Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Outside Speakers

I’m sitting now proctoring the final exam for “Russia from Lenin to Putin,” so the “Anatomy of a Course” is nearly finished. I’ll have a final post or two on the final exam, and there will be one more guest student post, but before I wrap this series up, I want to speak briefly about co-curricular activities and their place in my course. There were two big events that planning began for in the summer and that were on the syllabus: a roundtable on revolution to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and a visit from Steve Norris to talk about blockbuster films and patriotism in the 21st century. Let me talk about the Norris lecture, in part because it occurred more recently (two weeks ago), and in part because of Revolution Anniversary Fatigue.

I have found that outside speakers work better when I consciously and extensively integrate them into my course structure. I will admit to a soft spot for attending lectures that introduce me to something completely new and divorced from what I’m thinking about at a given stage, but I know that not all students feel the same. As I said in an earlier post, inviting Steve allowed me to re-envision what the structure of my class might look like. More specifically, it allowed me (and more importantly my students) to think in terms of iterations and reiterations of historical moments. Most obviously, I had never assigned (or read) Akunin’s Turkish Gambit prior to this semester, but students had this for their summer reading and then returned to it with a required film screening, readings from Steve’s Blockbuster History, and then his talk, all in the same week. Thus, not only did we get to talk about imperialism, nationalism, militaries, police states, and gender politics in the 19th century on the very first day of class by talking about the themes of Turkish Gambit, but we got to return to those important themes in the final days of the course by examining the same “text.” Or mainly the same text, as the film differs in important ways from the novel. Most notably, the “who” in the “whodunit” tale changes (for reasons Steve talks about in his book and discussed with my class). But also, as students and faculty alike noted, both the gender politics and the theme of orientalism changes. Varvara’s character goes from being a woman struggling with the collision between political commitments, gender expectations, and her own desires to a simpering stereotype, and the book’s challenge to orientalist stereotypes ends up with a straightforwardly orientalist movie. These observations allowed students not only to understand Norris’ book (and his excellent updating of these themes to encompass shifts during Putin’s second stint as president), but also to understand what we might mean by the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” in commercially saturated media environments that both my students and Russian citizens live in today.

Bringing in an outside speaker has additional positive knock-on effects. Many of my students were thrilled to meet the author that they had just been reading. This thrill is easy to forget, especially when we have our cynical moments about our jobs and profession, but it is genuine. We learn because we are human, and combining human contact with the words on a page is powerful. In addition, it allows them (rightly) to feel like they are entering a world of experts. They’ve literally done the reading, and this allows them to ask good questions that engage and excite scholars in the field. Finally, outside speakers help promote faculty cohesion. We’re all busy, and it’s nice to sit down to have dinner with five or six folks, one of them an outsider, and talk about new ideas (and, of course, to compare working conditions and kvetch). In sum, though these events take some work both intellectually and organizationally, the payoff is quite substantial. Many thanks to Steve and to many of my other colleagues and friends who have agreed to come speak at Lafayette in the past!

By Joshua Sanborn

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

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