Amerika -- The Course (Part 1)

Amerika — The Course (Part 1)

The original iteration of “Amerika Through Russian Eyes” was a short, intensive course on Russian literature and culture that was also intended to help Russian language students develop their vocabulary, reading and writing skills.  (The image that accompanies this post was my very first attempt at Photoshopping, for the flier for that course.) I imagined that if the topic had been interesting to me when I’d been an undergraduate, it might still resonate. Plus, it would allow me to pull in materials from many different disciplines and media and to combine “high” and “low” culture under the umbrella of one overarching theme.  It was during this time that I gathered some core texts, and it was through discussion with my students (this was at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) that I learned what questions had the most traction and prompted the most interesting responses.

Although I taught the class only once at U of M, it was the catalyst for continuing to gather sources and read as much as I could find on the topic.  So when I was asked by the chair of my department at the University of Virginia to propose a new undergraduate course, I was eager to try teaching “Amerika” in a semester-long format and in a way that would be accessible and interesting to non-Russian majors as well as to students with a specific interest in Russia.

I ultimately taught the course at UVA for 5 years, and it grew from a seminar-sized (and -styled) 12 students the first year to a class that had to be capped at 60, with a waiting list and a teaching assistant.  There were new challenges for me in adapting the class from a more discussion-based seminar format to a lecture course. Most of them grew out of feeling weird not knowing all of my students as well as I would like and not being able to hear them engage in active discussion of the material.  I tried to compensate for the distance by memorizing names, responding personally to beginning-of-the-semester questionnaires, and reading all of their response papers and final papers, and visiting discussion sections. On the up-side, I enjoyed working with and mentoring the graduate students who were assigned to the course.  One of the things I discovered is that, at least the way I did it, even with the support of a TA, staying on top of the logistics of large courses requires just as much, if not more, time than teaching a course of my own.

What I loved, and still love, about this course and this topic:

  • It asks students to try to see themselves and American life and culture as outsiders looking in, and I can’t help thinking that if we all did that a little more often, we could avoid geo-political messes like some of the ones we’re in now.  The context of “Amerika” is Russia-specific, but I lost count of how many students in the class who were from other countries (Pakistan, China, France, Nigeria) would come up and confide to me that Russian stereotypes of Americans were very similar to stereotypes of Americans in their home countries.
  • It’s enormously entertaining. Some of the texts we read and films we viewed are so heavy-handed that they’re hilarious, and some of Russia’s best satirists have written perceptively and with great wit about Americans and American life.  Then there are the jokes and the pop songs and the propaganda posters.
  • It provoked students into sustained engagement with the topic from the perspective of their own interests.  A nursing student researched the adoption of American-style health care practices in Russia, a hockey player investigated the Russian perspective on the “Miracle on Ice” Olympic match, a political science student delved into the Soviet spin and opinion on the “Carribean Crisis” (what we Americans call the Cuban Missile Crisis), a pre-med student looked at the prevalence of American cigarette brands (and their advertising) and whether or not it could be linked to an increase in smoking-related deaths, a devoted chess enthusiast explored the Fischer-Spassky rivalry as proxy war. Bonus for me: every paper was different, and I learned so much from them.
  • It’s also a stealthy way to introduce non-Russian majors to some of the major writers in the Russian 20th-century canon, albeit in most cases not to those writers’ most canonical works.

Here’s the language from my syllabus, laying out the objectives for the course:

Welcome to Amerika! From revolution to Cold War to perestroika to post-communism, American visions of Russia have changed. Russian representations of America have been changing, too. This course explores how ideas of America are refracted through another culture’s lens (in literature, film, music and other forms of popular culture) and grounds them within the dynamic context of Russian cultural, social, and political life during the past century.

As a student in “Amerika Through Russian Eyes” you will:

  • Develop your awareness of, and critical approaches to, cross-cultural norms, practices and stereotypes by closely considering Russian responses to America and Americans.
  • Discover and articulate this critical awareness through the learning processes of reading, discussion, and writing.
  • Enrich your understanding of Russian and Soviet literature and culture.
  • Sharpen your skills in the analysis of texts by major Russian and Soviet writers.
  • Contextualize themes and questions raised by this course within the framework of Russian and Soviet history.

In part 2 , I’ll provide an overview of the texts and films and other sources on the syllabus and discuss  a few of the challenges in implementation.