Writing Perspectives from Eastern Europe: Blog One

    By Ligia Mihut, Ph.D.

   Barry University, Miami Shores

In the fall 2015, I was invited as a guest speaker in Dr. Shyam Sharma’s class, International Rhetorics. The purpose of this graduate seminar was “surveying a number of rhetorical traditions from around the world” through three lenses: historical, geo-political, and issue-centered (Sharma). The course also connected students to a number of composition and rhetoric scholars whose research or expertise centered on an international region. As a guest speaker, I shared my research as well as some observations about writing and literacy in Romania based on my ethnographic work with Romanian immigrants in the US and archival research in Romania. A question from a graduate student persisted in my mind weeks after our Skype conversation. “Can we talk about an Eastern European rhetoric?” It is a question that has preoccupied me for many years. The student’s question and a lack of visibility of scholarship from and about this region reiterated the significance of this question: “What writing practices and traditions have developed in this region? Even if we might not be entitled to call it Eastern European rhetoric, how can we account for certain particularities that emerge in this region?

With recent and persistent calls to turn toward writing instruction outside the US, one region in particular – Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union—remains quite obscure in terms of approaches and beliefs about writing research and pedagogy. In “Permeable Cosmopolitanism,” I underscore the fact that references to Europe often denote Western Europe thus ignoring the complexity of European languages and cultures. Such summative designation neglects the historical and cultural specificity of this region marked by distinct, albeit new, approaches to the teaching of writing. The purpose of this blog is to highlight new developments of writing instruction in Eastern Europe through a series of email conversations, blogs written by scholars from Eastern Europe, and articles about writing instruction/ scholarship in this region.

The following questions guided the email conversation I initiated with scholars teaching and doing research in Eastern Europe.

“Can we speak of an emerging Eastern European composition and rhetoric in the same way we identify a US composition or Chinese rhetoric, Latina/o rhetoric, and other Western or non-Western rhetorics? What specific trends/ traditions/ developments in writing instruction and research are emerging in this region?”

Highlights of our conversation:

As a region Eastern Europe is rather difficult to identify. Even more problematic is to define Eastern Europe as “homogenous writing culture.” (Kruse “Writing Perspectives”)

If Eastern European countries are compared to Western countries, we note a “transformation lag.” (Kruse)

But …

“Perhaps there isn’t a “homogeneous” rhetoric but perhaps, that is precisely what makes this region unique–that individual expression, personal or even ethnic identity in writing, is highly valued. This might be constitutive of the writing culture in this region. Certainly, if we consider solely academic writing, there is definitely a gap and delay in adopting academic genres at most higher education institutions in Eastern Europe.” (Mihut “Writing Perspectives”)

The German Humboldtian university model has established an institutional practice that shapes reading and writing practices in this region:

“What the former communist countries mostly had in common was an inherited German Humboldtian university model. As far as writing is concerned this seemed to be partly responsible for a mode of written academic communication that did not favor readability but rather relished complexity of phrase, wide vocabulary, virtuosity of language mastery and general features that were reader responsible rather than writer responsible.” (Harbord “Writing Perspectives”)

“Europe is Humboldtian meaning that seminar writing and thesis writing, both based on extensive source reading are quite common. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of essay writing (which is much more argumentative and communicative but uses less sources) is now slowly replacing these traditions.” (Kruse)

New developments since the fall of the Communist regime seem to be rather slow and differentiated:

“25 years after the fall of communism, and this situation has changed to a greater or lesser extent in different former communist countries. In those countries that see themselves as core (Russia as core of the Soviet Union, Serbia as core of Yugoslavia) the change has been rather slow, perhaps even negligible. This could be because people identify with the existing rhetoric as part of a culture they take pride in.” (Harbord “Writing Perspectives”)

Due to larger changes in higher education reforms in this region –the Bologna Process”—differences between writing pedagogical traditions will be blurred.

“The European reform program known as “Bologna Process” is currently changing teaching everywhere into the same direction so that in spite of differences traditions the current practices equal each other more and more.” (Kruse)

Writing in multiple languages and awareness of multiple writing styles/ traditions are dominant in writing instruction scholarship in Eastern Europe. I would argue that this preoccupation with writing in L1, L2, and other languages is a key feature of writing instruction developments in this region. Although academic writing culture (not writing culture in general) seems delayed compared to Western countries (Kruse), in terms of attention to language diversity, Eastern Europe is a forerunner. (Mihut)

Relationships established betweenL1 writing, L2 writing or writing in other languages are complex. At times, there is a need to preserve the national language, but there are trends of transfer, transplanting, or selective adaptions.

In “Writing in Central and Eastern Europe,” John Harbord shows that instructors teaching classes where the national language is the subject are preoccupied with language preservation as a way of protecting one’s national or ethnic identity. However, in disciplines unrelated to the study of language/ discourse/ rhetoric, or literature, scholars are more readily open to adopt and adapt writing practices from other Western traditions:

“Social scientists, in contrast to teachers of the national language, seem rather less concerned about cultural heritage and more interested in obtaining effective tools for doing their job. Which culture these tools come from appears less important to them. Marine Chitashvili, the distinguished Georgian psychologist who founded the Centre for Social Sciences at Tbilisi University, framed this very well when I raised concerns about imposing the norms of English academic writing on Georgian. She said:

Georgian doesn’t have its own culture of academic scholarship. The way we have written until now is the Russian way, which was imposed upon us as part of the Russian empire in the 19th century and the Soviet empire in the 20th. We have the choice to keep the Russian way of writing which is not ours, or exchange it for the Anglo-American way of writing, which is also not inherently Georgian. (personal communication, May 22, 2008).”

Although evidence is scarce, there seems to be a trend in emerging new “ways” of writing.

“This is especially interesting in the case of Serbia. Serbian rhetoric has customarily been seen as distant from English and very reader responsible; many of my students endorse this view (either with their opinions or their output). However, I had a student recently who commented that she attempts to write in the ‘new Serbian’ style. In her words, new Serbian rhetoric is influenced by English and attempts to be simpler and clearer, while traditional Serbian rhetoric is influenced by French (in the 19th century) and complex and baroque. Apparently there is a ‘school’ of younger Serbian scholars who see themselves as using the new Serbian rhetoric. Among the many fascinating issues raised by this anecdotal evidence is the fact that a writer-responsible style is not perceived as external (e.g. US style) but as ‘new Serbian’ thus making it possible to rewrite and preserve national pride and cultural identity. The new paradigm involve the perception that ‘we are all influenced by other cultures; our national culture was previously shaped by one external influence, now it is shaped by another, but it is still ours’.” (Harbord, “Writing Perspectives”)

As the above dialog illustrates, it is rather difficult to offer a definite answer to the initial questions: “Can we speak of an emerging Eastern European composition and rhetoric in the same way we identify a US composition or Chinese rhetoric, Latina/o rhetoric, and other Western or non-Western rhetorics?” Yet, these questions invite further research and conversations with scholars from this region. In the following blog post, I launched an open invitation from scholars from different Eastern European countries. With each account, we learn more about the teaching of writing in Eastern Europe as well as about these scholars’ perspectives on writing instruction and research (see Blog 2).

Works Cited

Harbord, John. “Writing Perspectives from Eastern Europe.” Message to Ligia Mihut. 16 Feb. 2015. Email.

Harbord, John. “Writing in Central and Eastern Europe: Stakeholders and directions in initiating change.” Across the Disciplines 7 (2010): n. pag. Web. 6 March 2015. <http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/harbord2010.cfm>

Otto, Kruse. “Writing Perspectives from Eastern Europe.” Message to Ligia Mihut. 16 Feb. 2015. Email.

Mihut, Ligia. “Writing Perspectives from Eastern Europe.” Message to Otto Kruse and John Harbord. 17 Feb. 2015. Email.

Sharm, Shyam. “Courses.” Shyama Sharma, n. d. Web. 11 March 2015.

<http://shyamsharma.net/for-students/courses/>

Mihut, Ligia. “Permeable Cosmopolitanism.” Mobilized Subjects: Knowledge and Cultural Transformations in the New Millennium. Eds. Cameron McCarthy, Nicole Lamers, Margaret Fitzpatrick, and Karla Parma. Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2013. 86- 104. Print.

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