18 April 2007

On honesty in academics, although not in the usual sense.

Maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security about the relatively low profile of my blog, because this is exactly the kind of thing we probably aren't supposed to post, but what's the worst that could happen? (Famous last words?)

Today we had a student conference at the university. All students have to write big research papers (курсовые работы) once a year, and this conference was an opportunity for those who wanted to present their papers to do so. I went to the session where several of my students and former students were presenting. At this session 11 students spoke, including one girl who is both a senior and a teacher at the institute. (That doesn't happen often, but it happens – better to hire the good ones early than lose them to higher-paying jobs.) I don't have a problem with that, but the weird thing was that she acted as the director of this session (in her capacity as a teacher) even though she was participating in it. This is weird because, as the Russians dearly love a competition, the session was also a contest that offered prizes to the first, second and third best presenters. This would be meaningless if a) Russians weren't obsessed with грамоты – that is, certificates; and b) the first prize didn't include publication in the institute's scientific journal. But they are, and it did. So this student was essentially running a contest that she was competing in, and, although this may be a bit harsh, she had her eyes on the prize.

So. All the presentations are finished, the audience has voted for their favorite speakers, and the teachers are tallying up the votes. I happened to be trapped in the corner (literally – one of the teachers and I were sharing a desk) where they were tallying, so I got an interesting view of things. Here's how it went down:

By the votes, Natasha won first place, Lena won second, and this teacher/student, who I'll call Anya, won third (she made a little squeaky aw-golly-gee-how-bout-that noise, by the way, every time she got a vote, which was SUPER annoying). That should settle it, right? Wrong:

Other teacher: But Anya, you're applying to grad school, right?
Anya: Yes.
Third teacher: Then you need to get published.
Anya: (Catching the drift) Well, yes, of course it would help, but that wouldn't be fair.
Other teacher: Why not? Of course it's fair. You need that certificate.
(See the love of certificates? I believe no one in America would give a fig for a stupid certificate that says "First Prize, Conference blah blah blah." But in Russia, that sucker is going in your portfolio for your grad school application.)
Third teacher: Right.
Anya: But the students voted.
Fourth teacher: Oh, they don't know anything. Your research is way more interesting than Natasha's.
Anya: No, I couldn't. It wouldn't be fair.
(I should note, although this may be a bit harsh, that Anya's protests did not ring true.)

This conversation went on for a few minutes, and ultimately they decided to give Anya and Natasha both first prize and Lena third prize, but Anya would get first dibs on publication if the journal wouldn't accept both of them. Anya oh-so-graciously ceded the rest of her first-prize award (besides the coveted грамота, of course) – a folder, pen and notebook – to Ilya, who might have gotten fourth place in the voting but might just as well have simply been the person she felt like giving it to. Again, this may be a bit harsh, but I hope he threw it away.

So, overall, I wasn't shocked by the lack of regard for honesty and – what's the word? – oh, yes, glasnost, but I was a bit shocked by the sheer blatancy of the favoritism. And the general sense that there was absolutely nothing wrong with this.


Anonymous said...

Shocking! Not really. Where I come from in the USA, the county fair has a photo competition in which the person running it (who hires the judge) is also a contestant. And, mirabile dictu, the person running it wins top prizes year after year. And what's even more amazing, her photography is pretty pedestrian.

Guess it's everywhere.

The Dog

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

And you thought high school was filled with random pseudo-important "awards" ...


Rosa said...

Wow. And the first place winner didn't put up any sort of fuss at all?