Russian Literature for Developing Writing Skills and Critical Thinking: A Case Study

I had multiple goals for a recent class on Twentieth-Century Russian Literature: I wanted to train the students to pay attention to textual details and use these in their conclusions about texts; I wanted them to be aware of historical events occurring outside literature which affected its development and tone; I wanted them to write more clearly; and I wanted to hear the voice of each student and encourage them all to have more confidence in their opinions.

Various writing tasks, some in class and others outside of class, were useful in working towards these goals. Students had to turn in at least one “journal” entry for each work read, to which I responded. Students completed frequent in-class writing assignments which I intended as foundation for small-group discussion followed by large-group discussion. (Some of the in-class writing assignments employed techniques developed by the Bard College writing program, currently adapted for use in Principia College’s Freshman Writing Seminar.) At certain times all students were each asked to share favorite or significant passages, and then asked to explain their reasoning.

Further, I asked the students to think about one general question throughout the term: What is a hero? This question was expanded in several ways in the different assignments so that the students could think of themselves as trying throughout the term to improve their answer to the question “What is a hero in the Russian or Russian Soviet situation, and why did it develop this way?” Out-of-class writing assignments included comparative and summative essays on this theme as well as individual projects.

There are obvious limitations on a broadly comparative approach in teaching literature, using one central question to focus students’ attention. In some ways, unusual aspects of texts were overlooked and possibly fascinating discussions were derailed in order to keep to the main agenda. However, given the evident success at reaching some of the goals outlined above, as illustrated by extensive evaluation forms filled out by the students at the end of the course, I would like to share the methods used in the course as a worthwhile experiment.

I will share some of the positive and negative feedback which I received from students, and then discuss the problems and successes of the various methods. This will include some interpretation by me of the evaluation forms themselves, based on the character of individual students, and I will consider the implications for treating different levels of students in such a class. I have drawn some conclusions about what would need to be changed in a similar future course, and thus will model a process of assessment and replanning.

Finally, I will evaluate the problems and successes first from a Slavic scholarly standpoint, which must advocate a certain accurate view of the texts and insist on a certain foundational knowledge in order to increase students’ awareness of the complexity of literature and critical sophistication. Then, I will evaluate the course from the standpoint of a broader curriculum, which insists increasingly on the development of writing and critical thinking skills as more pressure is put on the liberal arts curriculum in general.

Handouts will include a syllabus and summary of assignments, as well as a list of some evaluation questions used on the end-of-term form.