Developing Inclusive Approaches to Russian Civilization Courses

In our small Russian Studies program we teach a number of courses that serve the larger campus community. Two such courses make up a two-semester large-lecture Writing Intensive “Russian Civilization” sequence. I have taught both semesters of this course for a total of eight semesters since coming to MU in 2008. I lecture, lead (and grade for) a discussion section and coordinate the teaching team, which includes three Graduate Teaching Assistants. The large percentage of students in both semesters are Business/Accounting majors; and the courses tend to attract a somewhat more (judging by appearances) racially diverse set of students than do our core courses for majors and minors, although students who identify as male are by far in the majority.

I was teaching Civ in the fall semester of 2014, after the murder of Michael Brown. The protesters and activists who coalesced around Ferguson—many of them the age of my students and even students themselves—inspired me to begin to think seriously—for the first time!—about inclusivity in my classroom. While I have long been dedicated to a student-centered classroom where all students are made welcome and given space to have a voice, I had been in some sense enacting a “post-racial” mentality, largely ignoring social and educational inequities that affect the classroom, whether I acknowledge them or not. That semester I began to consider with my students the fact and meaning of Alexander Pushkin’s African ancestry, as well as Lev Tolstoy’s role in helping shape concepts of non-violence. That is, I began to introduce new content reflecting a more inclusive view of Russian history, although at this point I was still primarily focused on considerations of racial diversity in my attempts to be more inclusive.

But it was our student protesters on campus in fall 2015 who challenged me by their actions and words toward a more drastic revision of my pedagogical practices. At faculty panels organized in response to the protests I learned of critical pedagogy. I listened to faculty who practiced these pedagogies, and I wrote down titles of books that could help me. I ordered copies of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress. These books shook the foundations of my teaching. Introducing new content was, I saw, a step forward, but without more fundamental changes to my teaching itself, ultimately it was a superficial change, at best.

I decided to locate some support in revising my pedagogy. In 2016 I received grants from the Campus Writing Program to create a new version of the spring semester course, which has primarily focused on late imperial and Soviet Russia. I wanted to expand the course to address the post-Soviet period. More than expanding the chronological scope, though, I proposed to transition the course to a “flipped” model, where I would post lectures online and use class time instead for more interactive learning—large-group and small-group discussion, film and audio, collaborative critical analysis of cultural texts, work on writing skills. With this “flipped” model I hoped further to transition out of the “banking” model where students learn passively and reproduce information in exchange for the grade they want—a special challenge in a large lecture course. But I also aimed to revise the course to focus more on identity formation around constructs of ‘Otherness.’ In addition, I received funds to support a simultaneous study of this course, co-led by a trusted Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Teaching this revised course in spring 2017 was exciting and daunting. Following Freire and hooks, we (my GTAs and I) created assessments that incorporated students’ experience into their reflections on nation, identity and ‘Otherness.’ I also pivoted attention to the Soviet empire with special focus on the relations between Russia and Central Asian countries. In keeping with this new focus I included new readings from Central Asian writers. I also organized lectures by a GTA and (via video-conference) by colleagues at other institutions who work on representations of race, sexuality and gender in Russia.

Student responses to these shifts were marked. On one hand my GTAs and I noticed increased participation in lecture and section by students of color. On the other hand several students (all identifying as white males) voiced negative responses, including audible comments or questions in lecture about our attention to “the East” or our relative decentering of Russia. One white male student was especially vocal, in ways that made at least one member of our learning community, someone who identifies with a minority group, feel unsafe. I sought counsel from offices and individuals, and ultimately the situation was resolved in a relatively satisfactory way.

Hooks writes much in Teaching to Transgress about the challenges of teaching inclusively, and I have come to rely on her insights that the struggles can bring positive transformation for both me and my students. She writes of how common it is for students with “a more conventional education” to be “threatened by and even resist” critical teaching practices and shifts in focus of study. She imagines a student asking, “‘I thought this was supposed to be an English class, why are we talking so much about feminism?’ (Or, they might add, race or class.)” And she shares, “I have often felt that this type of learning process is very hard; it’s painful and troubling” for students and teacher alike. But, she writes, “our purpose here [in the classroom] isn’t really to feel good. Maybe we enjoy certain classes, but it will usually be difficult. We have to learn how to appreciate difficulty, too, as a stage in intellectual development.”

These challenging experiences seem to me now to highlight problematic dynamics in the culture on campus and beyond, but also to underscore my own need for support and further education in inclusive teaching. I am grateful for the publications of figures like hooks and Freire. And I am, as hooks suggests, hopeful that by sharing our classroom experience, teachers can help build truly inclusive communities.