Anastassia Smirnova: “We teach people not to be afraid of things that seem beyond them“

05.10.2012, 07:41
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Anastassia Smirnova, Programme Director, Strelka Institute talks about relationship with students, finding the right balance between reality and utopia and elements of absurd in the actual Russia


The new type of examination that we have trialled this year has helped us select the type of student that best understands the essence of Strelka.

It is not just about exams, but the effort that we devote to explaining what makes Strelka so special, as well as its goals and objectives in more detail. We ourselves now better understand what Strelka truly means. There is now a better dialogue between the school and its students and this is more interesting for us all.

At the first meeting with the students, a question arose: why do we call them students?

Based on the description of the ideology behind Strelka’s curriculum, it turned out that they were not so much students as fully-fledged researchers and project leaders, from whom we expect a great deal. This made us very happy. So their first task was to think of a new title for themselves. It is unlikely last year’s students would have made such a suggestion. This is simply because the dialogue we had with them was at a wholly different level. For me, this shows that the institute is heading in the right direction.

Before, as a teaching body, we used to think more about how to supervise the content.

Now, besides the content, we pay a great deal of attention to planning how we communicate. If, instead of being students, they are actually our colleagues, then we need to develop a relationship that is neither too chummy, nor too authoritarian. We need to help them make the most of their time here.
From a professional point of view, this year’s intake is even more diverse than last year. This poses a great challenge for our teachers. As a lecturer, I think that the more students there are in the hall, the more understanding there is of what I am saying. Looking for a common denominator is an absorbing goal for lectures and students alike. For starters, they must learn to understand each other.

At Strelka, the educational process is twofold.

Firstly, there is the rehearsal of situations that graduates will later encounter in the real world. This method of teaching is often found at business schools that deal with creative industries. We have mock clients and set concrete tasks. The students have to respond to them. This is akin to a flying academy. When they leave the four walls of the school and begin to fly on their own, they feel prepared and know how to deal with similar issues in real life. It is very tempting to follow that path. This works very well in countries with a stable economy and political system and a developed business environment. It is then more or less possible to predict precisely what awaits a graduate in the real world.

On the other hand, there is another way of preparing people for the real world.

This involves activities that are far removed from actual life. People work on utopian and visionary projects. By working in the abstract, they are able to develop their critical thinking. Whatever challenges they then face in real life, they can apply a well-prepared technique for making complex decisions. They are able to adapt to any situation or project and have the courage and skill to work quickly in diverse environments.

In today’s Russia, the second approach is more viable, simply because it is extremely fluid.

There are elements of the absurd in it. It involves situations for which people cannot be prepared, as we cannot predict what will happen in one or two years. All that practice may prove to be in vain and the idea that it prepares us for real life may be a mere illusion.

At Strelka, we combine these two approaches.

We give the students modest but very feasible tasks. For example, they have to organise a student party or their own field trip. They must work on the project from start to finish. This is required so that everyone understands that buying train tickets for 40 people is no less important for the success of the whole group’s plans than preparing a talk by a famous person.

We teach people not to be afraid of things that seem beyond them.

We hope that the nine months at Strelka will help them get ready for the madness of the real world that awaits after the institute.

It is tough to find the right balance and not just focus on utopias.

It is of course a matter of finding a happy medium. Yet, none of this could exist without a bright transformative vision.

Those who work in traditional architectural offices would not have to deal with such macro-issues.

This is a different way of looking at things, a different way of thinking and a new approach to meeting challenges. We hope that Strelka will give them a leap forward. For many, this will prove a huge challenge: how can they think big and yet in concrete and persuasive terms? You cannot just propose an incredible idea. You have to make others believe in you.
We are all kindred spirits. In every group of teachers there are people who have already taught at Strelka. We know the mistakes we have made in our teaching and we learn from them.

How is this year different from previous ones?

We now have a distinctive, quirky and wonderful teaching staff. Unlike in the early years, it is not just a collection of interesting people. This is a group of people that are united by a common goal and the atmosphere at Strelka. Perhaps the outside world cannot yet see this, but we know it ourselves. We can feel how different it is. As Programme Director, my objective is to hold a continual dialogue with different schools and bring them together. This interaction between schools, instigated from within and not top-down, and the exchange of experiences are critically important. When you have to face the invoice for a macro-project or utopia alone, it can be daunting. When you see that others are dealing successfully with the same issues and there is the opportunity to make progress, you gain experience. This is the vital experience of our former students.

We have developed a unique environment at Strelka.

This environment makes all this feel natural rather than artificial. It is organised chaos.