Teaching and the Canon: Reading Patterns for Twentieth-Century Russian Literature

Donald Loewen, State University of New York, Binghamton

What are the real classics of twentieth-century Russian literature, and how did they attain that lofty status? Is there even broad agreement about the works that we consider to be central to Russian literature today? And has there been significant change in the popularity of works in the past twenty-five years?

These are intriguing questions, but how does one answer them? Various methods could be used, but the one that I have chosen is to determine how frequently various works are used to introduce college students to Russian literature of the twentieth century. To accomplish that, I set up a survey form and distributed it to approximately 208 post-secondary institutions in Canada and the United States. Institutions were asked to indicate which works of Russian literature were included on reading lists for courses that introduced students to twentieth-century Russian literature in three different years, with a sample interval of ten years (1982, 1992, 2002). Of the eighty-seven institutions that responded, thirty-one included information about reading lists for 1982; forty-eight included information for 1992; and seventy included information for 2002. (These results are current to April 12, 2004.) In addition, respondents were asked to indicate factors which influenced their choices for readings; to indicate which works they would like to include, but cannot; and to evaluate why their choices have changed over time.

The focus of my paper will be to provide an analysis of the data that have been received, including the following areas:

a) Which are the works that have remained most consistently popular in usage throughout the period from 1982 to 2002?
b) Which works have fallen off the lists in recent years?
c) What are the usage patterns for works by female authors and male authors in the sample period?
d) How has recently published literature in Russia made its way into North American college courses?
e) How broadly is poetry taught in the undergraduate curriculum?
f) What are the most common factors that influence an instructor's choice of readings for these courses?

Knowing which texts have been consistently used, which texts appear now in greater or lesser frequency, and which texts have recently begun to appear on our reading lists may help to provide a better understanding of what (in North America, at least) might be considered the twentieth-century Russian literary canon – if, indeed, there is sufficient consensus to even think in those terms.