Olga Mun and Hikoyat Salimova
Despite the UK hosting 1,300 students from Kazakhstan alone, not many British higher education institutions have writing retreats mindful of the many cultures and traditions that international students bring to the classroom. One may even argue that despite the relational nature of learning, internationalisation trends to a greater extent in the UK and to some in German higher education predominantly frame international students through economic lenses. Among many issues, this poses a concern for the well-being of international students and could create unwelcoming learning environments. In this blog we do not provide a vision for a radical reimagination of the commercialised higher education in the UK as a whole, which might be necessary to address systemic exclusionary practices, yet we outline a grassroot initiative by Central Asian researchers to create academic mahallahs and otynchas as an addition to the possible inclusive pedagogies in higher education.
Doctoral writing during the pandemic
At the start of the pandemic, doctoral students and the higher education sector more broadly rushed into creating a plethora of digital collaborative spaces. From institution-based writing retreats, to departmental Zoom writing sessions, collective writing spaces of academic belonging mushroomed. In this blog we would like to share the innovative experience of a Central Asian Writing Marathon international and cross-institutional collective, which we will be referring to as an academic mahallah.
In some Central Asian contexts, for instance in what is a modern-day Uzbekistan, mahallah stands for a neighbourhood, a community. Usually it is a physical community in an urban and rural context. When a colleague, a Central Asian Writing Marathon moderator, playfully called our marathon community – a mahallah – it resonated with the participants. Indeed, the marathon was more than simply a writing retreat. It was a caring community where we openly discussed our research challenges, victories, and new book publications on Central Asia.
Throughout the four weeks of the marathon, our academic mahallah started to develop an identity, where doctoral researchers in more advanced research stages were sharing writing tips and were giving the feedback to newer students on their papers and research ideas. Overtime we invited speakers to share their knowledge on a wide arrange of non-academic matters, for instance on the topics of mental health. Towards the end of the marathon, ideas for collective writing pieces, volumes, and edited books – started to appear.
Throughout the collective writing process during Zoom sessions and via the chat function on Telegram, we have come to a conclusion that writing progress, indeed, is not linear. Deleting words, editing, thinking, reading, discussing and spending contemplative time alone walking or cooking – are all cells of the living organism called the writing process. Due to the fact that most of the marathon members were women, we started to joke that in some sessions where more advanced students shared their tips on building an academic career or navigating academia in the US or the UK, they became our aksakals. In Kazakh language, aksakals are usually older men, who are respected in the community and commonly give advice to ‘youngsters’. However, some of us were confused as to the word aksakal is normally used for men and the decision was made, by some members and not all, to call mentors in the writing group – otyncha. Otyncha, in Central Asia, corresponds to a respected wise woman in the community. Being aware not to recreate age-related hierarchies, our academic mahallah developed a dynamic working rhythm and identity, allowing heated debates on the topics of colonialism in Central Asia, epistemic injustice, writing from the Global South, by all members of our horizontal mahallah.
The mutual support and caring atmosphere in our group helped our members to progress with the writing and receive critical feedback in a formative manner. Within the scope of the marathon and daily meetings over four weeks, we co-created a nourishing environment that helped members with the writing. Throughout the duration of the marathon, participants invited guest speakers, facilitated in-depth discussions of the ongoing research, provided peer to peer feedback. The topics of the guest talks varied from an understanding imposter syndrome to publishing sessions and sharing tips on building a career in academia. We found belonging to a such a dynamic, agential space with academics based in Central Asia, Europe and North America helpful, as it built relational bridges between scholars who are based at institutions with dissimilar degrees of support and resources. We hope some takeaway points from our experience might be of interest to universities around the world:
- When designing doctoral programs, it is important to have ongoing dialogues with international students on what they find helpful and how their knowledge and culture might be included meaningfully in the classroom practices and not in a tokenistic way (one-off cultural festivals, targeted writing sessions for international students who are framed in the deficit language).
- It is important for the departments to relationally and dialogically co-create writing spaces with the goal to learn from students, their culture and their knowledge.
- While the university is fragmented (different departments are responsible for mental health, academic writing etc), some doctoral students might find it helpful to belong to a community in the department where there are workshops focusing on the topics beyond research, for instance, supporting underrepresented scholars and minority scholars.
Olga Mun is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford.
Hikoyat Salimova is a Doctoral Student at HafenCity University Hamburg.