"The Culturally Literate Classroom"

Rebecca Mateveyev, Lawrence University

Even in the face of recent social developments, including the incursion of Western rock-videos, American advertisements, and the like, Russian culture relies upon a common, shared store of knowledge about literature, art, and music. One has only to think of the myriad of literary quotations and aphorisms that Russians frequently use even in daily conversation: a phenomenon which has no equivalent in the United States.

As Claire Kramsch argues in Context and Culture in Language Teaching, true communication between native and non-native speakers relies upon a combination of linguistic and culturally based knowledge. One way to impress that point upon our students is to incorporate material from "high culture" into the presentation of basic grammatical and linguistic information. The goals of this presentation are as follows: to demonstrate various examples of Russian language materials that include references to high culture; to provide specific suggestions for incorporating those materials into grammatical and linguistic activities; and to suggest that the incorporation of cultural materials might play a role in course construction, perhaps in conjunction with, rather than in place of, more traditional formats such as grammar-based, thematic, or notional-functional syllabi. A handout with copies of materials, suggestions of linguistic and cultural topics that could be linked to them, and examples of exercises will be provided at this presentation.

Cultural information and meaningful grammatical practice can be linked through the use of well-known Russian paintings; this also has the added benefit of providing visual input. For example, Pukir'ev's painting "Neravnyj brak" can be used to review comparative constructions -- given the obvious difference in age and presumable difference in social status between the bride and groom -- and also to review the troublesome group of "marrying" verbs. Subsequently, that picture (and in general, the topic of "brak po raschetu" vs. "brak po ljubvi") can be incorporated into a unit on marriage and family relationships. Such a unit may include discussions of a brief literary text as well as exercises based on a videoprogram or film clip. Another painting which is topically relevant to such a unit is Fedotov's "Svatovstvo majora." This picture can also be used to drill the verbs of placement and position (for example: "Gde ljustra?" "Chto stoit na stole?"). Repin's painting "Ivan Groznyj i syn ego Ivan" can also provide practice on that group of verbs (for example: "Chto delaet Ivan Groznyj?" "Chto delaet ego syn?" "On sam l'eg k otsu na koleni?" "On uzhe davno lezhit?"). Students could have the opportunity to see that painting again in a different context while watching the film "Ivan Vasil'evich meniaet professiiu." Furthermore, that movie contains numerous references not only to Russian history but also to other aspects of Russian culture (both "high" and "low"). Students may well experience a sense of accomplishment from recognizing an increasing number of those references and also from understanding the humor contained in the juxtaposition of "high" and "low" culture.

Another way of making our language students aware of the continuing importance of high culture in everyday Russia is to use, as linguistic input, advertising slogans and magazine article titles that allude to classical literary works and cultural issues. For example, a magazine ad for Euro-style window dressings, emblazoned with the phrase "Okno v Evropu" can lead to a discussion of the contrasting lifestyles of New Russians and the rest of the population, as well as to a discussion of the recent advertising explosion in post-Soviet Russia. But this ad can only be fully appreciated if students understand the historical reference and cultural resonance implicit within the phrase "window to Europe." Students may gain such insight after reading the beginning of Pushkin's "Mednyi vsadnik"and brief excerpts of other literary texts concerning the Petersburg myth, and after also seeing examples of Petersburg's architecture and layout.

Through such materials and activities, students should gain a better understanding of Russian high culture. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized to students that they will not have learned all about Russian culture simply by becoming familiar with some paintings and catch phrases. It is to be hoped, however, that students will become more appreciative of Russian high culture and that those students who go to Russia will be sensitive to the presence of those elements amidst the deluge of advertisements and rock videos.