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American Studies Halfway across the Globe

by Jeff Worley

Cross-cultural learning is the focus of another international program, headed up by Alan DeYoung in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, and Stanley Brunn in the Department of Geography. “Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, American Studies has been a hot subject area in that part of the world,” says Brunn, “so Alan and I—and several others here at UK—wanted to develop an exchange to help fan the flames of this interest.”

Photo of Ron Pen playing fiddle with students at the Kyrgyz Conservatory Ron Pen plays the fiddle with students at the Kyrgyz Conservatory.

The program that resulted is a partnership in American studies between the University of Kentucky and Kyrgyz State National University and other universities in Kyrgyzstan, a small country in Central Asia that borders China. This program, which began in the fall of 2003, was funded by the U.S. State Department for $275,000 for three years. Brunn credits Roger Anderson, a former professor of Eastern European studies at UK, with paving the way for this exchange. “Roger did a lot of early groundbreaking work in that area of the world when he was here, when he very capably headed up the Kazakh-American Studies Center.”

“American Studies is a new specialization in these universities, so our focus has been to help develop curricula, critical thinking and teaching methodologies related to their fields of interest,” says DeYoung, who sits surrounded in his office in the Taylor Education Building by souvenirs and artwork from central Asia: a knotted bridal trapping from Turkmenistan, embroidered bedding decorations (called Saye-Gosha) from Uzbekistan, a tekke carpet from Turkmenistan, and flags from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. American Studies encompasses a wide range of topics, including history, geography, government, literature, music, art, and politics.

So far, UK has hosted eight visiting scholars from Kyrgyzstan for semester-long training periods, and six UK faculty have spent various lengths of time at Kyrgyz universities. Brunn says that teaching and giving lectures at these universities has been a fascinating experience, adding that both the educational approach and expectations for both students and faculty in Kyrgyzstan are vastly different than in the United States.

“At Kyrgyz universities faculty come in in the morning and although they know what subjects they’re supposed to teach, they have to look on a big board on the wall to see where their classes are, and when—and throughout the day all this can all change at a moment’s notice. This is the Soviet tradition which Kyrgyzstan still basically follows.” Brunn recalls that once when there was a parade in town the dean moved all the class meeting times because students and faculty were required to go watch the parade.

Typically, he says, Kyrgyz university faculty teach from six to eight hours a day. “Everything is run by clock hours. Teachers are contracted to work a specific number of hours during the school year. Think of our high schools, with a couple of extra hours every day.”

The students also get their daily room and time assignments from the “big board,” and everyone is in class from eight to five. “We don’t get to talk much to the students because they’re always tied up with their classes,” Brunn says. “They have no free time.” In fact, student life in Kyrgyzstan is serious business. There are no sororities, no fraternities, no university-sponsored sports. “Their universities are organized and run differently, and the student’s role is much different than in American universities. Also, universities in Kyrgyzstan are not considered residential: almost every student lives at home or with relatives.”

DeYoung adds that despite teaching up to eight courses a day, teachers have extremely low salaries, and many of them have to work another job or two to make ends meet. “But being a professor is still a prestigious position, despite the low pay. To be a professor in Kyrgyzstan is to be among the elite.”

Photo of Robert Lodder holding fiber optic catheterBob Oslon and several Kyrgyz professors carve Holloween pumpkins, one of many American holiday traditions the group enjoyed during their time in the United States.

When these professors come to visit UK as students, it’s simply a mind-boggling experience, DeYoung says. “Imagine coming from a system where education is absolutely and totally a serious enterprise, and you walk across campus and see students playing Frisbee, kicking little beanbag balls around, or sleeping under a tree. For in Kyrgyz professors, this definitely took some getting used to!”

For some insights about the UK experiences of these professors-turned-students at UK, see the following reports:

Brunn recounts “counseling” two of the junior faculty who’d come from Kyrgyzstan and wanted to know which courses they had been assigned. “They wanted to know what courses they should take, and the question I asked—‘What courses would you like to take?’— took some time to register.”
All of the faculty who came here, though, focused on American studies courses because American culture and history are so popular in Kyrgyzstan universities. It’s a way to build content knowledge for their classes back home. But with such easy access to information of every kind now on the web, why do these teachers need to come to a U.S. university to build their teaching materials?

“Most people in Kyrgyzstan don’t have TV sets, let alone computer access,” says DeYoung. “About 1 percent of people in the country have cable TV, so there’s very little knowledge about what’s happening culturally in the United States.”

Background on and expertise in American culture is what UK faculty in this program bring to Kyrgyzstan. They also bring books, CDs, maps and other resource materials for those teaching American studies.
Early last April, Brunn, DeYoung, Donald Gross (political science), and Ron Pen (School of Music) took part in the third annual American Studies in Central Asia symposium, held this past year in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Their presentations included “Teaching U.S. Geography” (Brunn), “Teaching American Government” (Gross), and “The People’s Voice: Folk Music and the Academy” (Pen). DeYoung was on the steering committee and coordinated the symposium. The UK group also participated in a session titled “Is There a Future for American Studies in Central Asia?”

Brunn emphasizes the point that the UK team was only a small part of the program. “There were four or five participating universities this year. Almost all of the talks were given by younger faculty—it’s part of what’s expected of them—and students.” UK professors also act as ongoing mentors of their Kyrgyz counterparts. It’s clear what participating faculty at Kyrgyz National University are gaining from this exchange, but how is this program a good thing for UK faculty and for Kentucky?

Alan Deyoung: “I like to think that we are helping to internationalize the University of Kentucky. The people who have come have all been active in the Asia Center programs here, giving presentations on Central Asia, and they’ve also been active in the Russian and Eastern Studies programs.”

Stan Brunn: “I teach a course on the former Soviet Union and a course titled Cities of the World, so I’m continually learning from our Kyrgyz National University colleagues, from their insights and experiences. And my students are the ultimate beneficiaries.” With the help of some Kyrgyz participants in the program, DeYoung has published a book, Surviving the Transition: Case Studies of Schools and Schooling in the Kyrgyz Republic, and several articles on education reform in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Ron Pen: UK’s Musical Diplomat in Kyrgyzstan

Ron Pen, the director of UK’s John Jacob Niles Center, will tell you that Niles had a simple mission in life: he wanted to spread the music of rural America, especially the music of Appalachia, around the world. The Kentucky balladeer, who wrote hundreds of songs and built his own dulcimers, would be pleased to see that Pen is actively carrying this musical banner into a country thousands of miles away, a country few Americans have even heard of.

Photo of students performing at the Kyrgyz Conservatory

Pen was one of six University of Kentucky faculty who went to Kyrgyzstan this past spring in an exchange of ideas and cultural experiences. He spent two weeks in April in this Central Asian country.

During his brief time there, Pen didn’t do much. All he did was participate in panels about teaching American studies at UK, give talks on folk music and Appalachian “voice,” give concerts of American/Appalachian music, moderate sessions on the future of American Studies in Central Asia, perform Appalachian songs and fiddle tunes with traditional musical ensembles, do interviews and perform on fiddle for the “Zamana” television program (Kyrgyzstan’s equivalent of the “Today” show), meet with Kyrgyz National Conservatory students and give classes on Appalachian music, present radio interviews and performances, give a presentation and concert before a full auditorium at the Tok Mok College of Culture, present (with Stan Brunn) a two-hour class at International University for American Studies students, and perform several fiddle tunes at Arabaev University.

“And this was just the ‘official’ stuff,” Pen says with a happy shrug of exhaustion from his office in the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music. “There were also countless dinner invitations and other informal get-togethers with families, students and other musicians. I couldn’t have been treated more kindly,” Pen says, winding into a recollection of one typical evening during his stay there.

Photo of students performing at the Kyrgyz Conservatory“One evening, all of the UK delegation in the country then—Stan Brunn, Don Gross (UK political science), Alan DeYoung, Galina Valyayeva (official translator), and I visited the home of Zinaida Karaeva, where we enjoyed the remarkably generous hospitality of a traditional meal consisting of many courses, many formal toasts, and komys (fermented wild mare’s milk). Zinaida’s husband took me out to see his garden—fresh raspberries, strawberries, grapes, carrots, and cabbage. Throughout the evening various family members, neighbors and guests dropped by to share in the celebration. As is customary, there was a giving of gifts, and I received an ooz komuz (jaw harp) and an embroidered fabric.”

Pen’s interest in going to Kyrgyzstan was piqued when in fall 2005 a visiting faculty member from Kyrgyz National University, Venera Umetalieva, took a music class with him. “Venera was curious about all things American. She wanted to teach American Studies there, so I worked with her some on music, theater and film—and I began to learn about her country in the bargain.” Pen’s interest in Kyrgyzstan grew, and he asked DeYoung to include him on the exchange grant for spring 2006.

“I believe the adage that you learn a lot about home by leaving home, and I thought I could learn more about Appalachia by going to another country that’s similar in at least a couple of ways. Kyrgyzstan, like Appalachia, is mountainous and was exploited by the Soviet colonial system just as Appalachia has been exploited for its natural resources.”

But it was Kyrgyzstan’s music that was the strongest draw. Pen brought his fiddle and was eager to play with other musicians there to see what kind of music they could stir up. And, as with much he experienced there, Pen says, there were lots of surprises.

“I gave one guy my fiddle to play, but he didn’t put it on his shoulder; he put it between his legs, like it was a cello, and started playing Mozart.”

Pen was often asked to play Appalachian fiddle tunes, which he was happy to do. The Kyrgyz National Conservatory includes a folk-music track as well as a western music track, so students there have a good understanding of western music, Pen explains. “They’re mostly amused by fiddle tunes, but a fresh challenge for me was to try to figure out what songs would reach them. How do you get a small group involved when they don’t understand the lyrics or have little cultural understanding of where the music comes from?”

The answer: “Fiddlesticks!”

“Yes, I brought fiddlesticks with me, an old Appalachian way to have a duet with anybody. Anyone can tattoo out a rhythm, and it adds some nice percussion to the fiddle. Pen adds, with an amused grin, that he shared unexpected Kyrgyz favorites “Strangers in the Night” and “Yesterday.”

Photo of Ron Pen playing FiddlesticksA student volunteer accompanies Ron Pen with fiddlesticks.

“It had never occurred to me to try to play ‘Strangers in the Night’ on the fiddle. Why ‘Yesterday’? I asked them. One musician told me that the chord progression is interesting and that it’s simply a beautiful song.”

Though Kyrgyz musicians, for the most part, use different instruments than Appalachian musicians, one traditional musical form is culturally shared—the ballad.

“Even fragments of some of their ballads go on for 25 minutes. They have one epic cycle called Manas that is the story of a great leader and his people, and they still have oral balladeers who can sing thousands and thousands of lines of verse! The ballad form, there and here, is a way of defining a group of people as a nation.” The legendary warrior Manas led Kyrgyz troops in battles against foreign invaders and is credited with helping to preserve the independence of the Turkic Kyrgyz people in the past. Elements of the orally transmitted Manas legend began to assume written form by the 16th century.

“I wouldn’t say music is an international language, but it is an international phenomenon,” says Pen.

In summarizing his time there, he says that the University Partnership Grant is a wonderful way to support educational exchange between the United States and Kyrgyzstan while nurturing the American Studies curriculum in Kyrgyzstan. “I hope that relationships with the earlier exchanges of Kyrgyz faculty were strengthened by my visit and foundations were laid for subsequent collaboration with both faculty members and students in the American Studies programs. I loved my short stay in Kyrgyzstan. Every day full of surprises—it was a constantly unfolding garden of delight.”

Bob Olson: Right at Home in the Middle East

Though he’d never been to Kyrgyzstan, Bob Olson, a UK professor of history, felt an aura of the familiar when he found himself in that part of the world. After all, Olson—an internationally known scholar of Turkish history and politics—has logged in lots of time in Turkey over the years. So this part of the world is, in a sense, his home-away-from-home.

Photo of Bob Olsen“When Alan DeYoung asked me if I wanted to be a part of this exchange program that he and Alan Brunn were involved in, I jumped at the chance,” says Olson, the author of 10 books, 64 articles and 34 contributions to encyclopedias and reference books. “I wanted to go because Kyrgyzstan is an intriguing place, strategically located on the borders of Kazakhstan and China.” His intense interest in Turkey was also a factor. “The Turks feel, in terms of their nationalism, that their origin is in central Asia. And they consider the Kyrgyz, especially, as their brothers.”

In Kyrgyzstan Olson stayed in an apartment that DeYoung had rented close to the university. During his two-week visit, Olson gave 15 lectures on the foreign policies of Middle Eastern countries, especially on Turkish relations with central Asia and with Russia. “The students were also very interested in Turkish relations with Arab countries and with Israel. I was worked like a mule,” says Olson with a smile. “One day I gave two two-hour lectures to students interested in international relations, and then taught a couple of English classes.” He says that he was “roped into” teaching 15 to 20 English classes—advanced grammar—to help students improve their English. “This turned out to be an exhausting but wonderful experience. The students at my lectures and in my classes were marvelous. They had worked hard to get their English to a level where they could follow lectures in English pretty well.”

Olson says his biggest surprise on this short trip to Kyrgyzstan and other towns in the region was his feeling of being in a Russian time warp.
“These central Asia towns are nearly identical to Russian towns in the 1950s. The architecture is Russian, the streets are Russian, the monuments are Russian; and the main language spoken, to foreigners anyway, is Russian.” Though Olson speaks no Russian or Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, he is fluent in Turkish, so had a natural ear for Kyrgyz. “I also learned the Cyrillic alphabet, which Russian is based on, before I made the trip over and memorized about 50 Kyrgyz words. “The numbers system was the same as in Turkish, so they loved me in the market place—in a puzzled way—because they knew I wasn’t Russian and didn’t imagine I was American, but found out right away I could bargain with them like a native.”

Olson says it’s tremendously important to understand the people of this country and this region because central Asia is a focal point in the global struggle between Russia and China and the United States, which are jockeying to play dominant roles in the distribution of oil and gas in central Asia. “Kyrgyzstan may have the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world after Russia and Iran and Qatar. So the country has huge strategic importance for the U.S.: Central Asian oil and gas could be used to supplement oil and gas reserves in the Middle East and North Africa if something should curtail the distribution of that oil and gas to Europe or to the world market.”

Olson applauds the Kyrgyzstan project because, he says, it greatly contributes to the international aspect of the University of Kentucky. “Our students, and Americans in general, seem to know the least about this culture despite our involvement in the Middle East, and so this is just another aspect of expanding the reach of the international relations program at UK. What’s been accomplished is a very warm relationship between the University of Kentucky and Kyrgyzstan, and I hope it’s one we can expand on.”

Back at UK, Olson offers his students a similar connection through his passion for teaching about the region and its history. “The greatest richness in my intellectual and personal life has been my acquaintance with Middle Eastern peoples and cultures,” says Olson, who has been at UK since 1973.