 students for all four or five years of study. Six days a week for four or five years, you see the same 20 faces. Of course you develop bonds!
Anna: I have come to believe that in Russia it is much more acceptable to talk to professors openly about the grade you expect and to express your dissatisfaction with your grade if you think it is unfair. In my Russian university a student taking an oral examination with the professor could say something like: “I don’t want to have a C on my transcript. Could you please give me an F instead so that I have the right to repeat the examination and get a different grade?” or “Could you please ask me an additional question?”
Maybe our professors are more open to students challenging their authority in this way. In the U.S., I found it hard to bring up my grades in conversation with my professors. Once I thought a professor took points off from my work because she wasn’t paying attention. I immediately decided to bring it up to her, but after talking to other students I realized that this could give the professor the wrong impression of me, at least if I used the language and phrasing I was going to use.
Dmitry: I have had a totally different experience here. In Russia once the work has been graded, it is rarely arguable. In the U.S., I see it is very common for students to try and explain to the professor what he or she might have not understood when grading. Students here seem to have more rights, and the professor is more likely to take responsibility for mistakes in grading.
Anna: Thanks for pointing that out. In Russia, grades were not very flexible after they were assigned. I realized that while there was space for grade negotiation in my Russian university, most negotiation would take place before or in the process of the professor assigning grades.
Dmitry: I was surprised by the amount of home assignments for classes in the U.S. A student here spends more time doing independent work than attending class, and this is the opposite for Russian students. Home assignments are smaller in Russia, and students spend more time on lectures and classwork with professors than on studying on their own.
Anna: I agree. In my three years at a Russian university, I did less reading assigned as homework than I have to do in one year here at my American college.
Dmitry: It seems to me that students in the U.S. are generally more motivated in their education than are students in Russia. I think this is caused by how education works here in the U.S. If a student fails to get the required results in a course, he has to take the course again, and likely pay for another semester. For U.S. students there are no strict assumptions on the duration of their stay at university – they don’t graduate until they have received the required number of credits. In Russia, a student studies for 5 years, and it’s very likely he won’t receive a degree in the end. Students are supposed to finish their education on time, and are allowed to repeat examinations if they fail.
Anna: I think American students are more motivated because they take more responsibility for their studies. They pick courses, shape their entire education experience, and assume responsibility for their decisions. They are responsible for meeting all kinds of deadlines, like deadlines for registration, dropping courses, declaring an ungraded option and so on. In Russia, we just come to school on the first day of classes to find that everything has already been arranged for us. We don’t make even a fraction of the decisions that American students make.