By Charles F. Lauter
Lawrence Today magazine, Spring 2002
In the spring of 2001, I traveled to Kurgan, a city 2,250 kilometers east of Moscow, to teach Freshman Studies to 33 fourth-year English majors at Kurgan State University, an opportunity that fulfilled both a dream and a personal commitment.
Kurgan is Appleton's counterpart in a "sister city" program in which I have been involved since its inception in 1984, serving as president for 12 years. Lawrence, too, has been a major participant, having established exchanges of students, graduates, and teachers in 1990-91. Since then, over 60 individuals from the two institutions have been involved in the exchange program.
Natalya Nicholaevna Bochegova, chair of the English department at Kurgan State University, was a guest lecturer at Lawrence in the spring of 1999. She gave several lectures in a literary criticism class taught by Tim Spurgin, associate professor of English. Tim was at that time director of Freshman Studies, so it is not surprising that his enthusiasm for the course was transmitted to Natalya.
With Tim's help, she returned to Kurgan with copies of all the Freshman Studies texts for that year, as well as copies of the faculty lectures on each one. She shared these with her colleagues, who developed an equal excitement for Freshman Studies. In the fall of 1999, when it was determined I would be the first person from Lawrence to participate in the faculty exchange, I consulted Natalya, and she requested that I teach Freshman Studies. Since it is one of my favorite courses, too, I quickly agreed.
Russian students begin studying English at the age of eight or nine. By the time they enter the university, they have had about seven years of the language. This meant I could be confident that the level of English-language competence of my students would be high, and it was.
In the university, as in most European systems, students focus intensively on one subject. Because of this singular emphasis, they have very little opportunity for interdisciplinary study. Freshman Studies would be new and challenging for them.
Determining which works would work
I began the task of choosing the works. I wanted a variety of themes, periods, and genres. I was to teach for eight to nine weeks and thought four works would be about right. Using the Freshman Studies master list of texts, I began sorting.
Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac proposes a powerful environmental ethic, and although it's not currently taught in Freshman Studies, it seemed appropriate for Russia today.
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, presents a place and a culture that would be new to those students.
Wanting a work by a woman author, I chose Woolf (A Room of One's Own) over Austen.
Finally, I needed a work of educational philosophy, since the exchange is meant to examine similarities and differences between our universities and educational systems. Wanting a work that was short and easily accessible with which to begin the course, I chose Lawrence President Richard Warch's matriculation convocation address from 1979, his first as president, titled "Unamuno Begs to Differ."
Although I had never taught three of these works, I had the opportunity during Winter Term 2001 to hear the Freshman Studies lectures of Lifongo Vetinde, assistant professor of French, on Achebe and Wendy Nicholson, assistant professor of history, on Woolf.
Rearranging the desk chairs
I arrived in Kurgan on March 30, when Siberia was still in the grasp of winter. I began teaching the following Monday, with four sections of eight to nine students each.
Before each section met, I arrived at the classroom early, moving the desks out of their traditional lecture-style rows and putting them in a circle for discussion. This produced raised eyebrows when the students entered; they knew something different was about to happen.
I had been worried that the Russian students might be unwilling to discuss, because they are more used to the lecture format, but I needn't have been concerned. Right from the start they were active participants. Initially they seemed to be reciting for me as the teacher, but they quickly learned to engage one another in discussion.
The class was different for the students in yet another way, albeit a happy one. Given the current state of the Russian economy, funding for educational materials is limited; in most courses students must share just a few texts or photocopied pages. For this course, President Warch, as a gesture of good will and in recognition of the importance of the exchange, had purchased, from his discretionary fund, a set of the books for each student (and thus had a certain amount of financial equity invested in the success of the course).
Concerned about the risks of shipping the books, I took them with me, transporting 72 kilograms of luggage (and thus had plenty of sweat equity invested in the course, as well as a fair amount in overweight charges).
I'm sure one of the reasons the students worked so hard was that they felt privileged that each had a personal copy of each text. Of course, on the first day I had to present both the good news and the bad news; while each received a set of the books, they had to return them at the end of the course so they could be used in other classes and in future offerings of Freshman Studies.
How the works worked
"Unamuno Begs to Differ" immediately engaged their interest. A large reproduction of the Lawrence University seal hangs in the English department seminar room at KSU. When President Warch quotes from Tragic Sense of Life, by the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, the words echo the Lawrence motto:
Light, light, more light! they tell us the dying Goethe cried. No, warmth, warmth, more warmth! for we die of cold and not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost.
In this work, the evocation and exposition of the need to use education (light) in the service of society or other people (warmth) was especially meaningful to students who usually view education as a way to obtain a better job. In fact, they began to consider the possibility that education obliged them to serve other people, a radical notion in the present Russian context.
Having explored that idea, we then confronted the environmental ethic of Sand County Almanac. Here we learned that education and good citizenship obligate one to the environment, to the land, to the earth itself -- a truly remarkable concept, given Russia's grave environmental problems. One student became so excited that she insisted the book should be required reading for all Russian schoolchildren. Alas, it does not seem to be available in Russian, and even these outstanding students of the English language had some difficulty with it because of its length and special vocabulary. That student did bring me a Russian author's version of the almanac, a set of monthly observations of the natural world, without the environmental ethic.
Things Fall Apart was their favorite text. They were enthralled by the description of tribal life in Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century, but saddened and even outraged at the treatment of the native people by the missionaries and the government forces. They felt deeply the tragic story Achebe tells, and they developed insightful analyses of the motivations of the characters and argued eloquently for their points of view.
Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own was the most difficult for them, perhaps because of the genre. Viewing the video presentation, in which the text is delivered as a lecture by actress Eileen Adkins, improved their understanding. Then, in each section we doggedly worked through the structure of the argument until all achieved a better understanding. For some, it constituted an introduction to feminist consciousness.
How the students worked
Many of the themes in this course were new to these students, but the most exciting development for me was the degree to which they learned to generate ideas from their own analyses of the text. In discussions and written evaluations at the end of the course, students commented that they were pleased at the opportunity to learn this skill and proud of their progress.
They also made great strides in the expression of their thoughts, both written and oral. They wrote short papers on "Unamuno Begs to Differ" and Things Fall Apart, showing marked improvement from the first to the second essay. Their first efforts were written in correct English, but the style was almost stream-of-consciousness. We devoted parts of several classes to the process of idea development using a strong paragraph structure, and the results were gratifying.
Overall, I have never taught groups of students who worked harder than these did. My Russian students worked with a diligence and zeal that was truly impressive. Whether it was preparing and delivering debates on environmental ethics, or arguing about close reading assignments (such as Okonkwo's family tree or the Ibo annual calendar), or discussing their points in paper conferences, they were consistently prepared and unflaggingly energetic. We always ran out of time at the end of the hour!
The students responded very positively to their new experience in every way. Would I return to Kurgan to teach Freshman Studies to such students again? You bet! I was captivated by the experience of working with these engaging young people, who so quickly developed a fondness for and a commitment to Freshman Studies.
Chuck Lauter retired in 2000 after serving Lawrence for 31 years in a variety of capacities, including dean of students and, most recently, dean of off-campus programs and international student advisor.