Post-Short Russian Fiction 2021

I finished grading the short Russian fiction class last week, and, having used a little new material and more new methods, wanted to write a few things down before I forget them.

First, one surprise was the Lyudmila Ulitskaya story “Happy” (Nadya L. Peterson, tr.), which was surprisingly easy to teach, probably because it is so packed full of life experience and history. It also paired well with Bunin’s “Light Breathing” and allowed me to talk more about frames and the way fabula and siuzhet can make a story more interesting. A double surprise was that some students read right through aspects of the story, even after I thought we had spent enough time doing the slow reading method that we began with. This meant that some of them didn’t even notice that the couple was Jewish. I guess this is what class discussion is for, as other students certainly did notice and had plenty to say about the Holocaust as a sort of backdrop to the story.

Another surprise for me was Konstantin Ryabov’s story “Spit” (in Victoria Mesopir’s translation) which I have taught before but this time found unsatisfying, even if it is well crafted. It seems a bit gratuitous and lacks any moment of rising above. But some of the students defended it, and one or two said they found it the most interesting story we read all semester. Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, only that it wasn’t satisfying. I am glad I included it.

I only taught one story each from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “Notes from Underground,” respectively, and the latter was the longest and the last thing we read. NfU still works fine, but I find it harder and harder to teach because of the general nastiness of the second part, which makes me feel more and more like I need to bathe. The translation exercise that I have used several times (where I give them several versions of the first paragraph and have them craft something of their own) did not work as well this semester, and I’m not sure exactly why. Possibly I didn’t sequence enough of the reading of NfU before asking the students to do that first paragraph paraphrase.

The film adaptation exercise, on the other hand, worked very well. The most popular choice was Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (one anime version was especially good), followed by Gogol’s “Nose,” Isaak Babel’s “My First Goose,” and Natalya Klyuchareva’s “One Year in Paradise” (in Mariya Gusev’s translation).

The tendency of many of the students to skip details and just read right through things that they didn’t understand was common, even though we spent time at the beginning of class reading very slowly. I hoped to make it if not a habit then at least a pattern for following in this class. Some students got it, or maybe already had it before they arrived, and some only did it for the slow reading parts. As soon as I assigned a whole story, even if it wasn’t long, many went back to a cursory and superficial reading method, so to really bring this home, probably the only thing to do would be to reduce the number of pages even more than I already have, something I will think about for the next installment of the course.

There was some plagiarism, even on the short reflection exercises that were due after each class. When TurnItIn flagged something, I would have a look and, when it was clear, give the students a zero, remind them that there was no need to look anywhere else but inside for a reflection piece, and give them the opportunity to do it again. A few people kept their zeros, and a few gave it another try with predictably better results.

The stories and authors students responded to were all over the place. Some loved Pushkin, others Gogol, others Chekhov, while some preferred Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and some, as mentioned above, took to the more contemporary authors like Ulitskaya and Ryabov.

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