Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a course

I well remember the teaching portion of my first job interview for a tenure-track position. They asked me a simple question – how would I design a course on Russian history? – and I gave them a simple answer – a list of books and topics that I wanted to cover. It was the wrong answer, and I didn’t get the job. Over the years (and particularly over the past five years when I have served as Department Head and have chaired search committees for every new tenure-track and visiting hire in the department), I have heard that question answered in a similar fashion by other candidates fresh out of graduate school, so I thought I would spend some time here explaining what (I hope!) is one of many possible “right” answers to the question of how to design – and then teach – a course on Russian history. I plan to blog consistently about the course, starting today with early planning efforts and continuing through the semester as the class happens in real time. I hope that this series of posts will not only create a conversation with experienced and novice Russian history professors but might also pull back the curtain for students and for folks outside the academy who hold the understandable but mistaken belief that teaching a college course is simply a matter of knowing a lot, telling students a lot, and then testing how much they remember. “Oh history!” a golfing buddy of my uncle said to me more than two decades ago. “That’s gonna be easy! It never changes, so after you teach it the first time, you’re set for life!”

I’m teaching two courses in the fall. One is an advanced colloquium entitled “Human Rights and Modern War,” and the second is a course that I have taught ever since my arrival at Lafayette in 1999 with the title “Twentieth Century Russia.” This year, in recognition of how deeply we’ve gone into a new century and the headlines teenagers are seeing on their screens, I’ve retitled it “Russia from Lenin to Putin” (HIS 244). Because this is the Russian History Blog and because it’s the centennial of the Revolution, the course I’ll be blogging this semester will be the “Lenin to Putin” course.

In my next entry, I’ll post a draft copy of my syllabus and get down to the nitty-gritty details of building the infrastructure for a course. I want to start, however, at a broader level. What is it that I want the students in this course to learn? This is a trickier question than it at first seems. If we start with the students, as we should, we need to know not only the general characteristics of students at the institution, but also the particular reasons these students are taking this course at this time. What are they capable of? What do they know they want? What do they need, regardless of what they want?

Some general context may be helpful for readers unfamiliar with my college. Lafayette is classified as a “highly selective” liberal arts institution. For the class of 2020, we accepted 28% of applicants, the median GPA of enrolled students was a 3.6 and the median SAT was about 1300. In short, most of these students did well in high school and can reasonably be expected to tackle advanced intellectual projects. The averages hide some variability, of course. Like many other schools of our type, we offer merit scholarships (including to international students), which means that we have some students with even higher levels of motivation and accomplishment than the norm. There are also, of course, students at the lower end of the distribution who experience more significant challenges with college-level reading and writing. Within this broader context, I would rather aim too high than too low. I have office hours, and there are other college resources for students who struggle with complicated material. But if students leave my class without having been stretched to their mental limits, that’s a huge problem. I’m fortunate as a tenured professor that I can take the heat from some student evaluations in this regard (“Too much reading!!!”), but many untenured professors successfully accomplish the same goal.

Then there are the particularities of the course. The number one reason why students take a course, naturally, is that they are required to do so. One set of requirements are for academic majors and minors. HIS 244 can fulfill a requirement for History, Russian and East European Studies, and, in some instances, for International Affairs. Ten of the eighteen currently enrolled students fit in this category. The class also fills several “common course of study” requirements at the college, including both “Global and Multicultural” requirements. This is no doubt of interest to the other eight students, five of whom are pursuing BS degrees in engineering or the sciences, and three of whom are getting BAs in disciplines with fewer courses that meet this “GM” requirement (like Economics and Psychology). This is not to say that all of these students are taking the course to fulfill a requirement (students do have free electives) or that this is the only course that would fulfill their requirements (there are many others that would do so), but it does mean that I will have a varied set of students. Some (three of them) have taken a course or two already from me. Some will be really interested and eager to learn more about a topic of interest for them. Some will be taking it because it “knocks out a GM requirement” and may allow them to have Fridays free for partying (it’s a Tuesday-Thursday morning course).

So my course design has to do at least two things: 1) it has to engage and teach students who are eager to learn more about Russia or about history or who are genuinely seeking intellectual challenge or mentorship in my class, students whom I will see in office hours and classes and when they are alums years from now, and 2) it has to reach students for whom this may be the only course in which they’re asked to think about big issues in a global frame.

My core overarching goals, then, are the following: 1) I want them to be able to understand complex issues and to show a capacity to articulate their positions in complex ways; 2) related to #1, I want them to be able to read and comprehend entire books, a rapidly vanishing skill, 3) I want them to apply these critical skills to the countries and histories of Eurasia and to be able to explain to their roommates and relatives why caricatures of the region and its history are problematic and potentially dangerous. Finally, in this year of the revolutionary centennial, I will be changing my core “point of emphasis” from empire and multinationality (which was my focus in 2016 when I last taught the course) to class and revolution. Neither ethnicity nor gender will be absent, of course, but I do want to stress issues of class and revolution to students in more explicit ways, for both historical and contemporary reasons. But more of this in the next post!

Throughout this process, I’m happy to hear any responses or thoughts you might have, including how you address these questions differently in your own courses (or proposed courses)! The comments function on this site does not alert an author when a comment is awaiting approval, so if you don’t see a comment you’ve posted, let me know, and I’ll search the appropriate WordPress folder.

By Joshua Sanborn

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

4 replies on “Anatomy of a course”

Cheers Josh. I’m going to assume that somewhere in your curriculum structure, you have departmental/program-level and probably also course-level learning objectives for the course on file. Do you mind sharing those?

I’m also guessing that if your department is like most, the learning objectives were approved some time ago (probably for your last Middle State program review) and don’t necessarily match the way you might want to teach the course. It also seems as though your catalog description could use some updating. This is the old one:

HIST 244: 20th Century Russia

This course surveys the massive cultural and political transformation in twentieth century Russia. The first unit addresses the major changes in the Russian economy and society that occurred between 1891-1914, before moving to the years of war, revolution, and retreat from 1914-1928. The second unit covers the Stalinist era from 1928-1953, while the third deals with the decay of the Soviet Union, the Gorbachev Revolution, and the Boris Yeltsin era of the 1990s. Prof. Sanborn

Have you come up with a new one yet? Institutionally, how complicated is it to effect these sorts of changes? We’re moving to a new catalog-management system at William Paterson (I’m on the implementation team), and that’s going to make minor outline and catalog-listing emendations (and also approvals, deactivations, program changes, attribute associations, etc.) much much easier. I’m wondering how much bureaucratic red tape is involved for you…. Granting that when you’re Chair it’s usually easier….

On a more general level, I too (like most of our colleagues, I suspect) have an analogous course in the repertoire. One of the questions surrounding it has been what to do with places like Ukraine and the Baltics and Central Asia that used to be part of the USSR and now aren’t. Are you going to cover post-1991 relations with the ‘near abroad’?

Thanks for the comment, Jon! Regarding the catalog, the Registrar has the new course description correct on his site ( I think you found the old title and description on the History Department site, which is the fault of the department head who didn’t make amendments to that site when the new title and description were approved. Since I’m the DH who didn’t keep up with it, this is samokritika, but I fixed it this AM! As you suggest, the problem is keeping all of this information synced across multiple pages. More generally, keeping an up-to-date departmental website is a bigger challenge than I expected when I became head.

As for departmental learning objectives, we put them in (slightly) more student/employer friendly format on our site as “The Seven Essential Things All History Majors Learn” ( Course learning objectives will be in the next post!

My courses, including in Russian history, start with the students. I try to envision myself in the students’ chairs and what are they expecting? I also consider past comments, evaluations, conversations, and the like when I return to a course that I have previously taught.
The catalog description is dated, as mentioned above. Will you move into the twenty-first century, despite the title, and if so, how will you approach? Do you stay with Russia more that you are moving to issues of class, for example, and address the non-Russian population, and to what degree?
I am looking forward to this project. Thanks.

What a great post! I remember a similar experience of being on the job market and being asked the same question. I totally flubbed it by giving a synopsis of books and assignments. Like you I’ve been on hiring committees where we have put a great deal of weight on teaching questions during the interview. I think its an important question, but I have also realized that I did not really have a clear understanding of what my teaching philosophy was and couldn’t articulate it until after I had done the job for a few years.

Like you and Jonathan said above, each individual course has to operate within the curriculum and not just as an isolated chunk of subject matter or area. So you end up trying to write learning outcomes that both make sense in terms of the internal logic of the course, but also the disciplinary and university learning goals. Serving on my department’s assessment committee really helped me understand what was at stake in crafting good learning outcomes that actually guided course design.

I will be teaching a similar course in Spring 2018 and I have taught it in the past, but crafting the learning outcomes is still an ongoing process. I look forward to reading more posts about your course and how you want to accomplish your goals!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.