Unfledged authors reinvent the wheel, so our aim is to show them the spokes and tyres: St Petersburg University launches a new academic programme for writers
In 2020, St Petersburg University opens admissions to a new master’s degree programme ‘Creative Writing’. It should be interesting for inexperienced writers, future literary agents, publishers, editors, critics and other specialists working with the book industry.
More details of the new programme were given by associate professor of St Petersburg University Andrei Astvatsaturov. He is the author of four novels, and was several times on shortlists and longlists for prestigious literary awards.
Mr Astvatsaturov, where do you study to be a writer?
The most prominent foreign writers, editors, critics and publishers all studied in creative writing schools. Creative writing programmes have existed in the West since the 1940’s. In each American University there have always been a couple of professional resident writers who would hold creative workshops. In the USSR there were also special institutions of higher education for people who wanted to work with literature. For example, in the Russian State University of Cinematography they taught screenwriting, and in Moscow there was a Literature Institute. Now the tradition lives on: several Russian Universities have bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes for future writers.
They say that you are born to be a writer, and it is partly true. An eye for words is shaped at a very early age. Gradually people with literary talent may begin to feel the form of their future piece. However, this is only the starting point for a writer. As long as the plan is rough around the edges, it is no good. Using a metaphor, a new writer reinvents a wheel. And any help is very useful at this stage. The aim of a tutor is to show them spokes and tyres, and all the parts necessary for the wheel to function properly. And then the writer is capable of working on their own.
What is the difference between the academic programme of the University and, say, any other literary course or workshop?
Apart from practical points, our students will be able to get a general education. It is especially important for those who decided to change their field of study. We will do our best to combine the practical classes with teaching theory. From my point of view, it is the right approach for training future writers.
Not only must unfledged authors learn to write books, but also to read them.
And this very skill can be acquired through academic education. I am talking about some core knowledge, like, for example, comprehending Balzac or Stendhal.
At the same time, teaching writers should differ from teaching, for example, philologists. At the Faculty of Philology students study literature, they learn to understand the mechanics like poetics, or genres. However, all these rules and canons are not enough for a writer. At the ‘Creative writing’ programme I want to narrow the gap between theory and practice. For instance, close reading, which is taking a few texts and analysing them thoroughly, is very useful. Budding writers should understand what the aims of a particular author were and how they achieved them, how the narration is structured, how to make characters three-dimensional or one-dimensional. Literature scholars, unlike writers, never pay much attention to these issues.
What subjects will be included into the programme?
We are planning to provide lectures on stylistics, history and theory of Russian and foreign literature, and philosophy. These will be given by the teachers of the University, and among others by a professional writer, professor Andrei Stepanov (Department of History of Russian literature). Also, there will be a variety of elective master classes, which, I hope, will be held by eminent Russian writers Eugene Vodolazkin, German Sadulaev, Aleksandr Prokopovich, and Vadim Levental. Such master classes are, to my mind, the main element of the programme. My colleagues and I will teach students different literary methods used by classic and modern authors.
What entrants are you expecting? And what will they be qualified to do on graduation?
The most important is their desire to write and some certain evidence of this desire. We are going to give extra credit for pieces of fiction published in literary magazines, and for released books, which can be included in a student’s portfolio. Students can also attach unpublished short stories, snippets of novels, stories and sketches. These will be evaluated according to certain criteria such as genre match, credibility, usage of metaphors, and choosing the right words.
Apart from the entrants who want to become writers, the programme will be perfect for anyone whose future profession will be connected with literature. Sometimes publishers or literary agents reject good texts because they find them too daring or innovative. To appreciate a new piece one has to have a good taste for literature and no less good understanding of the art of writing. As for the work of, say, editors, it is essential not only to be able to spot and remove tautology and redundancies, but also to be conscious of the writer’s intonation.
We will try to help students develop their skills, and find their direction. The programme is to become a firm foundation and a good start on the road to literature.
To improve the transport accessibility to St Petersburg University campus, an express tram service will be opened. It is planned to build the campus in the Pushkinsky district of St Petersburg. The project was discussed during roundtable talks with representatives of St Petersburg City Administration.
Why linguists are not the only ones who need to know French – Advisor on Collaboration and Culture from French Embassy visits St Petersburg University
Fabrice Rousseau, the Advisor on Collaboration and Culture at the French Embassy and Director of the French Institute in Russia, has made his first official visit to St Petersburg University. During this meeting, he and University officials discussed the teaching of French and also research and academic cooperation.
The Photonics Society, a student branch of the SPIE international society, starts its work at St Petersburg University
The Photonics Society has been founded on the initiative of students at the Institute of Chemistry of St Petersburg University. It is officially recognised as a student branch of the International Society for Optics and Photonics SPIE. Its mission is to unite researchers and students of various research teams working with light and matter.
SPIE provides funding to its student branches to hold their own student conferences, lecture series, excursions, and scientific festivals. The society also provides training for unit members, covers the costs of annual participation of society representatives in an international conference, and pays for inviting leading foreign scientists to give lectures. Membership of the branch of the International Society for Optics and Photonics makes it possible for every student to apply for individual SPIE grants on a competitive basis and receive discounts on participation in conferences. University students got to know about the possibility of being supported by the international society thanks to the participation of Olga Odintsova, a student of St Petersburg University, in the SPIE Optics + Optoelectronics 2019 conference in Prague this spring. ‘Similar branches exist in dozens of universities all over the world. It is surprising that such societies have not existed before at this university as it has a rich history in the field of optical research, state-of-the-art equipment, and a large number of research teams conducting investigations in this area,’ said Aleksei Smirnov, a student of St Petersburg University and the chairman of the Photonics Society.
The field of research into the interaction of light with matter is becoming more and more popular among chemists, physicists and biologists of St Petersburg University. Laser impact opens up possibilities for running a much larger number of physico-chemical processes than any other methods. However, it is often the case that many students and employees of the University are not aware that their subject matters may be interesting for colleagues working in a nearby laboratory. ‘When preparing documents for registering the branch, we found a lot of research teams in departments of physics whose research topics were close to those of the laboratories of the Institute of Chemistry of St Petersburg University,’ said Olga Odintsova, deputy chairman of the Photonics Society. ‘Physicists carry out a lot of theoretical simulations of processes that are studied experimentally by the University chemists. If we combine our efforts, we can achieve more,’ she concluded.
Thanks to the support of St Petersburg University administration and the International Society for Optics and Photonics SPIE, the Photonics Society will be able to work on numerous projects in the field of scientific and public activities, as well as promoting this area of science. Joint events and summer schools in photonics are planned to be organised with the SPbU Project Workshop. It is a creative student association created last year with the support of the St Petersburg University Endowment Fund. And 2020 is expected to see the SPIE student conference on optics, lasers and photonics. It will be held with the support of the SPIE FOCUS Conference Grant and the grant competition of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs (Rosmolodezh). According to the members of the Photonics Society, the opportunity to hold their own conference is an important factor that will lead to the development of interdisciplinary research. There is a shortage of interdisciplinary conferences in Russia, in particular on nanophotonics – an area which is also of interest for physics, chemistry, and biology.
The Photonics Society is calling for students with initiative who are ready to organise events. At present, 16 undergraduate and postgraduate students are registered in this SPIE branch. If your research team is involved in optical methods for studying substances or subject matters of your research can be obtained using radiation, then your students have the opportunity to join the SPIE student society at St Petersburg University.
Twice a year, biology fairs are held at the University. They offer an opportunity for students and visitors not only to acquire unusual handicrafts and to help the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden (the proceeds go toward its development) but also to become acquainted with one of the most magnificent plant collections in the country.
Early in the morning, visitors to the fair were given a tour of the tropical and succulent conservatories, where they were shown American cactuses and African euphorbia, aloe, haworthia, lithops, which look like river gravel, and tropical plants from the sunflower family – the closest relatives of the common dandelion found in cities. There is yet another interesting plant in the University collection – a Selenicereus grandiflorus, better known as the Queen of the Night. Last winter, it was transplanted to the succulent conservatory, where it has taken hold, but this cactus usually blossoms only in the second year after transplanting. Members of the University staff told the visitors to the conservatory how succulents live through the extreme conditions of a drought and gave advice about how to care for these plants at home.
St Petersburg University biology students gave a tour around the grounds of the Botanical Garden that was open to all comers and told their guests about the trees and shrubs they could find there. So that they could take in the entire garden and discover its most beautiful nooks and crannies, they were invited to participate in a quest. By answering questions, they could learn, among other things, who was depicted on the sundial in the middle of the flower garden and the name of the tree whose leaves turned red before any others.
Over the course of two days, fairgoers had a chance to visit the St Petersburg University herbarium, one of the largest of its kind in Russia. It contains around 1.4 million specimens, of which 250,000 are available for use. This abundant collection is used in the educational process: special teaching herbaria, on display during lectures, are much more engaging than presentations. During practical classes, students not just can, but must touch the plants and make cross sections, so that they can study their structure. Not only vascular plants, but any plants whatsoever, even seaweed, mushrooms or lichen, can be preserved in such a form. Herbaria that have been properly collected can be kept for an indefinitely long time. To prove this, the guests were shown a herbarium that had been collected in 1793. There is no date on the oldest herbarium sheet in the St Petersburg University collection, but it is known to date back to at least 1624.
For many centuries, herbaria have been collected for academic purposes and simply to preserve the aesthetics of a fresh flower, but Valentina Bubyreva, a staff member at the St Petersburg University Herbarium, is convinced that it is impossible to predict ahead of time how a collection may be used many years after it has been put together. ‘Today, we can take a piece of a herbarium specimen, isolate the DNA and carry out a genetic study, although fifty years ago, nobody could have imagined doing this. It turns out that herbaria are in fact biobanks,’ as Ms Bubyreva put it. ‘At any herbarium in the world, you can make an arrangement with the curator to take 50 mg of whatever specimen. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, is an exception: there you have to submit a written request, and then they will give you a vial with the isolated DNA.’
All day long, an event was being held to promote the separate collection of waste. At the entrance to the Botanical Garden, containers had been set out for different fractions: glass, metal, plastic and paper. Ianina Dmitrakova, a staff member of the University’s Environmental Office gave a talk to fairgoers and explained why it was necessary and important to sort waste.
Every year, Russia generates more than 65 million tonnes of trash, or solid waste, 94 percent of which is sent to landfills. There are currently 14,000 large waste disposal sites that are legally registered and occupy more than 4 million hectares, which is four times the size of Cyprus. On top of that, there are also unsanctioned disposal sites; in 2016, there were 60,000 of them, and with each passing year the number doubles. While in Europe, for reasons of space, recycling is an urgent issue, in Russia it is not so palpable. Around 2 percent of the waste gets incinerated, which decreases the amount by a factor of 10, but it becomes more toxic, and only 4-8 percent of it is recycled.
Some people believe that in Russia recycling is a myth and the waste that people collect and sort does not get sent anywhere. We actually have more than 2,500 conversion sites, and every last one of them is being underutilised. We have the capability of recycling – we simply do not make use of it.
Ianina Dmitrakova, a staff member of the St Petersburg University Environmental Office
Ms Dmitrakova told her audience about the University’s participation in a waste sorting programme. ‘If each of us throws out about half a tonne of trash a year, then you can imagine the amount of waste that the University produces from its 23 halls of residence and more than 45 academic buildings and how much it pays to dispose of it. This is why the Environmental Office at St Petersburg University and the administration have a vested interest in separate collection,’ Ms Dmitrakova pointed out. ‘This is how we reduce the negative impact we have on the environment and, at the same time, comply with the law, according to which it is inappropriate to transport recyclable waste to landfills. We also save money and show how responsible we are.’
This year, the cost of removing one cubic metre of mixed municipal solid waste has gone up to 934 roubles. For this reason, the staff of the Environmental Office at the University are trying to collect the waste that comes from different fractions separately and to have it taken away for reprocessing. Even if the collection of raw materials does not pay for itself, the University still saves money every time it refrains from sending around six cubic metres of waste (the amount contained in one truckful for one run) to a landfill. St Petersburg University now collects wastepaper, scrap metal, plastic of the first type and cleaning waste in separate containers – and likewise hazardous wastes, such as mercury lamps, batteries, cartridges, accumulator cells and chemical agents. The number of different fractions is constantly increasing, since new businesses looking to buy raw materials are starting up in the city and students are becoming involved in a lifestyle that is environmentally friendly.
On the day after the biofair, the traditional autumn subbotnik (a day of voluntary clean-up) was held at the Botanical Garden, and students helped prepare the grounds for the oncoming winter.