“The most important thing is to find other people to work with you”
Prof. Kirk Branch (Montana State University, USA) on how to prepare research papers, as well as to teach in English.
From May 13 to 31, the “National Writing Project Summer Institute” course was held on the basis of German-Russian Institute of Advanced Technologies. The purpose of such intensity was to help teachers to replenish their knowledge and gain new experience in teaching in English and to improve writing skills for research purposes. The supervisor was professor at Montana State University Kirk Branch.
- Mr. Branch, could you tell us about the purpose of conducting your workshop which lasted 3 weeks? What were its goals?
- There are two things in the focus of our workshop. GRIAT faculty teach some of the masters level courses in English. And so, we are working on effective methods of teaching. And we are also working on writing papers in English.
- So the focus was set on pedagogic issues rather than on language learning?
- Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it. I was interested not in making sure that they were using all their English perfectly but in making sure that they were thinking about how best and how most effectively to convey complicated information to students. So we had examples of very good lectures where English wasn’t perfect and examples of lectures where English was almost perfect but which were not good from the teaching point of view. For me the more important issue is the lecture is well constructed, more than that the language is perfect. I am not trying to teach the participants of the workshop to be perfect speakers of English, but I am trying to figure out how they best can think about demonstration of their knowledge to students.
That’s the first goal. But there is also the second one. Now academics all over the world – if they are ambitious scholars – have to publish their work in English. And it is a very difficult expectation for non-native speakers of English. It makes an unfair advantage for scholars like me who are native speakers of English. We obviously have less work to do to publish in English than scholars from countries like Russia, and they have a much harder task. So part of my job here too is to help scholars begin understanding how to prepare and submit scientific articles in English as well as how to think about the structure of those scientific articles, how to write them in a most effective manner. Scholars in all languages including English often need this kind of work, but scholars who are non-native speakers of English need it more.
And it is not primarily a matter of the level of their knowledge of English language – the grammar and the vocabulary. There are also different expectations in the structure of the writing when you are publishing in English from when you are publishing in Russian. I’ve learned what the Russian expectations are and how that changes moving into English writing. The participants of the workshop this week have been amazed to learn that writers try to avoid the Passive Voice in writing in academic English in the United States. And in Russian, as I’ve learned from the participants, it is expected that you would use Passive Voice in writing. So not surprisingly their writing in English is dominated by passive constructions. That’s an example but there is a lot of other ones in terms of the structure and the way you are presenting your arguments. There are cultural differences too that are difficult to writers. Expectations of what scientific paper looks like in Russia are different from what they look like, for example, in the United States.
- So just to put the text into the Google Translate is not enough
- Which of these two goals was harder to reach – improving writing skills or developing skills of speaking with the audience?
- I think that for the participants themselves the hardest one is writing. Writing is difficult for anybody in any language. And the work of learning how to do it a new kind of writing in another language is very taxing. It is very hard for people. And, as you know, at some stages of language learning just a work you have to do – to think and speak and write in another language is exhausting – it is very hard work. And it requires constant mental focus and concentration that can wear people down. And I think that it is another level of difficulty when it is in writing because the expectation for correctness and accuracy and specificity, especially in academic writing, are even higher than in spoken language. They are already good teachers in their own context for the most part. I intended to make them more interactive teachers. And I think most of them are good writers in Russian. But it is very hard for them to switch to another language.
- Let’s talk about the results. How do you think, was the attempt to get rid of psychological blocks which prevent people from writing papers in English successfully?
- I will know more in a long term when we will be able to see how successful the participants of the workshop are at the writing in English. But I do think that I helped them take a new perspective on writing. One thing when you are writing in another language – it is very common for a person to be always focused on correctness. That is not helpful. When you are writing in another language you have to focus on getting your ideas out and figuring out the order of your ideas. And then you go back and do the work of editing to correct mistakes and convert the text into the standard academic English.
I think we’ve done very good work in getting the participants to relax as writers and getting them to be more comfortable about not warning about mistakes in the drafting process but instead to focus on the ideas they want to put out there. I can see that they are much more comfortable in writing in English now than they were two and a half weeks ago. We were doing it every day and often – they were writing a lot during the workshop, and I should say that was very successful. I can see that now they are more comfortable and relaxed as speakers and writers of English. So, if they keep up and maintain a habit of writing in English on a regular (I hope daily) basis, then the benefits will stay with them.
- And what about speaking skills – were there any recognizable improvements?
- Yes, there were improvements. They became more confident with their sort of facility with speaking. I don’t think there necessarily were visible improvements in their grammar or their vocabulary but in terms of their willingness and confidence to speak in English, their comfort level of speaking in English. I believe that when I arrived, the expectation here – as usually in the beginning of workshops like this – is that I’m going to correct every mistake they make. That makes people nervous. And when they see that this is not my job in the workshop like this, they start speaking more freely. That alone significantly increases their willingness to speak. That is the most important thing in my mind about learning a language – the confidence and the comfort level of speaking. I noticed that it has changed during the past two weeks for sure.
- What can you advise for the person who wants to improve his teaching skills in English as well as to develop his skills in writing papers in English?
- The first and may be the most important thing is to find other people to work with you on it. And I don’t mean someone like me – I mean a colleague who is also working on writing in English or teaching in English – especially in writing – if you find three or four colleagues come together and share their writing and encourage each other to continue writing on a regular basis and give each other feedback and support as writers – that’s the most important thing. If you are trying to do it all on your own, it is a difficult process.
The other thing which I would remind to writers is that writing is slow. And if you are going to write well, writing is always a process of extensive revision which means that you have to make the priority in your writing to your ideas and not the correctness of your language. Of course, the correctness of your language matters but it doesn’t matter as much as your ideas. For example, I have a participant in a workshop who submitted a paper last year in English and it was returned with 300 corrections made on it in English. But they are going to publish it because the ideas in it were very strong. And sometimes papers that are almost perfect in English don’t contain very interesting ideas. They wouldn’t have been published. It was clear to him in this case that his ideas were strong and that mattered to the journal and they were willing to work with challenges in English because his ideas were strong. If English is perfect and the ideas are not strong, they are not interested in publishing such paper. So the ideas have to be the priority. If you are worried about perfection in language at the beginning – then you are going to forget about your ideas and that’s the most important part.
- Does that mean that you need to divide your roles – at first to write an article like an author and then to read and check it like an editor?
- Yes, exactly. And I would recommend against writing in Russian or in any other language and then translating the paper to English. I think that’s a mistake. I think you are going to have more success if you write it in English even though it is obviously much more laborious and difficult.
- What are your impressions about KNRTU-KAI, GRIAT and the city of Kazan? Do you plan to return here?
- My experience here was extraordinary. The faculty that I worked with were incredibly smart, very generous to each other and to me, very welcoming. Kazan is a beautiful city. I’ve been working very hard but I’ve also been lucky because I was able to visit some places outside of Kazan – Sviyazhsk island, Yelabuga as well as many places in Kazan and I very much enjoyed the city. I am impressed by ambitions of GRIAT and the idea of such an international program. I think Alsu Gilmetdinova is doing very strong work as a program leader and developer. She is a former student of mine and it is always wonderful to see the former student succeeding in work that she likes.
It’s my first visit to Russia. It is quite wonderful that I’ve learned so much, I had so many interesting conversations – it is a unique opportunity because like my peers here we grew up in a time where we learned things about each other that were not true because we were enemies of each other on the international stage. It is just wonderful to come and meet people who, like me, are living real lives, who are interesting and smart people doing their wonderful things. You know, you just meet people and like people everywhere they are generous and welcoming and love the same things that people everywhere love.
And that’s a result of especially participants of the workshop – they have been my main ambassadors for Russia. Alsu Gilmetdinova and her family have been quite wonderful but then just people of Kazan who I’ve met and interacted with outside the workshop too. Together with my wife I am planning to visit Moscow and St.-Petersburg but I am very happy that my first experience of Russia was in Kazan. I hope I have an opportunity to come back to Kazan and to work again with GRIAT faculty – I’ve made new friends here and learned why I should be excited about visiting Russia again.