Mind the audience: teaching elegant professional writing

Since we started this blog, our main aim has been to offer value for the community of (early-career) higher education researchers, but also to pretty much anyone ending up reading these pages. Another thing we wanted to do with it was to provide a space for early-career scholars to create value for the readers of this blog, which includes their peers. Providing value, however, is not a unique requirement for a blog but also for other professional, non-technical writing. But where do we learn how to do this this? Do we actually get to practice it during our BA/MA studies?

About a month ago I shared a reflection on my first teaching experience at the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) in Tyumen, Siberia and how I prepared for it. One of the challenges was to think about the type of assignments for my courses. I did not want to make students do what I had to do myself when I was doing my BA/MA degrees: write essays, one after another, only to be read by the teacher once and then forever forgotten. So, as I was going to teach a course on “elegant writing for professional life”, I asked myself: What are the types of texts I have written during the past 10 years or so? What would have been nice to practice already during my studies?

I did not have to think long: As the final assignment, I decided to ask my students to write a professional blog post for an audience they could specify freely. Not in one go, but in two drafts, and they would have to provide peer feedback to each other between the two drafts. As became apparent after the assignment had been completed, the students had enjoyed reading the posts and found it helpful in learning how to improve their own writing.

I also asked the students to vote on the three posts they thought were the best ones. Below are the three winning posts. Interestingly, they were from students who had decided to write about something in their immediate surroundings and everyday life. All topics were also about urban life in one way or another: something that is all around us but something we do not necessarily pay attention to. Clearly, all posts were considered somehow valuable by their peers. Finally, all posts were written with passion and with a unique voice, which made these three posts stand out from the rest.

And here are the posts, enjoy!

1st place

Sidewalk fences –
your potential murderer

By Kseniya Suvorkova

I hate sidewalk fences. I still remember to this day when they were built on the edges of my school. Other students and I were forced to go around this construction to get to the school. Within the next few years sidewalk fences were built almost everywhere in my town. These had a gray and ugly design, chosen by the town’s administration to make our homeland to look better and more civilized. As a result, the surroundings started to look worse instead.

According to a survey among Tyumen residents, sidewalk fences are essential for our safety. Some of them claimed that they protect little children from running out into the road and prevent pedestrians from crossing the road in undesignated areas and walking on the lawn. For others, fences ornament a space and create a sense of organization. However, 68% of the Tyumen residents who participated in the online survey were sure that sidewalk fences spoil the look of the city. Only 20% thought that these constructions were the foundation of their safety.

The claims about fences’ safety and beauty are misbeliefs. In winter 2019, there was a widespread building of fences in Tyumen. According to statistics gained in summer 2019, the number of car accidents did not decrease and the number of victims did not decline. Thus, our safety does not depend upon the presence of sidewalk fences. In some cases, it might be true that fences defend kids. However, would it not be better if children were protected by some vegetation? Now I will share some further ideas about why sidewalk fences should be abolished once and for all.

The reasons to hate sidewalk fences

1. Sidewalk fences are dangerous for all the road users: Sidewalk fences protect neither pedestrians nor drivers from car accidents. They have a weak construction, so, if a car rams into it, a sidewalk fence breaks into pieces and becomes a murder weapon. The pieces of the fence can injure both people in the street and people inside the car.

2. They steal our space: Sidewalk fences reduce the size of footpaths and therefore produce less space for people to walk. Sometimes sidewalks are so narrow that only one person can fit the space. Do not even ask about parents with baby carriages or wheelchair users.

3. Parking becomes complicated: Sidewalk fences create difficulties for drivers who park their cars near footpaths. They need to go around fences to reach a destination. This factor is time-demanding for many people. Additionally, they interfere with the process of unloading or downloading goods near marketplaces.

4. Snow causes extra trouble: In Siberia and many other regions of Russia, snow is copious in winter. Snow-removing machines clean the streets and footpaths. Sidewalk fences road-block this process. Also, urban workers add different chemical substances in the snow to reduce slick condition. These chemicals stay under the constructions and influence the health of people who have difficulties with breathing.

4. We pay for this danger: Sidewalk fences are expensive. A lot of money, which people pay for taxes, goes for creating these constructions. According to the websites that sell sidewalk fences in Tyumen, an average price for the section of a fence (about 1 meter) is 5,000 rubles. We can only imagine how many sections there are in the city. The total price can reach several million rubles. The alternative way to use all this money could be to decrease the intensity of traffic, building bicycle lanes, or shrub implantation.


5. One of the reasons of your anxiety: The design of the space around us influences our psychological state of mind. Unbalanced and excessive elements make us anxious and angry. By contrast, a beautiful and well-organized space makes us happy and satisfied (Ellard, 2015). Sidewalk fences are part of the space that surrounds us. Many of them have foofaraws – elements that are chosen to make sidewalk fences more beautiful, they can have the form of flowers or leafs, for example. These elements distract our attention from the landscape and are not harmonious with the rest of the space.

Let us fight sidewalk fences together

There are a few ways to overcome the sidewalk fences problem. Firstly, we need to destroy them. Shrub can help us to separate footpaths and roads and prevent little children from running out into the roadway. Plants are not dangerous for people in a possible car accident. They are pleasant for the eyes and do not distract us from enjoying city landscapes. Additionally, plants can partly absorb noise. Another effective way to replace sidewalk fences is to build bicycle lanes. As a result, cyclists can traverse and pedestrians can feel safe.

You might object that these measures are up to the authorities to decide, and we cannot fight this problem. Of course, we cannot go on the streets and damage sidewalk fences without any permission, but we can form a request. This is the way a true democratic society works. We should understand that we can demand a comfortable urban environment to live a pleasant life.

The post was further inspired by the issues raised by the Chelyabinsk urbanist and a post published at Varlamov.ru.

2nd place

Yandex.Taxi swallows drivers
and it will swallow you

By Asya Budagyan

If you live in a Russian city, you probably know or even use the app Yandex.Taxi. It is the first Russian app which allows you to “quickly order a taxi by contacting the driver” online without calling a dispatcher (Amirkhanyan, 2019). There are a few main reasons why Yandex.Taxi is popular among Russians. The first factor of the popularity is convenience in use: you can choose various options like a non-smoking driver, a car with a seat for a child, or a place for pets. The second aspect is its cheap cost. For instance, in my city, Tyumen, the minimum price is 79 rubles, which places Yandex.Taxi on the second place in the cheapest Russian taxis. The third reason is that the taxi usually arrives very quickly, in four minutes on average.

Statistics show that the use of Yandex.Taxi app grows rapidly: today it is already in the first place on the top Traveler apps. However, there is another side to the story, which deals with the company’s treatment towards the drivers: the treatment is also a threat to clients. If you have never thought about this aspect and never asked the drivers about their job, I encourage you to read my experience.

Popular service – wealthy drivers?

As the number of rides on Yandex.Taxi and the earnings of the company increase, one might think that the drivers get solid wages. However, we face the contrary; the number of drivers increases with the accessibility to the market. That happens due to the individuals who have their own cars or rent it in Yandex.Taxi and work through the app. Not only makes this high supply the price on each ride lower but also the company itself stimulates a decrease in the cost of rides. Recently, Yandex.Taxi company supported Uber’s damping, meaning that they artificially lowered the price of the rides to get more clients and ‘win’ the market competition. The company claimed that its drivers will also benefit from that but never proved their statement.

The percentage which the drivers have to pay for the company for each ride is also significant. The official website of Yandex.Taxi provides vague information, stating that the percentage depends on the region and it does not specify further. According to the drivers, sometimes up to 23% goes to the company from each order. Apart from this, drivers spend their money to fill up a car, clean and repair it. To compare, the percentage of another online taxi service Maxim is around 10%, while the price of the ride is not always higher. Yet, there are fewer clients (it is on the 8th place on the top Traveler apps).

“It’s not my business. I’m paying for a service, you do the job.”

Usually, when I tell people about the unfair conditions of the workers of Yandex.Taxi, they roll their eyes: “Who cares? It is their work and I pay for that”, they say. However, such work conditions also influence the clients: According to the drivers and different Internet forums, car accidents among Yandex.Taxi drivers became more frequent after the damping. Drivers explain this by them having to work more to get the same money as it was before damping. So, the drivers get tired. Obviously, there are no official statistics about the accidents in the company, but there is a governmental report on car accidents connected to the Russian taxi service as a whole. The report states that, in 2017, the number of accidents increased by 16.3% (Analytical Center, 2017).

Elena Grashchenkova, one of the users of Yandex.Taxi, experienced an accident with the driver of the company. She demanded in court that the company must provide compensation for harm to health and mental damage to her. The representatives of Yandex.Taxi claimed that they are just software “that connects users with taxi fleets” and the responsibility for the safety lies with the driver (Zaitseva 2018, 242). The driver had no money and Elena spent a lot of time and energy to prove the guilt of the company. Thus, not only can the workers face bad treatment but clients as well.

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that I do not encourage you to boycott Yandex.Taxi and immediately switch to other companies and applications. I still use this service because of the reasons I listed above: the choice of options, cheap cost, and quick service. However, I always try to leave a tip which brings drivers more money so they do not have to work long hours to earn a decent amount. You can also support the driver even just by being kind to them which may make their work more pleasurable. After all, it goes with other services as well.

3rd place

Common discomfort

By Gregory Bolshakov

Imagine those mornings when you are late for your work or study. You open your eyes, get scared and rapidly gasp. You blink and the moment after you realize that you are running to the bus station. It almost feels like those nightmares where you think that you run fast, but then you realize that you only made a few steps. It is an unpleasant experience, but it could be even worse. What if somewhere on your way you had to jump over a meter-high fence? Or complete a quiz in order to continue your way? This takes time, nerves and you are more likely to be late. That might sound exaggerated, but this is how a security theatre works.

A what theatre?

A security theatre is a complex of actions and objects that aims towards provoking the feeling of being in safety but not providing actual defense. Sometimes it is hard to understand whether this particular object is a theatrical decoration or not. You may try this revelation trick by yourself. Look around and stop reading if you do not see one of these: metal fences between the road and the sidewalk, security guards, magnetic frames. If you do not see any of these, you are lucky enough to live in a distraction free environment. All of these objects are considered to be classic examples of theatrical decoration that will likely bring you a false feeling of security and common discomfort.

Where can I buy tickets to stalls?

The fence between the sidewalk and the road will not save you. Did you ever notice how visually polluted by the fences the streets are? In Russia, fence overloading is normally justified by saying that this provides a protection for pedestrians from a car that has lost its control, although, in reality, that is not the case. If the car is moving at least 30 kmh (~19 mph), the fence will not stop the car and it will not protect the pedestrians. It will work the other way around; the elements of the fence will become basically a shrapnel that will cause more damage than the car alone would. And even if the car is moving slowly, the fence is likely to work as a barrier, restricting evacuation ways for the pedestrians.

Another common argument for the fences is that they restrict the dangerous pedestrians from the car. Well, I am asking then: who is living in the city? People or cars? I assume that the city building strategy should be aimed towards satisfying people’s will to move freely in clear streets with fresh air. If the city is meant for the car owners, the city itself forces other people to buy new cars, which can only increase traffic problems. 

Let us closely consider an example with the underground. The point that the supporters of magnetic frames are making is that it is dangerous to have a group of potentially dangerous people with high density. Therefore, they say, we need magnetic frames and guards that will overlook passengers. But look what happens then: instead of having a high-density group of potentially dangerous people in the underground, these people crowd in front of a magnetic frame. So, this is not a helpful decision, even according to their own aim. Moreover, this generally decreases the bandwidth of public transport. 

Why is security theatre a problem and what can I do about it?

There are economic arguments saying that the security theatre is not economically sufficient enough or even that it is a complete waste of money. I personally support more ‘metaphysical’ arguments. After refusing a security theatre, we will not for sure start getting qualitative education or building long-lasting roads or convenient public transport systems. But these infrastructural or cultural equipment are hard to imagine in a city overloaded by the theater. So, by saying metaphysical, I mean that it is hard to measure the profit in the case with conscious living.

One could object by saying that this feeling of security provides inner satisfaction and therefore it is good. I do not think so, because it is not voluntary. These ‘feelings’ cannot justify the theatre, because people involved in this illusion do not know that it is an illusion.

It is more pleasant to be in a place where no one is trying to fool you. The radical difference between a normal theatre and a security theatre is that when one is walking into a normal theatre, they understand that it is an illusion, whereas it is not the case with the security theatre. The security theatre also increases friction between an individual and surroundings. It becomes harder for an individual to get to their destination.

Make a step towards conscious living. I would like to inspire everyone getting deeper into the city planning urbanism. Next time having a walk or getting somewhere, try to count how many theatrical decorations there are. Always ask yourself whether things can be different in the place you are going through; or whether the control over an individual at any moment is necessary and what would change if there was no control there. 

Gregory, what would you do after saying all this?

Practically speaking, not much. But I also will announce performance so consider staying tuned to my newly established Instagram profile. I hope that literally taking a security guard and placing it to the city square may disrupt the invisibility of security theater.

Note: The students have agreed to their posts being shared on this blog.
Featured image by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Melina Aarnikoivu (@MAarnikoivu) is a final-stage doctoral researcher at the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.  She was teaching two elective courses at SAS in February and March 2020. Her work can be found at ResearchGate.

Leave a Reply