Interim in Russia: Integrating Russian into a Literature Course Taught in English

Irina Walter, St. Olaf College

St. Olaf's Interim in Russia "The Capitals in Russian Literature" is a regular literature course taught in English. It combines the academic study of pertinent literary texts with field trips that illustrate and broaden the interpretation of the literary works. The students participating in the course, usually 11-15 students, do not need to know Russian to be eligible for the course.

However, the character of the course changes noticeably with the participation of upper class Russian language students (4-5 students). This group of students is eager to be engaged in advanced language activities, as indeed they should be. The pedagogical problem thus is how to create a course that is a coherent whole even though it comprises two distinct groups. Moreover, how does one create a course enriched by the energies of these two distinctly different groups while allowing ample opportunity for reciprocal learning and integration?

In the Interim I taught all the students had to read and discuss the same texts, but the "Russian" group had to do extra work in Russian. To receive credit not only for the course as such, but additionally, to be accredited in the FLAC (Foreign Language Across the Curriculum) program, the students in this group needed to spend between 2 and 3 hours of extra academic work per week, as prescribed by the college regulations.

The instructor's dilemma then is that of incorporating the "Russian" group work into the course and seeing to it that the insights such an addition brings into the course benefit all the participants.

Various methods can be employed to this end. Here are some of the possibilities: The "Russian" group reads a certain number of the literary texts in the original; most of these texts are different from the ones assigned to the entire group. They then come before the entire group with an analysis of their readings. The expectation is that the texts they read in Russian will illuminate the issues discussed in the texts read in English by the entire group. Another possibility is to have both groups read the same text in English and in Russian (for example Lermontov's Borodino) and to discuss the nuances of the original text not reflected in the translation due to the fact that, say, a word in the original comes from a different semantic field than the word it is translated into. (One example would be a colloquial familial use of the word "dyadya" in Russian that loses its colloquial familial character when translated as "uncle" in English.)

However, when teaching a course abroad, it is incumbent upon an instructor to expose the students to the maximum possible opportunities to interact with the target culture as it presents itself "right there and then."

Could the notion of "text" be broadened to include such unconventional representatives as museum documents, cemetery monuments and plaques, metro frescos by known artists, analysis of graffiti on the walls by the staircase of Bulgakov's apartment in Moscow, family stories gathered through interviews with Leningrad siege survivors, etc.? Given their unique nature, these "texts" need very specific instructions for the students to analyze them as academic texts, albeit unusual ones. Work of this type requires vigilance on the part of the instructor so that the assignments do not deteriorate into mere chatting in the target language and/or translation, but adhere to standards of legitimate academic inquiry.

In this context ongoing assessment of the learning process is of great importance. The instructor needs to get immediate information on whether the assignments were properly formulated and clearly directed toward student learning. The objective of such assessments is to clarify both to the students and to the instructor whether the proper process of teaching and learning, of student engagement, of meeting the goals of the assignment, is taking place. (An altogether different assessment, one geared more to outcome, is given after the students return to campus. This assessment allows for a broader view of the success and shortcomings of the course.)

My presentation will focus on addressing issues of "text" selection and on designing assignments for treatment of such "texts." Samples of assessments and student work will be presented and discussed.