Instructor Spotlight: Dennis Keen

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Why is it important to learn Kazakh language and culture? Dennis Keen, a lecturer at UCLA SEELC, has been teaching Kazakh language and culture since 2019. With a background in ethnography and language studies and a fascination with Central Asia, Dennis shares his passion for promoting Kazakh language and culture through education, tourism, and creative industries. In an interview, Dennis discusses the emergence of Q-Pop in Kazakh, changes in language usage, attitudes towards Soviet-era art, and the recent political turmoil the country has experienced. He also describes his teaching approach for leading UCLA Flagship students to a deep understanding of Kazakhstan. Enjoy Dennis’s intriguing insights and experiences.

Dennis, can you share with us your educational background and what led you to pursue the study of Kazakhstan?

I began my academic journey with a focus on Language Studies, majoring in Russian at UC Santa Cruz. However, it was my high school exchange program in Kazakhstan that first piqued my interest in the region. After graduation, I continued my study of Russian and spent time in Mongolia before being awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study traditional hunting practices in Kyrgyzstan. During my year-long Fulbright, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the practice of hunting with birds of prey, especially golden eagles, and spent much of my time in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan climbing into eagles' nests and learning about how this tradition has survived.

This experience deepened my interest in the region, and after completing my Fulbright fellowship, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford. During my time at Stanford, I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Alma Kunanbaeva, a brilliant anthropologist and ethnographer who became a mentor to me. I continued to study Kazakh, including on a summer program at the University of Wisconsin. In 2013, after completing my Master's, I moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan to continue exploring different opportunities. So I've been there for 10 years now.

Can you talk about what you’ve been doing?

Over the years, I have worn many hats, taking on a variety of roles in different industries. My primary vocation is owning and operating a tourism business, where I serve as a professional tour guide for the top tours in Almaty, the city where I reside while running Almaty Guide School, a tour guide training center. In addition to my work in tourism, I have also hosted a television program called Discovering Kazakhstan, which aired on the National Television Channel for several years.

Throughout my career, I have also worked as a translator, proofreader, and curator for various creative cultural projects. I have even worked as a consultant in the tourism industry. However, the common thread that ties all of my work together is my love and passion for Kazakhstan and Central Asia. I am driven to share this passion with the public and find ways to promote the region's beauty and culture through my work.

If you had to describe Kazakhstan to an undergraduate student in one minute, what would you say?

Well, I believe that Kazakhstan challenges students to expand their worldview, as Central Asia is often overlooked in American education. Learning about Kazakhstan is a stimulating discovery, as it defies many of our preconceptions about Asia and Soviet space. The country has a complex history with layers of Soviet, Russian, nomadic, and Islamic influence, making it hard to fit into a single box. This complexity makes Kazakhstan a dynamic and rewarding society to study. Studying this region allows students to challenge their preconceptions and be more flexible in their thinking. It encourages them to interact with the world in a more genuine way, ultimately leading to a more nuanced understanding of the region. This is especially important in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies, where so much of the focus is on the Russian and East European parts. By expanding our imaginations and borders to include Central Asia, we can create a more comprehensive understanding of the region and its complexities.

You’ve also founded Monumental Almaty, a project to document, research, and preserve works of monumental art in Almaty, Kazakhstan. How do Kazakhs relate to Soviet-era art? Can you observe the same de-Sovietization process in Kazakhstan as, for example, in Ukraine?

In Kazakhstan, there is generally a positive attitude towards the preservation of Soviet-era art, such as monumental art mosaics and murals. The attitudes towards this art form differ from other former Soviet countries due to a variety of factors, including the works' content and the country's relationship with the Soviet era. In Kazakhstan, many of the works of art were not as strictly ideological as those found in Russia or Ukraine. Rather, they were often based on folklore or humanist themes related to education, science, or health.

As a result, the public views these works more neutrally and values them as part of their communities, as they are public art that they interact with on a daily basis. In many ways, the conditions for art production in Kazakhstan were different from other former Soviet countries, as they allowed for greater national articulation and artistic freedom. This is a common trend in the Soviet East, where artists were given more significant creative freedom than their counterparts in other Soviet countries.

"Students" (1968) by Nikolai Tsivchinsky

At the same time, during the January 2022 protests, we witnessed the dismantling of the cult of Elbasy and the toppling of Nazarbaev statues. In your opinion, how do Kazakh attitudes reflect their recent political experience?

The suddenness of the events was quite shocking to witness. However, what has happened since is more interesting to explore. In January 2022, there was a lot of violence and political upheaval, with the Nazarbayev statues being toppled. Kazakh society seemed to move away quickly from the Nazarbayev period. Since then, there has been a slow pace of de-Nazarbayevification, where there seems to be an attempt to ignore the past and focus on the future of Kazakhstan. They are more focused on what they call Jaña Qazaqstan or "New Kazakhstan," which is focused on new policies and forms. In January of this year, a new memorial, the Tağzym Monument, was erected in Almaty’s Republic Square dedicated to the events of that month. However, it consisted of motivational quotes from Kazakh history that have little relation to the tragic events of January when more than 200 people died. It seems that there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the victims, reckon with the crimes, or seek restorative justice. This is a repeat of past mistakes where in December 1986, the same square witnessed the Jeltoqsan uprising, which was followed by the same kind of repression.

What cultural trends do you see currently emerging in the region, particularly in youth culture?

A cultural trend that I have noticed, particularly among youth culture in the region, is the rise of Q-Pop, a phenomenon where the K-pop genre has been adapted by local youth with songs composed in Kazakh. This is significant because for several generations, as a result of the Russian and Soviet colonial legacy, there was very little cultural material in Kazakh. Pop music was primarily in Russian, which was considered the language of prestige. However, over the past decade, there has been a significant shift, and Kazakh has become the trendy language of choice among young people. Q-Pop has played a key role in demonstrating that Kazakh is a dynamic, contemporary, and global language that young people want to learn and listen to.

There is also a thriving rap music scene in Kazakhstan, with some of the best rappers producing music in Russian. The linguistic policies around these two trends differ because it is often a strategic decision for artists to consider their market. While the Kazakh language market is relatively small, ambitious musicians may choose to break into the Russian market in Russia, where they may find greater success. Additionally, the language spoken in a particular region or community can influence an artist's choice of language. For instance, an artist from a Kazakh-speaking community may choose to produce music in Kazakh, while one from a more Russian-speaking area may choose to produce music in Russian.

In the last decade, have you observed any changes in language usage and policy in Kazakhstan, particularly with regard to the Kazakh language’s dominance? Given the recent influx of Russian migration to the region, how has this affected language use and policy?

I just taught a lesson yesterday on language, so this topic is fresh in my mind. Over the years, I have observed significant changes in Kazakhstan's language policy, particularly related to the dominance of the Kazakh language. Demographically, Kazakh speakers have become the majority in the country, and education in the Kazakh language is now much more widely available than it was in the past. This has been driven by a younger generation of native Kazakh speakers who are transforming the country.

However, these changes have been accelerated in the last year since the war in Ukraine. This geopolitical shift has led to an influx of tens, or possibly even hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking migrants to Kazakhstan. This has created sensitivities in local communities, motivating people to learn Kazakh as a way of distinguishing themselves. More and more, Kazakh is gaining status, and it is now being emphasized that migrants and immigrants should learn the language. This is a significant departure from the past when Russian was considered the dominant language.

Could you please describe how your UCLA courses are structured, what activities students engage in, and what you enjoy most about teaching?

I teach two courses: Slavic 188A, which is an Introduction to the History and Culture of Kazakhstan, and Slavic 188B, Survival Kazakh, which is a language course. When designing the curriculum for these courses, I had to consider the isolation that many students were experiencing due to the pandemic. To address this, I introduced a fun program called "Kazakh Pen Pals," where each of my UCLA students is paired with a pen pal from Kazakhstan. This forms the core of the Slavic 188A course, where every week, students discuss themes related to Kazakhstan with their pen pals via video chat.

My goal for the Slavic 188A course is to build a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Kazakhstan over ten weeks. As many students come into the course with a hazy understanding of the country, I establish a foundational knowledge base. –– Because the course is broad, covering all aspects of Kazakhstan, it is a challenge not to be superficial. I aim to incorporate Kazakhstani voices into the curriculum whenever possible. For students heading to Kazakhstan, this course is especially useful, and three students from last year’s class are living in Kazakhstan.

Survival Kazakh is a language course that teaches students basic conversational skills. The course is different from regular language courses, and I have named it "Survival Kazakh," as it aims to give students a working understanding of the language that would allow them to survive in Kazakhstan. Overall, my approach to teaching incorporates a focus on practical skills, building foundational knowledge, and incorporating authentic voices and experiences.

 How would you explain to UCLA Russian Flagship students the importance of being able to speak Kazakh and understand the culture of Kazakhstan?

The first reason why it is important for UCLA Russian Flagship students to learn Kazakh is due to linguistic trends. The Kazakh language is becoming increasingly relevant with every passing year. In 2023, students are likely to find themselves in more Kazakh-speaking environments than in the past. Secondly, Almaty, which is historically a Russian-speaking city, has undergone a linguistic shift. Nowadays, most Almatians speak Kazakh at home. Speaking to them in their home language can change the social dynamic and open up new opportunities. People tend to be more receptive when spoken to in Kazakh and view it as a sign of respect, even if one is not fluent in the language. Therefore, having a basic understanding of Kazakh can create positive relationships and open up more opportunities for Flagship students.