Amerika -- The Course (Part 2)

Amerika — The Course (Part 2)

In part 1, I tried to summarize the origins and objectives of my course on “Amerika Through Russian Eyes.” In this continuation, I’m including a list of the core texts and films that I assigned, and I also discuss in general terms the evolution of assignments over time and the reasons why I tweaked them.  To see how it all fits together, take a look at the entire syllabus here.

The texts and films I assigned included:

Maxim Gorky‘s “City of the Yellow Devil”

Osip Mandel’shtam‘s poems, “The American Girl” and “American Bar”

Aleksandr Blok‘s “A New America”

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “The Bathhouse

Excerpts from Marietta Shaginian‘s Mess-Mend

Vladimir Mayakovsky‘s essay, “My Discovery of America” and selected poems

Samuil Marshak‘s “Mr. Twister

Mikhail Ilin, “Moscow Has a Plan”

Il’ia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov‘s Little Golden America (aka One-Storied America)

Grigorii Aleksandrov‘s Circus

Varlam Shalamov, “Lend-Lease” and “Condensed Milk”

Konstantin Simonov‘s The Russian Question

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pnin

Viktor Nekrasov‘s Both Sides of the Ocean

Valentin Katayev‘s The Holy Well

Mikhail Tumanishvili’s Incident at Map Grid 36-80

Yevgeny Yevtushenko‘s Divided Twins and selected poems

Joseph Brodsky‘s “The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn”

Eduard Limonov‘s It’s Me, Eddie

Vasilii Aksyonov‘s In Search of Melancholy Baby

Viktor Pelevin‘s The Life of Insects

Aleksandr GenisUSA from A to Y

Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker’s  Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States

The first time I taught this course, it had 12 people in it, which gave it a seminar-like atmosphere, with lots of discussion and a real rapport that developed between the students and between the students and me.  At this early stage in the course’s evolution, the only major assignment was the research project – a scaffolded assignment begun halfway through the semester that moved from topic selection through outline, draft, peer review, and final draft.  Because I have an interdisciplinary background in Slavic and East European Studies, and because I really wanted each student to find her or his own way into the question of how Russians look(ed) at America(ns), I asked them to choose their own topics.

This assignment was always the centerpiece of the course, and it was, for me, the most gratifying.  I watched students’ ideas take shape over time, observed as they became masters of their topics, engaged in meaningful and ongoing conversations with them about their work, and I learned so much from them that I might never have discovered on my own (e.g., how American advertising practices were used to sell cigarettes in Russia, how American medical techniques were adopted by Russian health professionals, how the Soviets really viewed the “Carribean Crisis” – the Cuban Missile Crisis to us, how hip-hop was adopted and transformed by Russian rap artists, and much much more). The final draft also met UVA’s “second writing requirement,” and this drew a wonderfully diverse array of students from many disciplines, and more than a few of them ended up using their final papers as writing samples for graduate school and employment applications.

In addition to the research project, students wrote informal “response papers” for three of the readings or films. The responses were submitted by midnight on the day before class, and I read them and incorporated them into my lesson plan, asking students with good insights and perspectives on the day’s topic to share them with the rest of the class (no deer-in-the-headlights moments when I asked them a question, because they’d already prepared and we all got to hear other voices besides mine!).  I think that because the class felt more like a seminar, students felt more accountable to each other and to me, so they tended to be well-prepared for discussion, even if they didn’t have a response paper due. There was also time and opportunity to identify areas that we needed to talk about in further depth.

The following year the class was significantly bigger, and I began to notice that students were less prepared if they weren’t required to submit a response paper on that day’s reading or film.  To counter that tendency I created online quizzes that students who did not have a response paper due had to complete before class.  They were very straightforward, multiple choice, and automatically graded by the course management system (Sakai, called “Collab” at UVA).  The quizzes also went off-line the minute class started. If a student had done the reading, they would take about 5 minutes or less to complete, and I was up front about the fact that the quizzes existed for the sole purpose of getting everyone to do the reading before class, so that everyone could participate in discussion. Students didn’t complain, I think, because I explained why I wanted them to do the quizzes, and because it was a pretty easy way to earn a percentage of their course grade.

I also noticed that, because the final project asked students to go in-depth on a topic of their choice, they were losing sight of broader themes that wove the course readings and films together – themes that could also help them ground their project topics in the broader historical and social context of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. So I created a new assignment, the “thematic analysis.”  Students submitted their top three choices out of five possible themes: American technology and industry, the American character (behavior, personality, cultural assumptions), American popular culture (music, film, media, entertainment, games, leisure), American economic (capitalism)/political (democracy) systems, American “others” (African Americans, Native Americans and other racial or ethnic minorities, including emigres from other countries).  I then assigned them to groups (numbering 4-5 people), and they began contributing short postings to the course’s online discussion threads on their assigned theme for each reading or film.  At the end of the semester, each group worked together to produce an essay that gave an overview of the development of their theme over the course of time.

Reading student groups’ thematic analysis essays led to my developing one final assignment, the “current event analysis.” Because some Russian stereotypes of Americans really didn’t change all that much over time (alas!), I thought that it would be interesting for students to explore whether contemporary Russian media still reflected those stereotypes. The current event analysis asked students to find a news item about America in the Russian media and then find coverage of the same event in an American news source. The bulk of the short written assignment was to be devoted to a discussion of why the news item would have received coverage in Russia and whether or not the Russian media coverage corresponded to students’ expectations of how the news item would be covered, based on their experience with the course readings and assignments.

Students did a lot of work in my class, but I provided objectives for each assignment, and most of them involved discrete and do-able tasks that helped writing to build up and strengthen over time.  Sometimes it was a logistical challenge for them and for me to keep all the balls in the air, but the results – sustained, engaged, critical reflection on what America means to the rest of the world and some really polished writing – made it all worth it.