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Culture shock: I'm not in Milwaukee anymore

Road to Russia — Part IIIimage

Editor’s Note: Milwaukee attorney Diane Slomowitz spent the past two weeks in St. Petersburg teaching Russian students about U.S. law. This week, she relates her initial culture shock and her efforts to reach out to the students during her first week.

I have completed my first week of teaching at the Herzen Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of the Center for International Legal Studies. I am teaching a class in trade secret/misappropriation law to 33 students for two hours each weekday. I also taught a class on the U.S. educational system to adult students in the evening.

My teaching has been overshadowed by the culture shock of being an American, with only rudimentary knowledge of the Russian language and culture, in this large Russian metropolis. The inability to readily communicate infuses every task, from communicating with the hotel desk clerk, to buying food or asking for directions.

That culture shock, however, is more than offset by the unqualified luxury of being in the center of such a glorious city. The landmark I use to find my way home is the series of semicircular columns of the grand Kazan Cathedral. The Hermitage Museum is 15 minutes away on foot. The mosaic-filled Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built on the site of a czar’s assassination, is even closer to my hotel than the Hermitage. Huge statues are everywhere. I can trace Dostoevsky’s steps from “Crime and Punishment.” I am living in history.

But I came here to teach, and that is what I have been doing. While the university mostly trains educators, many of my students in the school of management will become private business managers. I have had to adapt my lesson plans to the fact that my students are not training to become lawyers. So I am focusing on employment issues which management would face in any environment, U.S. or Russia.

My class knows nothing about U.S. lawyers. They are not familiar with the O.J. Simpson case, and they have not even had exposure to television shows such as “L.A. Law,” “Boston Legal,” “The Practice” or the like. Therefore, I spent a fair amount of time describing what a U.S. corporate lawyer does all day, using an employment discrimination dispute upon which I recently worked as an example.

Many Russian students work in addition to attending classes, and do not attend class every day. Students who attend more than 50 percent of my classes, for example, will receive a certificate of participation on the last day of class. Similarly, Russian students are used to the pure lecture format. They are strangers to participatory classrooms or group projects, both of which are essential to my lesson plans.

As a result, the first few class days were frustrating, difficult and discouraging. I spoke in English, with able student translators. Still, when I asked the students to introduce themselves, either in Russian or English, most refused. When I asked direct questions, no answers were forthcoming.

For the first few days, the class only came to life during the last 10 minutes, which I allotted for questions of me. Who did I vote for in the presidential primaries? Does the U.S. give maternity leave to employees? Why does the government allow “its” media to speak ill of Russia? How much does a U.S. lawyer earn? These Q&A sessions get longer each day, and now include my questions to the students. We all look forward to this daily give and take.

By the end of the week, the students were more engaged in class activities. The students divided into groups, formed separate companies, competed against each other, and had some employees/students leave to join different companies/groups.

We will go through a similar exercise next week, after which the groups will prepare an employee handbook. I hope that the comfort level is now high enough that class participation will increase and discussions will be lively.

I no longer feel like an alien in St. Petersburg. I find my way from place to place, know where to buy needed goods, speak basic Russian sentences, and call my spartan room home. As we Russians say, Do Svidanya!

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