‘The aim of my course is to popularise Oriental Studies’: an interview with Apollinariia Avrutina, the author of a new online course at St Petersburg University, ‘The Literary Treasury of the Middle East’
St Petersburg University is pleased to announce the launch of a new online course ‘The Literary Treasury of the Middle East’. It is already available for enrolment on the national OpenEdu platform, and will soon be launched on the international education platform Coursera.
The author of the course is Apollinariia Avrutina, Doctor of Philology, a Turkologist, Orientalist, linguist, and translator of many books by major contemporary Turkish writers such as Orhan Pamuk, Nâzım Hikmet, and many others. The course is very vivid, intense, and truly unique. Students will learn about the literary monuments of the Middle East from ancient times to the present day and tackle such issues as deciphering and the history of writing. They will also hear samples of Middle Eastern literary works performed by the author.
We invite everyone to sign up for the course. Also, we bring to your attention an interview with the author, Apollinariia Avrutina, in which she shared: information about the course and the process of its creation; and her thoughts on online education and the challenges of modern scholarship. She also talked about: how she came to study the East; why it is necessary to study ancient literary monuments; and why she considers the school programme in Turkey to be good.
Could you tell us please about your professional path: how did it happen that you became interested in the East and Eastern literature?
I can't say that I chose to study the East by accident. As a child, I wanted to be a singer or an actress. However, in line with our family tradition, my mother decided that I should enter the Faculty of Asian and African Studies. So, with that idea in mind she sent me to a school with advanced English learning. My mother has been involved with the East all her life. She graduated from the Department of Ethnography and Anthropology of St Petersburg University and studied under the supervision of Rudolf Its. Later she worked at the Kunstkamera and now she works at the Hermitage. I grew up in the Kunstkamera and I know almost all exhibits with my eyes closed: I have examined them in every detail 500 times and I know by heart where every crack is and how they should stand. And then, when I was already a grown-up, I fell in love with some of the Turkish books that were available in our country at that time. Back then a Turkish series called ‘Çalikusu’ was on TV and everyone loved it. I used to study music, so I played all the music from the show by ear, played it on the piano in the classroom, and everyone, of course, gasped in amazement. I liked it all so much. Then my granddaddy gave me a book by Reşat Nuri Güntekin – it's still on the shelf, by the way – and I fell in love with it, too. I told myself then that when I grew up I would definitely translate Güntekin's books. And in 2007, when I was working in America and translating ‘The Other Colours’ by Orhan Pamuk (from the manuscript with mixed English and Turkish texts), I was approached by a Moscow publishing house with the suggestion to translate ‘Çalikusu’. At first, I was very happy about the proposal, but then I rejected it. The thing is that the translation which I love since my childhood and still read from time to time (Igor Pechenev's translation), was so perfect, that it couldn't be outdone. So I persuaded them to republish the old translation. And yet my dream did come true, because I got the offer to translate my favourite work.
After the 11th grade, I applied to the Faculty of Asian and African Studies and did not get in. But then I entered the Faculty of History, the Department of Modern and Contemporary History headed by Boris Komissarov. He even was my research supervisor for a year because I wrote a paper on Turkey and German-Turkish relations in World War II. In addition, I attended lectures at the Department of Turkic Philology since my first year. The schedule was absolutely monstrous: from nine to five there were language classes at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies, four or five classes every day; and at six, I had classes in the Faculty of History. I remember those years very well: I slowly walked from the Faculty of Asian and African Studies through the gallery of the Twelve Collegia building. It was such a pleasure to walk through the gallery, go out onto the square, cross the street and enter the building of the Faculty of History. Back then the evening lectures were provided for all the students in the same year altogether, in huge old-fashioned tiered lecture halls. When I came to that lecture hall, there would be almost nobody there yet, and I would have some good 10-15 minutes to drink tea from a thermos which my mother gave me, and eat sandwiches without hurry. In general, I had that ritual every day from Monday to Thursday. I studied and studied and studied. Only it was very scary to go home, because at 9pm when I walked out into the street, it was already dark. It was a kind of some metaphysical postmodern experience. So my road to Eastern studies was long and winding.
At the end of the first year, it was necessary for me to have As in both the Faculty of History and the Faculty of Asian and African Studies. I was safely transferred straight into the second year. And already in my fourth year, at Lyudmila Verbitskaya’s request, I started teaching Turkish to students from the Balkan studies in the Department of General Linguistics. You know, I am rather loyal to students who skip classes, because, from my own experience, I can say that different situations can occur. Sometimes there are just bone idle students who take someone else's places. They are immediately recognised. And there are people who just have difficult times: they must work, for example, or have some other hardships. Life is not an easy thing. Why am I saying all this? I skipped my whole second year, I attended only language classes, everything else somehow passed me by. It had no effect on my studies, especially since the language was easy for me and I passed my language exams without any effort. So, when in my fourth year I was told to teach the sophomores, I had to cover the programme of the second year by myself by course books. I didn't have either notes or materials. So, in order to explain everything to the students, I had to go through it all and figure it out myself first. It was a very funny experience, actually. So I've been teaching since my fourth year, since 1999, and I've been officially employed by the University since 2000.
Many of the Russians are hardly familiar with Oriental literature. This is probably largely due to the fact that the compulsory school programme practically omits works of the East. Do you think we should reconsider this and add Oriental authors to the programme?
I really like the Turkish school programme because it includes not only Oriental works – Turkish and Persian classics (not complete volumes, of course, but extracts like fairy tales that children understand and are interested in: the battle of the bogatyrs; the famous scene from the Shahnameh where the father kills his son; and lyrical extracts from Khosrow and Shīrīn). At the same time, the compulsory school programme includes Russian classics and all kinds of European ones. Their school curriculum is very balanced. In Turkey, the whole of Fyodor Dostoevsky is translated, every piece, even the notebooks are all published. There is no other country in the world that has his complete works translated. It's impossible to find someone there who hasn't read Fyodor Dostoevsky. And recently a complete collection of Leo Tolstoy's works has come out in Turkish. I think a big mistake of our school curriculum is that it's rather one-sided: we are introduced to Russian culture and more or less to Western culture. I was terribly lucky because my school had the University teachers and we read Beowulf in translation and William Shakespeare in the original, but I realise that this was rather an exception.
Russia is a multinational, multi-religious society, we have inter-religious dialogue in various regions, it is much talked about at the highest level. But in order to build the right interethnic policy in big cities with millions of people, in schools, in classes where children study from different religious families, it is necessary to create a common culture from the very beginning. It seems to me that children should be introduced to Eastern works not only at religious lessons but also through culture, by including classics that the whole world knows, like the Shahnameh. In my course, I mention some Buddhist works. Also, there are many beautiful legends in ancient Indian tradition. Children would definitely like them if you told them in the form of a fairy tale: for example, some episodes from Mahabharata. By the way, in Turkey they like adapting European novels for children. They take ‘The Three Musketeers’, for instance, and turn it into a 30-page children's adaptation. This is very good, because they get to know the story and the author's name from childhood. One could do the same with the serious literary monuments of the East: adapt them to the school programme, polish them up, and let children read them. It is especially because Eastern literature is often didactic and teaches good things and educates. Many Oriental writers created works for their sons to teach them, to give them advice on how to live: how to behave with friends, with wife, and family. Such literature could be tailored to modern needs and included in the school programme. I think it would be a very useful experience. I am surprised that no one has come up with it so far.
In your online course ‘The Literary Treasury of the Middle East’, a lot of time is devoted to the study of Ancient literature. How interesting is it to read the Ancient works of the East nowadays? It seems to be all religious literature that will not resonate with the modern reader.
You know, originally my field of research was linguistics, and both of my dissertations are in linguistics, in phonology. But when I got involved in translation, I realised that I am interested in everything, not just linguistics. Moreover, I want to align with the Orientalists of the past who were specialists in the widest field: they were linguists, literary critics, and also specialists in Islam. At first, I got engaged in modern literature, began to publish articles on contemporary novels that I translated. But at some point, I had to study Islam, and I got very interested in Sufism, which I now sometimes even teach and give guest lectures. I have devoted more than ten years to it, I have given courses in Russian and in English to students in the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme and to American students. And I have fallen in love with this subject, because I have visited places, made sort of field trips, communicated a lot with people who practice it, and have practiced it myself. At some point, my interest began to move away a little bit from modern literature and shifted towards medieval and ancient literature. My candidate’s dissertation was on the Turkic runes.
We all are used to perceiving an ancient literary monument as something dead, but my mother and the fact that I have the opportunity to visit the Hermitage all the time helped me a lot. You know, people have always been the same: people 2000 years ago were exactly the same as people around us now, only they didn't have mobile phones. There's an absolutely wonderful clay cuneiform tablet in the Hermitage, in which a boy says to his father, 'Daddy, you know, a teacher at school fails me, could you have a word with him face to face, invite him home, feed him, somehow solve the problem so that he stops giving me F's?' It's human things like this that really bring us closer together.
Our course is designed for listeners from the widest range of backgrounds. When creating it, I tried to look for things that would not be so much ultra-special – text complexity, phonological analysis, philological imagery... It will probably be of interest to a narrow circle of specialists who have been working on these problems for many years. We talk about these issues at academic conferences. However, for a wide circle of people or for students who are just beginning to get acquainted with the East, these things will be complicated, incomprehensible, and, accordingly, will alienate them from the subject. You have to start with something that entices, attracts, and arouses interest. When I talked about ancient literature, I tried to find works that would show the thoughts and feelings of people who are the same as we are. They loved, they were jealous, they studied, they had fights and wars, they quarrelled, they ate, they drank, they told fortune, they conjured. They had a simple life, but they did not have our technology; they solved their problems as best they could and wrote about it. That's what I've tried to talk about. But, of course, it is impossible to avoid some highly specialised things: a historical excursus, discussion of dates, etymology. At first, I was even worried that my course was not science-intensive enough, but then I realised that it is watched mostly by students and those simply interested in the East world. For example, when I was in lockdown in 2020, I listened to a lot of courses on the OpenEdu platform: on management, economics, and even aeroplane design! I was very curious. And I thought that, perhaps, my course would also attract people on the OpenEdu platform who see ‘The Literary Treasury of the Middle East’, fairy tales by Scheherazade, they like the picture, they click on the course title and then stay there. So don't feel self-conscious if I'm explaining complicated things in a simple way.
Getting people who are not experts in the field interested is a great idea.
Yes, I believe that there are no bad students – there are bad teachers. If a student is not interested, it means that the teacher failed to open them up and give them what they need. Nowadays, people read very little, they hardly ever go to libraries, everyone has gone to social networks. The goal of researchers now is therefore to preserve our rich heritage as long as possible to: popularise science, knowledge, and the works of our predecessors; and talk about it in a most accessible and interesting way so that the broadest range of audiences, especially young people, would get interested in science. I tried therefore to explain everything very clearly. A big mistake of teachers of universities is that many of them still consider themselves some elite caste that knows something that students do not. Before teachers did have some sacred knowledge because they had books and dictionaries in the language that we studied and though the country that we studied was closed to tourists they had visited it many times. However, nowadays, when there is the Internet, an inquisitive student will outmatch teachers when it comes to information. What is the difference between a teacher and a student? A systematic way of thinking. Virtually any knowledge and information is now available to everyone, but some people know how to operate it, and others do not. Again, we have to popularise science and education. This, in particular, is the task of my course to popularise Oriental studies and raise the level of historical and cultural competence of my students.
Could you please tell us about the process of creating the 'Literary Treasury'. Is this the first time you have created an online course or have you had similar experiences before?
At the University, in this format – for the first time. Shortly before that, I recorded lectures for a small educational platform – without assignments or any kind of teaching methodology. There I read the course that I had been teaching for many years to bachelor’s students of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies and from which my present course stems – 'Introduction to the General Theory of Translation (Asian and African Languages)'. I must say that it is a unique course, there is no such course anywhere else, and it has won a number of awards.
Then we decided to create a big course for St Petersburg University and it became clear that seminars and lectures on translation would not be enough. We had to create a course that, in addition to translation-related issues, would include literature and stimulate interest in the Muslim world. In addition, the topic of my thesis was grammatology, the history of writing. It is a very rare and very interesting discipline, dedicated to the problem of life, the emergence and development of writing on Earth, as well as the problem of deciphering monuments. When I studied at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies, lectures on grammatology were read by my teacher Viktor Guzev, but now, unfortunately, there is no such a course. So I decided to include some fragments of grammatology in my course, in the two sections on ancient literatures that deal with the deciphering of writing: Old Persian and Old Turkic. The course therefore turned out to be very broad and truly unique: it includes literature, deciphering literary monuments, and reading and interpreting them. I hope that I have succeeded in showing the originality of the Eastern literature, which, on the one hand, is justified and defined by the Muslim culture and the text of the Koran, and, on the other hand, by the rich pre-Muslim tradition, the echoes of which are still strong in today's world. Also, it is shaped by modern trends. In the last module of the course we even discuss contemporary issues in literature, contemporary trends and talk to famous writers.
Did it take a long time to prepare the course? Or was there so much material that the course came together easily?
It took me a long time to understand what was required of me at first. It is always easier for me to give a lecture without preparation than to write something beforehand and try not to digress from what my notes. Whenever I give an open lecture, I write myself a small five-line outline, sometimes I look at it, and then thoughts and associations come into my head, and I can talk about one word for twenty minutes. When my colleagues told me that it wouldn't work with an online course, I thought: I have huge experience, I've done loads of live broadcasts, what's the problem? Well, now I can tell you, that's really not going to work. When we started filming, I realised that my colleagues were right, I should have written everything down. In general, the texts were being reworked when we were filming them. That was the first difficulty. The second difficulty was that the course includes a great number of images, so we had to try to make it beautiful, without any errors. I had a wonderful assistant, my former student Iana Vasileva, a Turkologist and a graduate of St Petersburg University. Iana made the presentations and searched for pictures, I didn't interfere at all, I just told her what needed to be done and what didn't, and then checked it afterward.
The process of filming itself was a huge pleasure. I love filming in general, I love everything connected with music, with theatre, with dance. I got exasperated at times, and would say to the crew: ‘Guys, why are we filming so little?’ Hardly had I got to talking, when I heard: ‘Cut!’ What's wrong with that? ‘Let's work for a couple more hours, I'm fine!’ There were, of course, some problematic takes that were hard for me, but on the whole, it was a pleasure.
Also, I spent a long time thinking about what to fill the course with, because lectures alone are very boring. And I came to realise that there are some rare works that are beautifully translated and they should become part of my course. So I decided to read excerpts from them. I was so excited: we went through almost every poem with the director before I read it. I liked these moments the most because I remembered my studies at the Conservatory, how we went through the score every time before we sang it. My teacher, Irina Bogachova, used to show where you have to add expression, where the heroine is suffering, where the heroine is preparing for death, where she is jealous – you have to show all that. It's the same with the poems. Each poem is a small life and the director helped me to live it, to show it. That was especially great. So the filming process itself was a great pleasure for me.
This is amazing, because many authors are afraid of the camera, they don't know how to behave in front of it.
I do a lot of live broadcasting, including radio and TV broadcasts. I am not at all afraid of speaking in public or in front of a camera. I don't know, I guess I'm a rare person in that respect, because I've actually heard from my colleagues on the set that many people find it difficult, many feel uncomfortable, they can't loosen up. But I felt so relaxed that sometimes I wanted to wave my hand or to stand up, but I was aware that we were filming an academic course and we had to sit straight, not gesticulate and be in character. Sometimes there were some funny, amusing moments, but it was such a pleasure to do it. And it was a pity that it ended so quickly.
But there's still an upcoming recording of the course in English!
Yes, there is still the English version to come, but there was a problem with it: we had to seriously change the content in order to cater to a Western audience, and it is also very difficult to find translations of the texts. In fact, many more works of Eastern literature have been translated into Russian than into English. There are translations in English, but there are fewer of them, they are very rare, so it's hard to find a translation to dub it, to read it. But (based on my experience of working with Western students) I can guess that it's not necessary, because if a Western student is interested, they will keep looking for it: they will find the translations themselves, buy the book and read it themselves. All you have to do is provide them with some preparation material to get them interested. But it seems to me that our viewers are more interested in hearing everything at once, and if they get hooked, then they will move on. That's why at a certain point I stopped worrying: I included in the course everything I could, but there will be fewer translations of literary examples.
What do you think of the online format of education? Can it replace face-to-face lectures? Or can it only be used as a supplement?
When it all started in February 2020, at first everyone was happy that there was enough free time for everything and they didn't have to commute anymore... But then – probably as late as last November – it became clear that it was all very difficult. As for me personally, it was hard to sit through four classes in one room and talk to black squares, as if to myself. Now I force students to turn on their cameras: I tell them quite firmly that whoever does not have a camera on is considered absent from the class. This was worth it: when I did it for the first time this year, it turned out that half of the group was walking along the street with headphones in their ears during the class. However, on the lesson, it is important to concentrate: when I do a workshop on translation, I analyse the text and show how to work with it, so I need to see the expression on their faces when they work with the text and understand whether they absorb the material. Some are very fast, some are slower. And students, it turns out, also dislike distance learning and are also very much affected by it. My own students have told me: 'How glad we are to have the opportunity to come to the University, to talk to you, to see each other, to sit and talk in person'.
Of course, it is impossible to give up face-to-face learning completely. It would be a huge loss. To begin with, there are fields in which it is simply impossible, such as medicine or fine arts and performing arts. And it's just as difficult to teach languages on Zoom. When we communicate in person, it seems to me that students learn some non-verbal information as well, because education is... I wouldn't say necessarily an energy exchange, but some kind of exchange with the audience. So, of course, online education cannot and should not completely replace face-to-face learning. But it can be a useful supplement. For example, my course, as I have already said, is of a popularisation nature. In higher education we teach students at a high professional level, we train professionals, we give them highly specialised knowledge, we train future colleagues. And some of these students do become our colleagues very soon. So, of course, an online course that initially includes a lot of material and is of interest to the general public, is just the first step, which should encourage the student to move on.
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