Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 3 (topics and readings)

As I discussed in my first two posts on syllabus construction, I try to figure out the readings and weekly topics as my last step, after I’ve made decisions on the course goals and assignments that form the backbone of the class. To recap, I’ve decided to focus on the “revolutionary” aspects of the past century and to concentrate course work on extensive readings and the analysis of those texts. I’m also shifting my time frame to spend a bit less time on the period before 1917 and a bit more both on the late Soviet and the post-Soviet periods. I’ve got fourteen weeks and about two thousand pages of reading to accomplish these goals. Less, actually, since I’m also doing an unusually large number of off campus lectures/conferences this semester, which will require me to miss some class sessions and to make them up outside of class time, mostly with course films that students can watch on a flexible schedule in case they have a conflict with the makeup class time. This reduces the number of lecture slots available, but it does provide a bit more breathing space for students to do their reading.

I always try both to assign new works and to keep some of my old favorites on a syllabus, which you can find on my website: Constantly reinventing the wheel is both time-consuming and unnecessary. But keeping a syllabus the same each time gets stale very quickly. One other way to keep a course fresh is to make use of outside speakers. This semester, I’m very pleased that Steve Norris has agreed to come to Lafayette for a lecture and class visit. Our Russian and East European Studies Program has developed a collaborative relationship with our Film and Media Studies Program, and I also wanted to conclude the course with a discussion of patriotism, nationalism, and mass culture in post-Soviet Russia. Anyone who has read Steve’s Blockbuster History in the New Russia knows that his work fits perfectly for these goals.

Putting Steve in the syllabus also helped me figure out some good summer reading for my students. Just yesterday, I sent an email to all registered students asking them to purchase and read Boris Akunin’s The Turkish Gambit. This is a historical thriller written in 1998 but set in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Chronologically, this will work well, and then we will return to the story at the end of the semester when we will view the film, read Steve’s treatment of the film, and then have Steve discuss it in class with us. This is the first time I’ve assigned this book (or anything by Akunin), so I’m excited to discuss this with students on the first day of class. In addition, I have asked the students to read several of Chekhov’s short stories in preparation for the class. I’ve used Chekhov for many years now with great success. These stories touch on key themes: life, death, and love – peasants, soldiers, and convicts – Jews, Tatars, and Russians – big cities, Ukrainian resorts, and Siberian rivers. Plus, they are beautiful. The last passage of “Gusev” is one of my very favorite in world literature, and reading it aloud early in the course helps (I hope!) to set an aesthetic tone for the whole semester.

The book we start with during week one is obviously a “first time” book, since it was just published. This is Steve Smith’s Russia in Revolution. I have long admired Smith’s work, and I skimmed this book before assigning it to ensure that it was appropriate in terms of topics and presentation for the students and my course goals. I’m eager to see how it works; the only potential issue is that it’s a bit long, so I will be a little off sequence with my students, who may be reading about 1914 when I’m lecturing on 1917 or about 1920 when I’m lecturing on 1924. That’s not a huge deal, though, as I already know that there will be some good moments when I have interpretive differences with Smith (I see the period of 1906-14 as one of “little reforms” rather than the squelching of reform, for instance), and this always helps as one develops points in a lecture or discussion.

Reading all of Smith also pushes student reading of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog deeper into class than usual. In general, I like to alternate primary and secondary sources, and Heart of a Dog is another book that has consistently worked well in class. It gets at key themes of class and expertise, the role of science in the early Soviet period, and also, of course, at the dangers of an excessively Promethean revolutionary vision. I normally assign this when lecturing on the 1920s, but this year, I’ll be lecturing on the Stalin Revolution while they’re reading about poor Sharik.

Last time I taught this course, I anchored my unit on Stalin and Stalinism around Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, but I shifted gears this time. It was useful to argue with some of Snyder’s points last time around, but I assigned that book because of its focus on nationality. The size of that book also meant that there was little space for primary source work. This time, I’m combining Mark Edele’s Stalinist Society with some of Vasilii Grossman’s war reportage. Both of these are new assignments, but I expect them to work well together and within the framework of the course.

Despite the fact that I’m now working on a postwar project, I kept the readings for the Cold War units the same this time, in part because I’ve already assigned a lot of new material, in part because I like the opportunity to talk about the production of history at the same time we read about life in the Soviet Union from an outsider’s (Sheila Fitzpatrick’s) perspective, and in part because I’m a fan of Brodsky. I contemplated adding some new shorter pieces here (a science fiction story, perhaps, or an article on late Soviet society), but the reading load was already quite heavy in these weeks, so I left it alone. That said, I plan to revise my lectures on this period quite substantially and to more fundamentally rethink this unit the next time I teach the course.

Finally, when we get to the unit from 1985-present, I added Steve Norris (for the reasons outlined above) but kept the two other readings the same. Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted is another long-time favorite of mine, largely because of the no-nonsense way that he describes the real material and political constraints that structured the “transition.” In a day and age when American analyses of Russia in magazines in newspapers is breathtakingly and irresponsibly personality-focused, this provides a different and more useful way to think about the problems and potentials that confront contemporary Russia. I also kept Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, a book that I paired last time with Valerie Sperling’s work on masculinity. This time it will be paired with thoughts about how history echoes in the present that Steve Norris will be headlining for us.

OK, this has been a long post, so I’ll leave other observations aside, either to discuss as the course gets underway (when I’ll talk more about how I’m structuring lectures and discussion sessions) or in the comments section if folks have questions/notes about what my syllabus looks like!

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

3 replies on “Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 3 (topics and readings)”

Dear Joshua,

Thanks for sharing your reading list and schedule. It is very generous of you to share what you are doing and to invite thoughtful criticism. I think your alternate uses of fiction and scholarly works is really interesting. I’ve used Bulgakov and Chekhov in the past but dropped them in favor of doing more biographies (Khrushchev and Gagarin). This list is making me reconsider that strategy.

I usually see my classes as a key opportunity to get some good books into the hands of my students. A colleague of mine jokingly refers to some of our students as “History Channel Majors” since their engagement with history tends to revolve around movies, pop-culture, and social memory, rather than reading books. I think the fiction has the potential to draw these students into reading more widely.

I do have a couple of questions:
It seems like your reading list averages around 120 pages a week. How typical is this reading load for your classes? How does it compare with other classes in your department? (I am not trying to invite comparisons with your colleagues. I am on my department’s assessment committee, so I am just curious about what the reading and assignment workloads are like in other departments around the country. ) How well do the students manage it?

I used to assign a similar workload, but students didn’t finish the reading or seem to be able to digest and discuss it. Right now I assign an average of 60 pages a week and I find that the students still don’t finish the reading. So maybe it needs to be coupled with something like your commonplace book assignment.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on course design and your syllabus. I hope you have a great class!


Hi Matt,

Thanks for the questions! Yes, the workload is on the high side both within the college and, to a much lesser degree, within the department. The problem, as I mentioned in my first post, is one of expectations. I invite students to come to my office hours if they are struggling with the reading load, and each semester some do. I am able to talk through some reading skills with them, but the main thing one learns is that they are expecting to get all the reading done in an hour or two. That’s a pretty hard nut to crack, but I think it’s fairly common across higher education in the US. As you note, ANY amount of reading will be too much reading if students don’t think that it’s sufficiently valued by the professor. Most students will skip a four page reading assignment if it’s never mentioned in class and they’re not pretty sure that they’re “responsible” for it in some way. Commonplace books, quizzes, and “cold-calling” students during discussion are all ways to hold them responsible, but naturally they can also be hated and feared by students. Keeping the balance between internal and external motivation at the right spot is difficult, and it varies from class to class and student to student. One consistent “carrot” you can always hold out is that students who engage constantly with the reading and with discussion tend to get good grades!!

And yes, if we don’t use our opportunities to get good books in the hands of students, who else will?


Thanks, Josh, for this series of posts. I just saw these, and had been thinking of a revamp of my two Russian history surveys (pre-post 1881). You’ve motivated me. Incidentally, I’ve often assigned Heart of a Dog in Western Civ courses; have gotten good results both with that and with The Fatal Eggs.

I do somewhat envy your 14 weeks. I’ve got 3 1/2 weeks. We are on a block system (Colorado College and Cornell in IA do that system, too). I’ve found myself wanting to do exactly as you describe, getting students to digest whole book. Tough to do in that short a time.


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