Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 25 and 26
January 1999, by Brian Maguire
Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
25 & 26 January 1999
Brian Maguire, the British Councils English Language Development Officer reports on a major meeting for the Volga region
The British Studies conference sponsored by the British Council and hosted by the Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod (LUNN) was originally planned to be a small, two day event for university lecturers from the Greater Volga Region to discuss curricula and issues of content. It was to be a platform for a group of lecturers from LUNN, who had been sponsored by the British Council for a two week study visit to Oxford in the summer of 1998, to share what they had learned and to describe the impact that this had had on their curriculum development. The focus was definitely on British Studies for higher educational institutions.
However after meetings with British Studies enthusiasts in the secondary sector I was pleased to meet a large number of school teachers who not only wanted to attend but were also keen on making presentations. The focus of these presentations was towards methodology and practical issues such as project work and materials development. This seemed a great opportunity to create a dialogue and greater understanding between the tertiary and secondary sector and this dialogue became the theme for the conference.
As news of the conference spread, the event mushroomed in size and attracted great interest from British Studies groups in St. Petersburg and Moscow who had already achieved a great deal in terms of project development as a result of involvement in earlier British Council projects. Proposals for presentations and applications also came in from all over Russia including Samara, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Yaroslav, Ishkarol-Ola and Cheboksari . An international dimension was added with a representation from Minsk and British Council specialists Mark Andrews and John Braidwood contributing their expertise. The British Council London was represented by Nick Wadham Smith and the link with the Oxford Study visit was maintained, with Karen Hewitt as the invited plenary speaker. A further interesting dimension was added by Elizabeth Bell, Head of the British Council Science Unit in Moscow, who led a well attended session on 'Science in Britain'.
Overall, the main strands of the conference included curriculum design, cross cultural issues, materials, assessment, methodology, projects and literature, and over fifty presentations were made over the two days. The general outcomes of the conference were a sharing of ideas and materials, the establishment of new networks and to some extent a dialogue between tertiary and secondary sectors although more co-ordination and co-operation is still needed in this area. A specific outcome on a practical level and a good example of how ideas and materials can be disseminated has been demonstrated by Tamara Vorobyova from Cheboksari, capital of the autonomous Chuvas Republic, about 500 kms east of Moscow. Having made her presentation and attended as many sessions as she could, she returned to Cheboksari and ran a series of workshops for fellow secondary school teachers. I recommended her as a participant for a British Studies materials workshop in Pruhonice, Prague, in March this year, an offer which she at first declined, worried that her out-of-date passport would not be renewed in time. However she eventually changed her mind, attended the seminar and on returning to Russia, ran a mini conference of her own on March 30th. All of these events in Cheboksari have been carried through without any further funding or support from the British Council.
A final and less tangible result of the conference was the feel-good factor which at the time was evident from the smiles and sincere expressions of thanks. It is now June, a good five months after the event, and people are still telling me how much they enjoyed and appreciated the conference. This was the second British Studies Conference in Nizhny Novgorod, and judging from the written and oral feedback from the 120 participants, it will not be the last. If you would like to read more about the conference, the full proceedings have been published in the latest British Council Moscow 'Russia British Studies Newsletter'. For a copy of this newsletter please write to Oksana Ksenzenko, The British Council Moscow, 109189, Nikoloyamskaya Ul, Moscow.
Pruhonice, Czech Republic
5 - 7 March 1999
Pruhonice: a model for sharing?
In March this year, twenty-four teachers and project managers from Central and Eastern Europe met in Pruhonice, near Prague, in the Czech Republic, to review British Studies materials for secondary schools. This three-day event, organised by the British Council in London and Prague, is the first major comparison of British Studies secondary school materials to date. Stephen Elder, a teacher at the British Council in Prague, explains what it was like to join the network.
The conference brought together participants from ten countries in the Central and East European region, as well as the UK and Germany, with the aim of reviewing the wide variety of materials produced over the past twelve months. Of equal importance, of course, was sharing experiences of designing and teaching cultural studies materials and identifying key issues involved.
As I had had no previous contact with a network of British Studies teachers and lecturers I was immediately impressed by the depth and variety of projects represented. The majority were secondary school syllabuses and included projects from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany and Romania which, with funding from the British Council, have created British Studies courses for their region or entire national curriculum. The materials range from textbooks with a student feedback questionnaire, magazine format, loose-leaf folders where teachers can develop the materials themselves, to banks of authentic materials and interactive web sites.
The projects in the Baltic states and Russia were in the earliest stages and their course participants were able to use the experience and expertise available to arm themselves with an array of strategies for setting-up, designing and indeed funding their own courses. This was also the main benefit of the conference for Prague where I have been teaching British Studies over the past year.
The Prague course was devised and taught last year by Simon Francis, whose intention was to run a course bridging the gap between the fact-based secondary school Czech curriculum and the analytical skills needed at university - a gap noted at the conference by lecturers from Czech and Slovak universities. The conference then has given us support for the validity of our course, reinforced a theoretical basis for British Studies that we had been groping towards (a case of reinventing the wheel caused by not networking sooner!), provided us with a mass of materials and design principles transferable to our teaching centres and, perhaps most interestingly of all, suggested ways in which issues of cultural and language awareness and interaction can be incorporated into the broad range of teaching centre courses; general English, young learners, business and ESP as well as the specifically British cultural studies classroom.
Some reflections on materials design for British Cultural Studies
Context is relevant to the study of almost anything. (Clark & Ivanic 1997)
Transferability or adaptability?
Clearly the notion of transferability of materials has great appeal at all levels, from institutional administrators to hard-pressed teachers. Why re-invent a wheel that someone else has invested a great deal of time and effort in developing? One of the key questions addressed by the Pruhonice workshop was the feasibility of transferring materials produced in culturally specific educational contexts. On the one hand, the materials themselves (for example, those already produced in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany and Romania) may appear to be highly transferable; on the other hand, the context that has produced those materials may be subject to all kinds of culturally specific constraints. The education system and its institutions, the curriculum (especially the backwash effect of examinations), the age and language level of the target learners, and not least, the cultural context, will all affect the design of materials, in terms of salience, selection and treatment. Adaptation, therefore, seemed a much more likely objective than transfer.
However, the diverse narratives of materials development recounted in Pruhonice had one common leitmotif the importance of the writing processes that had produced the materials. And perhaps this is where there is scope for transfer. While it may be impossible (and indeed undesirable) to generalise cultural salience, transfer at the level of process and principle may be extremely fruitful. A vivid example was provided at the workshop by Ewa Komorowska from Poland, who illustrated a simple but very effective activity, using a selection of photographs she had taken in Britain of particular things that had puzzled or fascinated her (e.g. a caged tomb in an Edinburgh churchyard, memorial plaques on park benches) as a basis for speculation, inference and discussion. This activity was driven by salience that was partly cultural and partly idiosyncratic, and while the materials as they stood might not be directly transferable to a non-Polish context, the design principle of the activity almost certainly is. The lesson seems to be that principles and processes are transferable, and only then are materials susceptible to adaptation.
What do we mean by materials?
It became increasingly apparent throughout the Pruhonice meeting that the term materials actually covered a rich diversity of approaches from the fixity of printed, bound textbooks at one extreme to teachers own texts and lesson plans at the other, with various degrees of completedness or open-endedness in between. To avoid conveying the impression that materials were definitive and immutable, different groups of materials designers had devised ways of incorporating flexibility or suggesting teacher autonomy, e.g. magazine-format supplements (Czech Republic), loose-leaf folders (Germany and Bulgaria), packages of authentic texts as raw materials (Latvia) and a potentially interactive web page (Poland). In those cases (Bulgaria and Romania) where the materials included some discussion of principles and/or guidelines for classroom methodology, the writers emphasised the importance of developing analytical and interpretative skills, and the Romanian textbook included a feedback questionnaire to be completed by students, which it is hoped will inform a subsequent revised edition.
One striking common factor across a highly diverse range of materials was the use of media texts and the methodology of media studies. Although other genres were also represented, this would seem to indicate an extensive re-orientation away from earlier models based on traditional life and institutions or literary approaches.
"Where do ideas come from?"
This question, posed routinely by journalists to writers, reveals some significant influences on the development of materials for the teaching of British Cultural Studies:
All the reports presented in Pruhonice emphasised the centrality of writing and editorial processes, together with a profound sense of the writers personal engagement in their projects. For example, the Bulgarian group acknowledged the crucial role played by the team spirit, mutual trust and sense of identity amongst their group of 60 syllabus writers; the Hungarian group spoke of the importance of bottom-up development; the Lithuanian group declared their determination to resist a "They say we do" model of curriculum renewal.
This sense of ownership was clearly a major factor, but groups had also benefited from different forms of editorial partnership with both internal and external collaborators: consultants (in Bulgaria) whose role was partly to provide fresh stimuli and partly to help writers realise their own objectives; interaction between a British writer and a local reading team (in the Czech Republic); a writing team (in Romania) whose British member also had an advisory role; and (everywhere) mutual editorial responsibility amongst the members of writing teams.
What are teachers doing in their classes?
In order to draw any general conclusions from the current initiatives in materials design for British Cultural Studies, we need to look beyond the materials themselves at the characteristic features of the classroom practices that are implied or represented. The list that follows is not intended to be exhaustive, but captures some key themes that emerged from the Pruhonice meeting.
As the Hungarian group reminded us, materials production is "slow, messy and unpredictable", but at its best can empower teachers and students through a sense of "depth, ownership and local relevance". These virtues were manifest in materials that offered teachers a variety of openings which allowed them to adapt, incorporate or supplement; which in some cases invited them physically to interpolate or substitute their own materials; which even suggested that they could ignore or replace the methodology employed.
In one sense, the weekend was inconclusive no all-purpose guidelines were negotiated; no universal template was devised. But behind all the apparent diversity, there was a high degree of commonality at the levels of principles, processes and policies:
Clark R. & Ivanic R. (1997) The Politics of Writing London: Routledge
Maley A. (1993) in Tomalin B & Stempleski S. Cultural Awareness Oxford: Oxford University Press
Dialogue and difference, Ege, May 1999
Laurence Raw, University of Baskent, Turkey
The 4th Ege University/ British Council/ USIS conference on Cultural Studies took place from 13-15 May 1999. The subject this year was Dialogue and Difference. Guest speakers included Kevin Robins (University of Newcastle), Ray Browne (Bowling Green University, USA), and Gerald Maclean (Ohio State University, USA). The papers focused on a variety of subjects, ranging from travel literature to social anthropology, from American history to cultural theory. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the conference was the way in which many academics, both Turkish and/or otherwise, advocated a more systematic study of Turkish cultures, rather than concentrating either on British or American cultures. This did not mean that British or American cultures should be ignored - rather that they should be used as a basis for comparative cultural study.
The tendency to comparativism was particularly evident in a talk given by Talat Halman, of Bilkent University, Ankara, who urged all participants to consider their native cultures; and re-interpret existing (mostly western-formulated) cultural theories in the light of the Turkish experience. Evidence of how successful this might be was shown in case-studies of the Istanbul suburb of Bahçesehir, and of Turkish popular cultures. The conference also demonstrated the fact that perhaps visiting academics from Britain and/or America should not restrict the topics of their presentations to their own cultures. Rather they should be prepared to offer strategies for an understanding of local and global cultures. This was brought out by Kevin Robins, who argued for the concept of identification rather than difference, as a way of evaluating cultures. Hitherto this series of conferences has tended to concentrate on British and American cultures at the expense of local cultures; what was clearly evident, once this conference had concluded, was that most participants wanted more emphasis to be placed on comparative approaches to cultural studies.
After seven years developing British Studies programmes in Turkey with the British Council, Laurence Raw now teaches Cultural Studies and English Literature at the University of Baskent near Ankara. He is the author of two volumes in the British Council's British Studies series: 'Changing Class Attitudes' and 'The Country and the City' (Click here for details of these and other books for sale)
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