Friday, January 15, 2010

Second Draft

Sotheby's pre-auction display at Moscow's Historical Museum

All teachers have their strengths and weaknesses. My strengths in the classroom are, or rather were, related to textual analysis, classroom discussion, and the Socratic Method, if interrogation deserves such a serious label. My main weakness—and this will sound like a very serious deficit—was in the area of lecturing. When it came right down to it, I didn’t feel that I had a lot to say. No doubt, I felt that discussion-based lesson plans were superior to other format insofar as they forced students to take ownership of the learning process. Even so, my avoidance of formal lecturers was somewhat self-serving: I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to say something new and meaningful about my subjects. Everything had been said before, and said better, by other people.

The inspiration for this blog--like genius is it? -- has many authors. People ask me what I want from this blog. I’m not sure. It’s a diary, an autobiography, a series of book reports, notes for a novel, my own social media, an attempt to reclaim lost learning, an exploration of my own political feelings, a resource for graduate students who intend to their preliminary examinations, and an ode to my mother and grandfather. But it’s also a syllabus for a course I would one day like to teach, a course in which I fully intend to place the lecture format front and center, notwithstanding the rhetoric of disparagement toward the lecture format in higher education.

At first, I thought this blog meant that I needed to teach a course in the Russian Revolution and its legacy, or at least Communism in general. Lately, I am tempted to see this blog as the attempt to create a more critical, unified, thematic approach to Western Civilization in general. At any rate, expect to see more than one attempt to draft a syllabus. This post is a second in what I hope will become a long series of posts on what this kind of course might look like.

But back to the course that focuses more clearly on the Russian Revolution. At this point, the course will center on the following topics: why did the Revolution matter to people? Why does it continue to matter in the 21st century? What 19th century traditions made the Revolution, as it manifested itself, a possibility? What happened in the Revolution? What was the lived experience of everyday people like in the Revolution? What did the Old Regime look like, and what aspects of that regime survived the Revolution? What were the arguments people used to defend as well as attack the Revolution? What was the relationship, respectively, between gender, religion, and violence and Revolution? How did the Revolution impact Russian aesthetic traditions in literature, poetry, theatre, film, and music? What political structure emerged from the Revolution, and how did that structure evolve? How did the Revolution affect high as well as low culture? How did the Revolution change life for the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat? How did the Russian Communist Party function? How did Communism collapse in Russia?

What am I forgetting?


  1. I wonder if Russian/Soviet history, and more particularly the 1917 Revolution(s), will come to supplant the French Revolution as the preeminent modern historiographical issue. Or at least, I wonder if that's one of your underlying themes here.

    As a unifying issue, the 1917 Revolution is actually more appropriate for a course in world history because it spans West and East. Don't forget that Stalin was from Georgia.

    I seem to recall that one of the perennial historiographical questions about Russia concerned its European-ness; i.e, whether it has been more "Western" or "Eastern" in outlook. I'm curious to know whether you think that question is still relevant (I suspect it is) and whether the Soviet Union transcended traditional geographical fault lines. How different was the Soviet experience on either side of the Urals?

  2. Interesting. Well, I think that the Soviet Revolution can't quite supplant the French Revolution in that it really just extends the impact of 1789. And I also think that the Chinese Revolution (and decolonization in general) could tend over time to take our attention away from 1917. But again, the Chinese Revolution is ultimately an extension of 1789 and 1917.

    As for the Eastern/Western debate, it seems to be alive and well. I thought it would seem increasingly cliche but it's probably more important than ever. Russia has to decide whether it's part of NATO or NATO's enemy, and that's just the most concrete expression of larger debates about what kind of society and politics is best for Russia.