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Transnational Academic Feminism: The Case of Handwriting
August 31, 2010 - 9:30pm

Guest blogger, Karin Sarsenov, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Summer is the blessed time for international conferencing, and for yours truly, this summer has been especially fruitful in this respect. At conferences, you are exposed to the difference between national and professional cultures ruling our interaction.

Compare, for instance, the Berlin Congress of the International Council for Central and East European Studies in 2005 with the same Congress held in Stockholm this year. In Berlin the organization was impeccable; the ceremonies were performed by people in smart clothes, speaking in smooth, well articulated language, preferably English and German. However, there was a striking absence of East European cultural performance, taking into account the large diaspora communities of Berlin. In Stockholm, on the other hand, Disa Håstad, former correspondent to Moscow, opened the congress in Russian, spurting erroneous case endings, without losing in intelligibility or the attention of the audience. The suits were not as well-ironed as in Berlin, but the performance of the mock choir “Red Army Boys” in helmets and caps with ear-flaps diverted our attention from this fact. Their pronunciation was as lacking as Mrs. Håstad’s, efficiently illustrating the problems facing students of area studies in general, and those faced with the Russian dark “L” in particular (imagine “Volga Volga” pronounced with an “L” as in “lip”).

The field of East European Studies is deeply rooted in the Cold War conflict, and has experienced an identity crisis in connection with its ending. The Stockholm congress took our fascination of foreign cultures as the point of departure, an admirable choice which demands courage, as any fascination is fraught with unscholarly excess and overestimation.

Another example of the difference between national scholarly cultures surfaced during a round table devoted to gender studies. A question from the audience concerned academic imperialism – the tendency of Western scholars to avoid reading or referring to “native” research, published in Russian, for instance, and the acceptance of this habit by peer reviewers and editors. In her response, one established Western historian agreed that Russian scholars often enjoy superior working conditions, having easy access to archives and a more profound linguistic training. She admitted specifically to having troubles reading Russian handwriting from the beginning of the twentieth century. This statement baffled the Russian participants – in their view, her statement equalled a confession of complete professional inadequacy. A historian should not only be able to read her grandmother’s handwriting, but she must also master documents in sixteenth century Gothic script, full of provincial peculiarities and influences from obscure dialects. As I am familiar with this particular Western scholar’s work, I knew that she masters Russian handwriting very well – why on earth did she then expose herself to suspicion?

I think the answer is to be found in the historical development of academic feminism. One of its aspects is its questioning of the competitive, aggressive interaction of a traditionally male dominated academic culture. At many feminist conferences and seminars, the atmosphere encourages you to praise the work of others and to question your own position; there is a striving towards understanding rather than victory in verbal combat. This atmosphere was what attracted me to academic feminism in the first place, and I think that this is the atmosphere which prompted the scholar’s statement regarding handwriting. In Russian academic feminism, on the other hand, no such questioning of masculine academic culture has occurred – here, feminism derives its energies from other sources. On the contrary, Russian feminists rely heavily on their verbal polemic efficiency to carve out space for their ideas. Here, any acknowledgement of lacking competence amounts to suicide.

What morale could we then extract from this story? I think feminist scholars must be frank about the competitiveness of the academia, and train their students in surviving in harsh conditions. Very few could allow themselves the luxury of self questioning, and students must be made aware of that. Nevertheless, I will continue to nurture the dream of friendly Platonic dialogue, aimed at widening our common horizons, without always having to think about greedily accumulating academic field-specific capital.

Karin Sarsenov is a research fellow in Russian literature at Lund University. She worked as an interpreter in Moscow while the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1990, then went there again in 1994 as a marital migrant, raising her first child. She defended her Ph.D. in 2001 and has worked at Lund University ever since, teaching, performing academic leadership, writing articles about Russia, literature and power relations. In 2003, she did her post doc at University of Pittsburgh.


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