Teaching Russian Culture through Artifacts

A couple of months ago, I decided to make my Russian culture survey into an artifact driven class. Rather than lead with the history and then place the culture on top of it, as I used to do it, using the cultural component almost like examples, I would lead with the cultural artifacts, and then use them to delve into the context, including the history. The previous method tends to have a lot more reading up front, and it has come to seem less and less effective with students over time, hence my decision to try something different, which has turned out to be a lot of work, even if the principle is simple.

Basically it entails going back through all the material I used to include in the course and selecting a much smaller number of artifacts to use as anchors, because when you’re using the other method, you can throw in lots of examples, which you don’t necessarily have to develop very much, since they are just examples of the historical phenomena you introduced as guiding principles. For example: “Here is the period of Elizabeth in the mid-18th century, when the characteristic mode of architecture was something called Elizabethan baroque.” For this you then might turn to some Rastrelli palaces. Doing it the other way means you probably have to select just one palace and then spin things out from it, asking questions about why it looks like that, where it is located, who might have designed such a thing, and trying to get the students engaged in generating the questions about the artifacts to drive questions about the context.

What I am finding is that I can basically use my old notes but look at the end of each class to see what the examples were and find one or two that I want to focus on and that brings out the characteristics that are developed in the notes. It is a little bit like flipping the class. So, challenging and time-consuming. But it is also helping me to re-examine all sorts of questions associated with what I want the students to retain, which is always at the core of teaching a class. For instance, one of the founding stories of the U.S. is about independence from a willful and sometimes violent sovereign. One of the Russian ones is about calling in a strong man (a Viking!) to provide order. Who in the world would do this, and why would it become a founding myth of the territory? We read the story in The Primary Chronicle, then a couple of historical takes on it, and work out some of the issues associated with power, storytelling, historiography, and more.

This particular class is maxed out at 60 students, and counts for a general education requirement, so many of the students will be from outside the College of Arts and Sciences and will have professional orientations (at Iowa I used to get a lot of nursing students for the course, at Indiana I tend to get a lot of business students), which also means they typically don’t have much background in the subject area. Where to start becomes key, and leading with names, dates, and events is, I believe, likely to turn off many, but if you lead with a building (St. Basil’s Cathedral), a monument (Falconet’s Equestrian Statue of Peter I), a painting (Goncharova’s Cyclist), or a piece of music (Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8), you might just hold their attention for a bit. The class will also have a graduate teaching assistant, and this time the student is at an advanced stage of her graduate education, so we have agreed that she will take responsibility for some parts of the course.

Ever since I took second-year Japanese in the summer at the University of Iowa in I don’t remember what year, I have wanted to try out a tag team approach like the one that I witnessed there, with one instructor taking responsibility for 20 minutes of the class at a time. It gave the class a kind of energy and momentum that is often hard to maintain when you’re the only person up front. So rather than breaking it up by section or by an entire day’s worth of material for one person, which I’ve done in the past with other grad student instructors, and which makes the most sense if the class were organized by historical chunks, this tag-team method is what we’re going to try, with me taking part of a class, and then her taking a different part, and then me coming back and taking the last part. The artifact organization makes this more feasible. This, too, takes additional organization, sharing of slides and notes, and coordinating time. I don’t think it could have been done in the past with nearly the smoothness that the technology affords now, but the tech makes it relatively easy. I’m also thinking that, should we need to make a shift to online, the format will hold up pretty well.

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