Pedagogy Under Construction: Lessons on Teaching as Fieldwork at Kazakhstan’s Expo, by Meghanne Barker (University of Chicago)

For our first class, I asked my students to describe the space where they slept, in as much detail as possible. I, like the American student ambassadors to the Kazakhstan World Expo, had only arrived in Astana a week before. While I had been given a flat in the “new center” of Astana, on the Left Bank, they were dispersed in different buildings in the Expo Village. Their housing, like so much of the Expo, had been finished just days before their arrival. They described their rooms as sparse, unfinished, and lacking furniture.

One wrote about piling things on the other side of her huge bed and on the floor next to it, since she didn’t have a nightstand, and in an effort to use the clutter to make her room look less empty. Others wrote about using their Air Astana eye masks to sleep through the bright early mornings.

Flowers waiting to be planted on Expo grounds, just before opening day, photo by author.

Hired by American Councils to teach a course on “Intercultural Communication” to the student ambassadors of the USA Pavilion, I tried to anticipate issues they would be encountering in their everyday work of representing the US to Kazakhstani and other international visitors to Expo. The students ranged from rising sophomores to recent graduates and Master’s students. All spoke some Russian, and many had spent time in Russia or other former Soviet countries, but most were new to Central Asia. I wanted to help them reflect on the challenges of answering questions about the US or responding to stereotypes of Americans, but at the same time, because I knew they would be curious to explore Kazakhstani culture, I imagined the summer could function as a kind of ethnographic field school for them. I included exercises in observing and writing about new spaces, habits and customs, and everyday interactions in a cross-cultural setting. In their observational writings, I started with something as intimate and yet mundane as their sleep spaces because I wanted to avoid them describing Kazakhstan, Kazakhstani people, or the Expo in too general terms, too quickly.

Globe at the Kazakhstan Pavillion, photo by author

Before I first visited Kazakhstan in 2010, I read a number of blog posts of Americans who had adopted children from Kazakhstan (as this related to my research on children in institutions). I was struck by the ways American visitors, in their brief visits, construed objects such as Soviet-era block housing as metonymic of a broader historical ethos of coldness and sparseness. I wanted my students to fight their first instinct, when encountering new shopping malls, to judge Kazakhstanis as “trying” to be modern and Western. This conflation of sense and sentiment is a holdover of Cold War tropes about Eastern Europe as sparse, and grim (Fehérváry 2013, Lemon 2013). I wanted, instead, to push them to think about how Kazakhstani citizens might understand and make use of block housing or shopping malls differently than they, at first, imagine.

Nonetheless, the sparse bedrooms formed part of the large and ambitious, yet unfinished project of Expo. The students, moreover, saw the Expo project as symptomatic of a larger issue facing Astana, or at least of their initial experience of it. A student compared the labyrinthine complex of housing — mostly empty, the buildings designated with letters and numbers that seemed to defy all logic — to a science fiction novel she had been reading by Viktor Pelevin.[1] I worried, at first, at their categorization of the newer parts of the city as sterile, artificial, or as “trying to” be modern, concerned they would come away from their experience with a snarky contempt for Central Asian attempts at modernity cast too often by Western journalists in their descriptions of the recent Left Bank architecture as a kind of Central Asian Dubai or as a science fiction set. I worried, too, at the students’ enthusiasm for the older Right Bank would mean an oversimplified notion of “authenticity” or “tradition.” Residents themselves often make similar distinctions between the richness of the Left Bank and the “soul” of the Right, also still referred to as Tselinograd, the city’s Soviet name, so that each side comes to occupy a unique space-time and economic reality. As Laszczkowski notes, the project of building Astana became a spectacle of construction unto itself, with residents and spectators apprehending the state via these built forms with a mixture of affective reactions: “as both magnificent and unstable, awesome and unreliable, simultaneously the object of reverence and resentment, desire and disappointment” (2013: 151).

Expo village, photo by Molly Jane Zuckerman

At the same time, I also understood the appeal of the Right Bank, with its bazaar and antique stores, along with their affection for Almaty, once they visited the former capital later in the summer, charmed by its Soviet-era architecture, the density of trees, and the nearby mountains. Three years ago, when I first visited Astana, the entire area where the Expo now stands had been empty, other than the newly built compound of Nazarbayev University across the street. The space in between the university and the city was being filled in as quickly as possible with new apartment buildings and stadiums, but as the Left Bank construction extended out to where students now lived, trees were small, newly planted. The students did all their grocery shopping at the huge new mall between the Expo and the university. It was at least five miles to the new center of the city, and lacking sidewalks most of the way. Out here, as with the new downtown, the city had bicycles for rent, but with no sidewalks or bike paths, I saw several close calls along this road. This seeming inattention to detail alongside the grandness of the architectural projects sometimes suggested to me – and I think to the students, as well – that the city was made to be looked at, rather than lived in, while this space between Expo and Center was made to be traversed by car, rather than on foot. As Natalie Koch has argued (2014), these architectural projects work to create a modern city of Astana, which promises to be transformed into a futuristic one through Expo; yet this rapid development also creates new exclusions, as particular residents feel left out of such change. While the students worked to generate enthusiasm for the USA Pavilion during their work hours, conversations with taxi drivers and other locals brought their attention to criticisms of the Expo as a wasteful and irresponsible use of their pension fund.

From what I understood about my job as academic coordinator, my goal was to help students bridge cultural differences in their work at the Expo and to help them adjust to culture shock as they ventured outside the Expo grounds. For the class itself, we met on the Expo grounds. I thought this would give us an opportunity for impromptu class activities, such as observations or surveys of visitors or volunteers. The grounds themselves were vast: surrounding the giant orb of the Kazakhstani Pavilion was an inner ring of thematic pavilions and food courts, with an outer ring of country pavilions. Countries from certain geographic areas clustered together into a regional “plaza,” apparently as a cost-saving measure. Our class was originally supposed to take place just above the “African Plaza.” However, soon after class commenced, the music from the African Plaza’s stage began, and I had to shout to be heard.

The next week we moved to the “office” of the US Pavilion, a one-bedroom apartment in the Expo Village. In the living room, we made a circle of sofas and dining room chairs. The reception desk sometimes misplaced the key. Eventually, we moved to a coffee shop at the nearby mall. We discussed readings ranging from the participant frameworks of Senegalese performance (Irvine 1996) to historical accounts of past world’s fairs. Wanting them to think critically about the ways they might be encountering stereotyped versions of nationalities of nations (or entire continents, in the case of the African Plaza), we read about “tourist realism” in Africa (Bruner and Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1994) alongside a comparison of Eastern European versus American teeth and smiling practices (Drakulić 1999). I had been told the students had strong backgrounds in the region and that it was fine to offer more cross-cultural comparisons, but as the students looked over the syllabus on the first day, they looked puzzled and asked, “Will we be reading about Central Asia at all?”

I realized that while they all had linguistic and regional familiarity with the former Soviet Union, broadly speaking, most had never visited Central Asia. It wasn’t that they were approaching the region with a snobbishness about who was allowed to be modern, as much as they wanted to know Kazakhstan beyond what the Expo and the newer parts of Astana presented to them. We agreed to restructure the class so that they would have more time for their own research projects, and we adapted the readings to focus more on the region. We read about Astana, the original impulses behind the city and how its plan had shifted (Bissenova 2014); we discussed the politics of local performance (Dubuisson 2014); relationships between migrant labor and shifting expectations surrounding life cycle rituals (Reeves 2012). We visited ALZHIR, the Stalinist-era camp designated specifically for women whose male relatives had been charged as enemies of the people. This helped to locate the city in the context of the region’s Soviet history, so that we might be reminded that describing the city as seeming to rise up in the middle of nowhere can negate this part of Kazakhstan’s past. Meanwhile, the students worked on their own research projects to be presented at the end, as presentations or podcasts, along with photo essays.

Alzhir Monument, photo by author

Just before I left Astana, I had the students over for a final class and potluck. For their final projects, the students each made impressive use of the Expo as a resource for learning about other issues. One student, puzzled by Expo attendees’ consternation at whichever language the USA Pavilion used for their show — Kazakh or Russian (it was impossible to choose both) — researched language attitudes and ideologies among young people. Others interviewed local volunteers and friends regarding wedding customs, traditional fairy tales, and the educational system. In one podcast, two students debated the effectiveness of the USA Pavilion itself as an exercise in soft power, while another researched rumors of what the Expo space would become after its closing on September 10.

I printed the pictures from their photo essays and put them up around my apartment. After dinner, they took turns leading our tour, from a collection on the refrigerator to another on the glittery wallpaper in the living room, each explaining their choice of themes and where they took them. They offered collections of people sitting on park benches, and of a village offering ecotourism to visitors of Sharyn Canyon – the “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan,” located 200 km east of Almaty. A few were drawn to monuments, from the Soviet era and afterwards; we discussed them in relation to the recent events in Charlottesville and ongoing debates in the US surrounding monuments, memory, and identity. While the students had snapped photographs mostly of World War II monuments, we compared the dismantling of Lenin monuments to debates surrounding Confederate monuments, and how monuments might remind us of the past without whitewashing it. One student mentioned an example in which a Lenin statue was taken down, but his feet were left behind, so that the monument neither erased this historical trace nor glorified it. He said he’d been wondering if it might be possible to do something similar with Confederate statues in the US.

“Tourists live here”, photo by Molly Jane Zuckerman

Moving from Expo to Village to shopping mall to living room highlighted the ways this area of Astana – new as it was, and “artificial” as it seemed to the students – became a meaningful place, nonetheless, for the students and others living and working there. While the students also worked to move beyond the grounds through travels to other towns, they also highlighted relationships they developed with security guards, local volunteers, and favorite visitors. It raises questions regarding how we might better understand research sites and place making in spaces that are inherently temporary. In my own fieldwork at a temporary group home for young children in Kazakhstan, there was a sense, at times, that caregivers were eager to remind the children that they would be going home (Barker 2017). The temporary nature of the home risked discouraging children and adults from becoming attached in a way that would make parting more difficult. Attachments at the home happened, nonetheless, and these students proved determined to make the most of their time in Kazakhstan, of making their experience meaningful, despite quirky living quarters, uniforms that were not uniformly loved, and other challenges.

Barker (right) and her class, photo by Jean-Christophe Plantin

I learned a great deal about Kazakhstan from the students; and though the constant shifts in setting and focus frustrated me, I eventually came to see these issues as offering an important lesson regarding the nature of fieldwork and cross-cultural communication. Fieldwork requires us to give up a certain amount of control that we otherwise demand as professors and students. It was a useful reminder, moreover, that both fieldwork and teaching require constant compromise and adjustments, that they aren’t a simple transfer of knowledge from one party to another, but are, rather, intersubjective processes. Briggs (1986) urges us to understand that interviews, similarly, aren’t straightforward extractions of knowledge from interviewee to interviewer. Like interview settings, both classrooms and field sites are spaces where interpersonal relationships emerge. As such, they find themselves subject to the excitement, vulnerability, and unpredictability that come with trying to understand other people and trying to make oneself understood.

References cited:

Barker, Meghanne. 2017. Belonging and belongings: kinship narratives and material anchors at a second home in Kazakhstan. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford Online. New Series IX(1): 65-82.

Bissenova, Alima. 2014. The Master Plan of Astana: Between the ‘Art of Government’ and the ‘Art of Being Global.’ In Reeves, Madeleine., Johan Rasanayagam, Judith. Beyer, and Project Muse. Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia Performing Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 127-148.

Briggs, Charles L. 1986. Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language ;no. 1. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, Edward M, and Barbara Kirshenblatt‐Gimblett. 1994. “Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East Africa.” Cultural Anthropology 9 (4):435–70.

Drakulic, Slavenka. 1999. Cafe Europa: Life After Communism. 1.2.1999 edition. New York etc.: Penguin Books.

Dubuisson, Eva-Marie. 2014. Dialogic Authority: Kazakh Aitys Poets and Their Patrons. In Reeves, Madeleine, Johan Rasanayagam, Judith. Beyer, and Project Muse. Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia Performing Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 55-77.

Fehérváry, Krisztina. 2013. Politics in Color and Concrete. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Irvine, Judith T. 1996. Shadow conversations: The indeterminacy of participant roles. In Michael Silverstein & Greg Urban, eds., Natural Histories of Discourse, Chicago: U Chicago Press. Pp. 131-59.

Koch, Natalie. 2014. “Bordering on the Modern: Power, Practice and Exclusion in Astana.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (3): 432–43.

Laszczkowski, Mateusz. 2016. “City of the Future”: Built Space, Modernity and Urban Change in Astana. 1 edition. New York: Berghahn Books.

Lemon, Alaina. 2013. Touching the gap: Social qualia and Cold War contact. Anthropological Theory 13(1/2) 67–88.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2012. “Black Work, Green Money: Remittances, Ritual, and Domestic Economies in Southern Kyrgyzstan.” Slavic Review 71 (1):108–34.

[1] This student, Molly Jane Zuckerman, later edited and published her description online: