Nurmuhamad Turkbaev in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Daria Naidenova in Sofia, Bulgaria, during a videoconference interview on March 28, 2021.
The idea was hatched in a Bulgarian forest just outside of Velingrad.
During the winter break, I hiked with Angie Popova, an effervescent friend who is a professor at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek. I teach at the American University in Bulgaria. As nature neutralized our pandemic angst, we brainstormed.
The plan: We pair our students—hers from Digital Literacy class, mine from Writing for Media class. My students conduct videoconference interviews with her students. The academic aim? My students write 500-word snapshot profiles of the AUCA students. A writing assignment predicated on thoughtful questioning and deep listening. The subterranean aim? Human connection, deepened understanding of cultures not their own, and world peace—one sentence at a time.
In the first half of the semester my students wrote news articles crafted from documents and data. After learning about storytelling techniques and the psychology of interviewing, it was time for assignment #6. I gave each a name and email address of a willing AUCA student. If Zoom had an emoji for This Makes Me Nervous, many would have clicked on it.
They encountered the expected obstacles: Time zone differences. Connectivity glitches. Language bumps. Cultural cue fuzziness. Communication misreads. Anxiety, apprehension, shyness. But it happened. It is happening. Their articles are due tomorrow.
Writing guru Verlyn Klinkenborg waxes on about the sacred nature of sentences. He says our job as writers is to make them, to know what they say, what they don’t say and what they imply. I wonder about my students and these interviews and these encounters. I try to imagine the stories they are writing. And what all of those sentences will say.
Laura Kelly teaches writing and storytelling at the American University in Bulgaria.