Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Final Student Thoughts

Here is the final post of the semester for the “Anatomy of a Course.” I hope it has been helpful, in whole or in part, for folks in the field. I’ll give the final words to Kamini Masood, a student in the class who wanted to write about the relationship between history and fiction after a stimulating exchange with Steve Norris during his classroom visit in November. Here’s Kamini:

There are countless ways to scare college students away from history classes. One way, as I found out my sophomore year, is to assign Dostoevsky’s Demons. The sheer size of it is enough to send overworked students running for the hills. I know I almost ran.

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Anatomy of a Course: The Final Exam

The final exam serves many functions. It’s a moment of assessment, of course, a relatively important one in this class at 40% of the total grade. A student writes for two hours, and you read it for fifteen minutes. If you do it right, that exchange allows you to determine whether a student has done “satsifactory” (C), “good” (B), or “excellent” (A) work. But what does it mean to “do it right?” I’m pretty sure there’s not a single perfect way to construct a final. In any case, I have experimented with different models over the years: take-home finals, oral finals, and in many courses no final at all. In recent years, however, I’ve adopted a hybrid model that I like for my intermediate “lecture” classes. I give students the long essay questions ahead of time but also have a set of shorter questions that they see for the first time during the exam itself. Here’s the final exam I gave this year:

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!

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Anatomy of a Course: “A bit of a mess”

How should a college professor teach? Pick up a guide for new instructors (or attend a workshop aimed at the same), and you may well be advised to train yourself to be a “guide on the side” rather than a fusty old “sage on the stage.” Don’t worry, this post won’t be a rehashing of the debate between pro-lecture and anti-lecture partisans. No, my point today is that posing the question in the way it has traditionally been posed impoverishes the debate by giving only two options and by presenting those options as mutually exclusive. This is a shame, because none of the many great teachers I have seen in action were either a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side.” There are lots of ways to be effective in the classroom, but the folks I’ve seen with the most success have both made their teaching persona an outgrowth of their personalities and have shown flexibility in teaching methods depending on the class they’re teaching. Rendered as pithy advice, this would boil down to “Be yourself” (or, maybe, “Be your best self”) and “Pay close attention to the students in front of you.”

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: A student view

This month, I invited one of my students to write about her experiences in the “Russia from Lenin to Putin” course. She chose to write about how different types of readings worked together in the course. The author is Nicole Harry, who is a History major and a Russian and East European Studies minor with interests in the study of Soviet history and of society and politics in the post-Soviet states. Here’s Nicole:

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Starting the Semester

Every year, somehow, the start of the fall semester gets busier and busier. At an institution like mine, which is crazy about meetings, everyone wants to meet right away. Tenure cases are mulled. Grant proposals are due (hooray for an upcoming sabbatical!) And in the midst of all of this, you teach the first critical weeks of the course. It’s especially tempting (and dangerous) for professors with a few years under their belts to think about putting classes on cruise control, using old texts, old lecture notes, and spending entire periods going over the syllabus.

But you will not get a second chance to make a first impression. Students start answering pressing questions regardless of what your out-of-class workload looks like. Is this course interesting? How much work is there? Do I really have to do all the work? Will I have the chance to contribute/discuss/question in class? The answers, I think, help build attitudes that fall on a spectrum that ranges from “my professor is mailing it in, so will I” to “I’m looking forward to the readings and classes each week.”

It is frustrating, but I think undeniable, that there is no sure recipe for success when it comes to establishing a positive classroom atmosphere. Preparation is critical, but sometimes improvisation matters more. Coming across as serious and disciplined is important, but being open-minded and open-hearted is necessary too. Finally, and probably most importantly, you’re just one human being in that room. You have more influence than anyone else, but sometimes individual students (or small groups of them) either make the class a special and memorable one for all involved or make it a miserable slog.

Despite not having full control over the outcome of the social dynamics of the classroom, I do my best to structure the first weeks to maximize chances for success, with three basic goals in mind. First, I want to “interpellate” every student in an intellectual way. This means learning their names as quickly as possible (which is difficult for someone, like me, who has difficulty linking and remembering names and faces). But it also means providing early opportunities for each student to say (or write) something of substance and to have me respond in a meaningful fashion. Second, I try to lead with interesting classes and topics. As the previous posts indicated, it’s important to design an excellent syllabus, but if the syllabus is the most interesting part of your course, something is probably wrong. Sometimes, this means getting to the heart of the course right away, and sometimes it means designing an interesting introduction. Finally, it’s important to set the core narrative in motion. Courses, like ideas, have shapes. History classes often (though not always) take shape through narrative. We have to decide which ideas/events/notions will form the through line of the course and then get busy introducing and explaining them.

In terms of course readings for “Russia from Lenin to Putin,” I decided to assign summer reading – Boris Akunin’s Turkish Gambit and several of my favorite Chekhov short stories. This accomplished several goals, I think. First, these were interesting readings. Any student unable to appreciate the charms of either Akunin or Chekhov is unlikely to find much else of interest in the course, so s/he will know this in plenty of time to drop the class. Second, the very act of assigning summer reading is an indication of seriousness and commitment – a mutual pact between me and the students that we’re going to work hard for each other. Finally, it sets up for a first day in which we begin by discussing the “woman question” in 19th century Russia and the inversions of anti-Semitism in “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” That was, I promise you, way more engaging than going over penalties for absences and federal credit hour requirements on the syllabus. By the end of the week, we had gotten around to discussing the nuts and bolts on the syllabus (and setting expectations for students), but it didn’t occupy the first moments of the class. Those first discussions were also a source of great relief. Most of the students had not only done the readings but were ready to discuss them and to ask questions about aspects of those texts that confused them. They were curious, energetic, and engaged with each other as well as with me. They are already the kind of class that makes you love your job.

I introduced some new activities when we got to the second day of class. We did two things. I gave my first lecture (on the period from 1905-1914), and we discussed the first chapter of their first long book by a historian, Steve Smith’s Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928. This was obviously the first time I taught this book (which came out just this year). As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had skimmed it prior to assigning it, but I didn’t know how well it would help me achieve my overall course goals, including the key one of teaching students to think in more complex ways both about class and revolution. I’m happy to report, now that the students and I have read the whole thing carefully, that it works wonderfully. It hits all of the key topics, challenges historical orthodoxies in interesting ways (just yesterday we talked about his careful critique of the idea that control of the Secretariat was the only way that Stalin won the political battles of the 1920s), and represents the Revolution in all of its messy, bloody, inspiring glory. Smith was a thoughtful, clear, and reliable guide for the period leading up to 1928.

We are now well on our way, having finished the fourth week of the course. Students know why workers and soldiers supported the Bolsheviks in 1917 and why so many of them turned away from them later. They know how the fate of the worker revolution actually centered on grain policy and the hunger, violence, and eventually famine that resulted from the increasingly coercive and disastrous policies of successive governments. Class has been described, not so much theoretically (though we did some of that too) as how it actually existed in Revolutionary Russia. It is already clear that the Revolution was fired by deep (and deeply politicized) feelings of social and economic injustice and that the Bolshevik victory in the revolution was at least in part a result of a violently authoritarian streak that would have dire consequences in the years and decades to come. Stalin and Stalinism are on our collective horizons.

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.

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 2 (assignments)

I mentioned in my first “Anatomy of a Course” post that I had flubbed my interview question on course preparation by only mentioning the books I hoped to use. One of the basic things I failed to do was to discuss course assignments with the search committee. Because learning is less about what the professor says than what the student does, this was a serious omission. As a result, assignment design really should be a starting point rather than the end point of preparing your courses. In some cases, the curriculum helps determine this for you. For instance, all advanced history seminars at Lafayette require students to write a 20-25 page research paper that demonstrates serious engagement with both primary and secondary sources. For my advanced seminar, therefore, I start out by blocking periods of time for students to work on their paper proposals, their outlines, their drafts, and their final projects before filling in other course elements around those blocks. When I developed my new introductory seminar on the Cold War (which is also a course that requires 20 pages of “process” writing but focuses on teaching novice students how to critique and use different sorts of primary sources), I also began by creating the (short) paper assignments before moving on to the rest of the syllabus.

Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 1 (nuts and bolts)

This is part of a continuing series entitled “Anatomy of a Course,” which will be updated throughout Fall 2017. Click on the “Anatomy of a Course” category heading to see all the relevant posts.

If you haven’t been in a university classroom in the Age of Assessment, you may not realize how large and bulky syllabi have gotten. Accreditation institutions now require us to post student learning outcomes and federal credit hour requirements, colleges insist on other items to be included, and before you know it, the syllabus has become a booklet. As a result, I’m going to split my discussion of syllabus construction in three. Today, I’ll do the “nuts and bolts” part of the syllabus, follwed by a post on course assignments, followed by the post on the course schedules and readings. Part one of my draft syllabus is posted at the following URL, which you can refer to as you read through this post:

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!”

Teaching Russian History Terrorism Uncategorized


“Every extremely shameful, immeasurably humiliating, mean, and, above all, ridiculous position I have happened to get into in my life has always aroused in me, along with boundless wrath, an unbelievable pleasure.” – Nikolai Stavrogin, in Demons (692)

I gave precisely zero thought to the presidential election when creating the syllabus for my course on Imperial Russia this year. Instead, knowing that I would be teaching an overload in addition to a heavy administrative burden this fall, I kept my course structured mostly the same way. That placed my unit on “Modernity, Terrorism, and Revolution” not in a sunny, hopeful, pre-graduation April but in the darkening days of November. Students spend three of the four weeks of this unit doing one thing: reading Dostoevskii’s brilliant and frightening novel Demons.

Imperial Russia Teaching Russian History

Visualizing the 1897 Census in Pie Charts

A couple years ago one of my Soviet history students, Jessy Mwarage, said he wanted to do a bit of extra work at the opening of the semester, so I gave him some Russian census data from 1897 to play with. He turned the data into very elegant pie charts.  

I should add one caveat. I’m not absolutely positive about the quality of the data, but I think it’s reasonably good. Above all, it will give students a sense of the diversity of the population in the Russian Empire.

Russian Census Data, 1897

Total population:  125,640,021 people
Sex:  50.2 % female;  49.8 % male
Urban:   16,828,395 (13.4%);   Rural:  108,811,626 (86.6%)
Literacy:   29.3% of males;  13.1% of females were literate
Nationalities (as determined by language)

  • Russians:  56 million (44%)
  • Ukrainians:  22 million (17%)
  • Poles:  8 million (6%)
  • Belarusians (a.k.a. White Russians):  6 million (5%)
  • Jews (Yiddish speaking): 5 million (4%)
  • Kirghiz = 4million (3%)
  • Tatars = 3.7 million Tatars (3%)
  • Georgians, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Moldovians: 1-2 million each (1.6%)


    • Russian Orthodox:   69.34%
    • Muslims:   11.07%
    • Roman Catholics:   9.13%
    • Jews:   4.15%
    • Lutherans:   2.84%
    • Old Believers and others split from Russian Orthodox:   1.75%
    • Armenian Gregorians & Armenian Catholics:   0.97%
    • Buddhists, lamaists:   0.34%
    • Other Protestants:   0.15%



    Social Groups

    Peasants and Cossacks:                      99.8 million (79.4% of the total population)

    Towndwellers:                                     13.4 million (10.7%)

    Total lower classes:  113.2 million (90.1%)

    Merchants, honored citizens:             0.6 million (0.5%)

    Church estate:                                       0.6 million (0.5%)

    Nobility:                                                  1.85 million (1.5%)

    National minorities [inorodtsy] incl. Jews:      8.3 million (6.6%)

    Foreigners:                                            0.6 million (0.5%)




    Source of Income of Main Breadwinner

    Agriculture  (incl. livestock prod., fishing, forestry):  74.57%

    Manufacturing & crafts (esp. sewing, construction, metal, textiles, woodworking):  9.34%

    Servants and daily manual workers:   4.61%

    Commerce:   3.99%

    Transport and communications (nearly one half were horse and cart drivers)  1.55%

    Army and navy:   .99%

    Public administration (state & local authorities):   .75%

    Living on capital income:   .72%

    Religious institutions (including clerks & janitors):   .63%

    Medicine, education, science, literature, and legal practice:  .61%

    Mining:   .44%

    Others:    1.8%



    Largest Cities of the Russian Empire:


    Data from Wikipedia (English and Russian) and other sources.   Pie charts by Jessy Mwarage.

    Crimea Imperial Russia Teaching Russian History

    Russian Census of 1897 as teaching tool

    This week Pietro Shakarian posted an article on Russia Direct that addresses the issue of the ethnic composition of the Russian Empire in 1897 as it relates to current crises in Ukraine, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and Trans-Caucasia. To my mind it is very informative and would be a good article for students to read if one also gave them good maps. (Shakarian is apparently a PhD student at Ohio State University.)

    Current events in the Putin Era Imperial Russia

    On cheese

    Who knew, when I started writing about the Swiss cheese master Tinguely last November, that cheese would become the star of its own foreign policy drama? And yet, here we are. Type “cheese” and “Russia” into twitter’s search field and find a slew of half serious, half ironic stories about Russia’s turn against the evils of Parmesan. Type “сыр” in and find a slew of often pretty funny memes about it (my favorite? Melisandre hovering over Putin’s shoulder, urging him to burn the cheese).

    Certainly when I was in Moscow earlier this summer, cheese was a big topic of conversation already, even before the burnings began. (Another sentence I never dreamed I’d write.) My first day in Moscow, at the prompting of a Russian friend, I spent some time looking at the cheese section at a new grocery store, raising my eyebrows at the labels indicating that some cheeses had been imported from Belarus, wondering at the labeling on the “No. 1 in Italy!” mozzarella that had apparently been produced in a nearby province. Later, I heard the saga of the palm oil rumors—the idea that Russia had begun importing huge quantities of palm oil, which was being used to increase the production of processed cheese. Rumors of its dire effects on health ensued, and labels began to appear on cheese, announcing its purity. When I went off to Berlin for a weekend, someone told me to “bring back cheese!” (I didn’t.)

    Russian History in Popular Culture Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

    The 1936 Guide Book of the Soviet Union

    A few years ago Steve Barnes was visiting Hawaii to give a talk on his work on campus here at UH. He spent a bit of time at our Library, and came across an unusual find in our special collections, the American Express Travel Service’s 1936 Guide Book of the Soviet 1936 Guide BookUnion. It is included in the material we call The Social Movements Collection, which does contain a lot of Soviet material. American Express offered four different tours of the Soviet Union: “A Tour of Great Soviet Cities” that went from Leningrad to Moscow to Kiev, and then returned to the West via Warsaw; “The Crimea Tour” that went from Moscow to Kharkov to Sevastopol, Yalta, and Odessa; “The Volga River Tour” that left Moscow for Gorky, Kazan, Kuibishev, Saratov, Stalingrad, Rostov, and then a train to Kharkov, Kiev, and Warsaw; and “The Caucasus-Black Sea Tour” that took a train down the Volga to ultimately reach Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis, and then depart onto the Black Sea from Batum.

    Cold War Crimea Current events in the Putin Era Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian History in Popular Culture Teaching Russian History Transnational History Ukraine Uncategorized World War II

    History in the Crimea & Ukraine Today

    Protest in Kiev, December 2013

    History is being blithely tossed about these days by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself to Sarah Palin and John McCain. What is the real story? Is there a real story?

    To answer that question, I invited two eminent historians – well, one historian and one historically minded political scientist, Serhii Plokhii and Mark Kramer, both of Harvard, to speak at MIT on this exact situation. They spoke on Monday (3/17), the day after the Crimean Referendum and the day before the Russian President’s speech.

    Current events in the Putin Era Historiography Imperial Russia Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

    The Amnesties of Tsar Vladimir

    It seems obvious that President Vladimir Putin has chosen to issue the recent amnesties of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maria Alokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and probably the Greenpeace 30 as a way to generate good will on the eve of his great personal project, the Sochi Olympics, into which he has invested enormous amounts of money and effort. With the amnesties (and his successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on 9/11 of this year), Mr. Putin is almost certainly hoping to create good will to offset the harsh criticism and threats of boycott he has received in conjunction with the Olympics. Yet this amnesty has a long history in Imperial Russia, one well worth examining.

    Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

    Win a beautiful book of posters!

    A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site.  This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post!

    Current events in the Putin Era Post-Soviet Russia

    Russia and ‘Homosexual Propaganda’

    Over the past couple of months, I have been following with increasing apprehension the news from Russia about its treatment of its gay population. Yesterday, a blogger at Gawker summarized the recent events in a good (but disturbing) entry.  I won’t rehash the information since the links are all embedded there, but it’s been hard to see the escalating violence documented.  It’s going to be interesting to see if this starts to affect the upcoming Olympics.  How long will the world be willing to ignore the human rights’ violations (much less the arrests of gay foreigners)?

    Current events in the Putin Era Films Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian History in Popular Culture Russian Orthodoxy Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

    Mikhalkov as monarchist and Slavophile – his 2010 Manifesto “Right and Truth” (Право и Правда)

    In October 2010 influential filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov published an extensive “Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism” which was published as “Right and Truth” in (Read in Russian here.)

    The defense of serfdom attributed to Mikhalkov, which I posted yesterday, may well be a fake, but his conservative views are well-known and worth reading. A shorter overview (and critique) of his Manifesto was published in Vedomosti and translated in The Moscow Times. I am taking the liberty of copying that article in full (below) as it might be interesting for our students in Russian history classes. Lest they (students) think the debates and views of Russian conservatism are archaic, they can see them returning in the extremely conservative new laws on homosexuality, on diversity within the Russian Orthodox Church (the rules on “insulting believers” are very broadly construed), and in the takeover of the Russian Academy of Sciences (long a bastion of independent thinking).