Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Major Clears its First Hurdle

Our effort to preserve and expand language and literature offerings at Oxy was dealt a major victory yesterday when the Academic Planning Committee approved our proposal for a new major: Literature, Language and Culture. Two more steps await: the chairs of all departments have to sign off on it, and then the faculty at large vote on it.

I have a feeling both of those steps are pretty perfunctory, so hopefully our new major will be in place in Fall 2015.

What we're doing is redefining how the lesser-studied languages are taught at a small college. The normal model is to do what major universities do, only less of it: introductory and intermediate language study and a couple of literature/culture courses. In Oxy's case, we've been able to offer minors in Russian and German, and offer a group language major--which is essentially combining two minors and adding some final work on in senior year. The new approach is to focus on reading texts in the original language to underscore the role of language itself in culture. So the first two years of language study will be focused on getting the students' reading ability as advanced as possible, and then incorporating reading of original texts in literature and culture courses. We also plan to add some courses on theory: I plan to teach a course on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, for example.

This language-intensive feature is something we were afraid would hold up the entire proposal or even derail it. We propose to add special "language intensive" sections to our literature and culture courses for majors. So two days a week the class would meet for ninety minutes and examine texts in English, and on the third day the majors would meet to examine texts in the original language. For that, they would receive five units of credit instead of the usual four. This could still be a sticking point, because it would require us to take teaching overloads one semester a year, and that's something the college is trying to avoid. So I submitted a plan where I would only do the overload for two years, and if the program brought in more students we would request an adjunct to teach the language intensive sections along with second-year Russian as a prelude to doing a tenure-track search for a Russian linguist who would teach all the language courses, freeing me up to teach all the culture courses and some theory.

None of this helps me personally. I can't be promoted any further unless I was willing to move into administration, and you couldn't print enough money between now and the end of time to get me to do that. What it does do is allow the possibility of expanding Oxy's Russian program to two tenure-track faculty, and I can return to my beloved Arizona in peace, knowing that I completely saved the program Gilman Alkire created back in the '60s and which was nearly dead when I took over in 1999.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sometimes the Russian News Can Teach Something

I was able to download an app so that I can get Russian TV through by Blue Ray system, and so I've been watching "Vesti" every evening for the last couple of weeks. I really just did it to improve my listening comprehension--not having visited Russia for almost a decade has definitely affected it--and initially found it amusing to listen to all the propaganda, but more recently I've begun to see how it points out the depth of propaganda in the American media.

Yesterday's broadcast was about Ukraine's bombardment of Donetsk using tactical missile launchers. The strikes were devastating. I saw interviews with ordinary residents who have to sleep in the floor in corridors, the safest spot in their little apartments. I don't know whether they support the rebels or the Ukrainian government--my guess is the rebels, at least after these attacks--but they're the same sort of poverty-stricken victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent endemic corruption as the people I know in Moscow. Their homes are crumbling, their yards are war zones, and God knows how many have been killed in what it obviously a civil war in eastern Ukraine

So this morning I opened up Google news to see what I could see. And I saw nothing. So I checked the “world” option, and the first story on Ukraine was about the negotiations between the EU, Russia and Ukraine. Next on the list in big print, “Amnesty deplores abuses on both sides.” However, the little links under the first story said “Ukraine used cluster bombs, evidence indicates.” The story was from the New York Times, so I went to that site to see where the story was. And of course, it wasn’t on the front page. No, the top stories were about Japanese air bags and some athlete named Oscar Pistorius, whose name I see all the time in news feeds but don’t have valuable seconds to figure out who he is. If you check the “World” section it is in fact the first story, where you can read, “Human Rights Watch says in its report that cluster weapons have been used against population centers in eastern Ukraine at least 12 times, including the strikes on Donetsk, during the conflict, and possibly many more.” However, it quickly goes on to state, “The report said that both sides were probably culpable,” thereby somewhat defusing the damning evidence against Ukraine. As for the Washington Post, there’s no story at all.

Ever since my first encounters with the American media, I’ve become more and more aware of how they create stories: they decide on the narrative (mythology) they want to promote, and then report the facts that support that narrative while either suppressing or qualifying facts that don’t support it. It seems to me that civilian populations being shelled by their own government would be something that should be highlighted, but the American press has chosen to ignore it entirely or downplay it.

The other story that struck me was a propagandistic piece on how America’s intervention in Libya was what created terrorist uprisings in Mali and Syria. Well, I take that with a few grains of salt, but the interesting thing was a video of the capture and murder of Muammar Gaddafi. He was beaten, bloody, and obviously terrified. Why did I never see that video before, I wondered? You would think that the media could make a pretty penny showing it, and yet I can’t remember it appearing anywhere. Is it perhaps because it undermined the narrative that the US was liberating Libya? Well, from my perspective it wouldn’t; it would just show a very unpleasant reality about such “liberations.” But mythology is more important that reality for the US government, and the media seems to be nothing more than an extension of that myth-making.

In 1900, Leo Tolstoy wrote that “The army, the money, the school, the religion, and the press are in the hands of the ruling classes.  In the schools they fan patriotism in the children by means of history, by describing their nation as the best of all the nations and always in the right.  In the adults, the same sentiment is roused by means of spectacles, celebrations, monuments, and a patriotic, lying press.”

This final phrase has really stuck with me. It seems very little has changed since Tolstoy’s time: the press continues to lie to support the government’s agenda, no matter how they claim to be its watchdogs.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

. . . And the symposium's out the window

So, I kept going back and forth on the symposium. Really, it boiled down to the comment "selected papers will be published." Either publish them or don't, but don't entice me with a hope of publication.

Maybe it has to do with my continued disappointment with the promise of the organizer of the conference in Tbilisi in 2013 to publish "all" the papers and his subsequent email silence. Even when I wrote him inquiring about the publication.

However, the real out was an invitation from a friend to contribute to a panel at the Association for the Study of Nationalities at Columbia University in April 2015. There's no chance of my paper being published as a direct result of the conference, and the honesty of that situation appeals to me. Also, he is a good friend and I would like to contribute to his panel. Finally, it's Manhattan. Where would I rather spend a few days in April: Waco, Texas or Manhattan?

So I'm working on something about efforts at ethnic reconciliation in the northwest Caucasus. It's a pretty rich field but it will take some catching up, since I've been pretty inattentive to recent developments while I work on my budding Tolstoy project. Shouldn't take much though.

As for publishing the paper, well if someone approaches me and asks about it, sure. But at this point in my career I don't need to go chasing publishers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back to the Symposium Racket

For the second time, I told myself I would never go to any sort of conference or travel by air, ever again. And it looks like, to paraphrase an ancient Indo-European myth, three will hopefully be the charm.

Alright, when I got promoted to full professor I assumed that my naturally lazy and exploitative nature would kick in and I would just stop writing and travelling to academic events. My work on Tolstoy has been plodding along, although I doubt I'll get anything published that will be considered "Slavic studies." Eventually I could get a book out, but it would be way beyond the realm of what slavists normally do, incorporating eastern mysticism and European pacifist movements. And that's if I ever figure out how to tie all that together.

So, I was fooling around with that stuff when a listserv which I no longer belong to (in hindsight I should have never joined it) put up an announcement over the summer about a symposium, "Georgia at the Crossroads." I don't know much about Georgia, but I was involved in a bunch of events that were started by the Saakashvili government; in fact, I participated in a couple of them, and one of the Georgian government's decisions allowed me to write my second book.

Out of boredom, I put together a proposal to analyze those events. However, since the announcement clearly says, "selected papers will be published," and since my last experience with a conference that promised all papers would be published, where the organizer hasn't even replied to my inquiries about said publication, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and because I'm pretty much sick of writing on the Caucasus, and because the conference is in Waco, yes you heard that right, Waco, and because I really didn't plan on getting on a plane ever again, I shelved it but kept the proposal.

So first I felt a bit guilty since my promotion was based to a large degree on my contribution to Caucasus studies. The college clearly hopes I'll continue to work in the field. Then they reminded me that I now have a larger fund for "academic development" than I ever had before, so I decided I should go ahead and attend this symposium, even though my paper is unlikely to get published since it's really a sort of peripheral issue. It will at least give me something to write in my annual report, though.

And after that, no more travel, no more conferences, really.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Russian Enrollments Up

Last year I was beginning to get worried. My first year Russian class was only eleven, the smallest it had been in many years. And of that eleven, only six were good candidates for second year. Of the six, four continued. Since one is studying in St. Petersburg this semester, I would only have had three if it weren't for two exchange students and one student who had to skip second year Russian last year and is taking it now.

But this year I have eighteen in first year, the highest it's been since Oxy added Arabic into the program. Of that eighteen around twelve are good candidates for second year.

I asked the class if Putin's shenanigans had anything to do with their decision to study Russian, and no one raised their hand. Still, I think Russia's behavior recently has brought Russia back into the consciousness of young people after more than two long decades of neglect.

We haven't finalized our approval for the new department, either. Once that's done and the new major is on the books I'm hoping enrollments will go up a little more.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A New Year

I haven't written much here, primarily because this is intended as an academic blog and, well, I didn't really want to think much about academics over the summer. I spent most of my time playing and recording music.

We had our academic fair on Friday, and I had several inquiries about Russian language, something that generally never happens. The inquiries were mostly from foreign students though, so it wasn't a good gauge of how enrollments will go. That I'll only find out on Tuesday.

We have to finalize our proposal for the new department and major this semester. That's the next step toward revitalizing the languages at the college and hopefully establishing a program that will ensure the survival of the Russian program after my departure. Up until recently I was convinced that, should I leave for some reason, the college would simply eliminate Russian from the curriculum. I don't think that will happen now, but more work remains to make sure it doesn't happen in the future.

I'm the fourth professor of Russian at Occidental. The program was founded in the 1960s by Gilman Alkire, who retired sometime in the 1980s. The second professor, Cynthia Ruder, left for the University of Kentucky after only a few years here for reasons I'm not aware of. The third wasn't up to the job and was denied tenure in 1999. When I took over the program, it was a shambles, and I was told no one believed it could survive two years. I was able to increase enrollments and save the program, but with the addition of Arabic (something I proposed very early on and enthusiastically support) Russian enrollments have dropped by about 30-40 percent. The big question now is whether Russian belligerence on the world stage will spark interest again. I doubt it will to the degree that the Cold War did; those enrollments were generated by the ideological struggle the US government framed as "good vs. evil," and since that propaganda method has been directed toward the Islamic world now, and since our current president is oblivious to the threat Russia poses to world stability, I don't see a new boom. But perhaps there will be a bubble.

Language placement exams are today. So far I know of four students who are coming, which is more than showed up in the last five years combined. So it looks hopeful.

One sad thing about this year: my longtime colleague and supporter Larry Caldwell has all but retired. He's teaching one course on Tuesday evenings this semester and that's it. I may be able to keep our perennial course, "The Russian Experience," going with different collaborators, but it will never be the same.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Syllabus for RUSN 282, "Slavic Pagan Culture and its Legacy"

RUSN 282
Slavic Pagan Culture and its Legacy
Professor Richmond
Office: Johnson 410
Office hours: MWF 12:50-1:50
Phone: x2636

Course Goals:
            This course will give you a firn foundation in the origins of Slavic, and particularly, Russian
traditional culture, the beliefs of the Slavic peoples prior to Christianization, and the ways in which these
beliefs continued on their own and fused into Christian doctrine in the recent past in Russia. In addition,
you’ll learn about the ways in which Russian writers, painters, and composers adapted pagan beliefs
into their works in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
            You’ll also learn the sources of Slavic paganism in ancient Indo-European culture and how
variations of these same beliefs permeate western culture to this very day.

Course Requirements:

Midterm: The midterm will be on October 22 and will cover all material up to that date.

Presentation: During the semester I will divide the class into six groups. Each group will closely examine
one of the assignments in Unit Three and present it to the class. This is not a graded assignment, but if
you don’t complete your section it will negatively affect your final grade. I’ll give out more specific
instructions as this unit approaches.

Final: The final exam will be comprehensive.

Research Project: The research project will consist of two components: 1) a 12 page, double spaced
paper; and 2) an accompanying multimedia project in Oxy’s Global Crossroads that outlines your
thesis and key points of evidence and argumentation. Media resources for the Crossroads project
can be drawn in part from an archive of images (and quotations?) developed for the class, and used
in regular weekly discussion posts. The projects are due Friday, November 21.

Midterm: 35 percent
Research Project: 25 percent
Final Exam: 45 percent

Required Texts:

For purchase:
Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief. M. E. Sharpe.
W. F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight. Penn State Press.
Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Vintage Press.

All other texts (listed in the syllabus) are on Moodle.

Course Schedule

Unit One: Gods, Men and Beasts

Wednesday, August 27: Codes

Friday, August 29: Authority
Reading: David J. Hufford, “Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered
                        Theory of the Belief in Spirits” (Moodle)
            Question: What do you believe to be fact, even though you haven’t investigated it yourself?

Monday, September 1: Labor Day Holiday

Wednesday, September 3: Homeland  
                        1. Shan M. M. Winn, “Quest for a Homeland” (Moodle)
                        2. “The Three Kingdoms” (Moodle)
            Question: What does “homeland” mean to you? Where is your homeland?

Friday, September 5: Three’s the Charm
                        1. Andrew Porter, “The Trinity and the Indo-European Tripartite Worldview” (Moodle)
                        2. The Primary Chronicle, pp. 59-61, 64-77, 87-93 (Moodle)
            Question: What examples of things being grouped in threes can you come up with?

Monday, September 8: Graves
            Reading: P. Kuzentsov, “An Indo-Iranian Symbol of Power in the Earliest Steppe Kurgans” (Moodle)
            Question: Do cemeteries serve any purpose?

Wednesday, September 10: Bears
            Reading: Shepard and Sanders, The Sacred Paw,” Chapter 3 (Moodle)
            Questions: Think of a couple of examples of bears in modern popular culture.

Friday, September 12: Earth
            Reading: Joanna Hubbs, “The Worship of Mother Earth in Russian Culture” (Moodle)
            Question: How would a matriarchal society differ from a patriarchal one?

Monday, September 15: Sky
                        1. Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 3-18
                        2. Shan M. M. Winn, “A Collision of Cultures” (Moodle)

Wednesday, September 17: Wolfmen
1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy, pp. 3-6, 35-38, 181-189, 215-217 (Moodle)
                        2. Margaret Stutley, Shamanism: A Concise Introduction, pp. 94-98, 111-112 (Moodle)

Friday, September 19: Thunder
            Reading: The Primary Chronicle, pp. 93-98, 110-117 (Moodle)
            Question: Does the United States government use religion as a means of control?

Monday, September 22: Signs
            Reading: Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 19-50

Unit Two: Myths, Tales and Spirits

Wednesday, September 24: Olga’s Revenge
            Reading: The Primary Chronicle, pp. 78-87

Friday, September 26: Heroes and Villians
1. “Koshchei Without-Death” (Moodle)
2. “Ilya of Murom and Nightingale the Robber” (Moodle)
3. “Dobrynya and the Adventure of the Pavillion” (Moodle)
                        4. “The Baba Yaga” (Moodle)

Monday, September 29: Armageddon
            Reading: “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” (Moodle)

Wednesday, October 1: Wizards
1. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 3
2.  Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 83-124
2. The Russian Primary Chronicle, pp. 134-135, 139, 150-154, 173-174 (Moodle)

Friday, October 3: Guardians
            Reading: Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 51-63
Monday, October 6: Sanctuary
            Reading: Video: Old Russian Wooden Architecture (link on Moodle)

Wednesday, October 8: The Forbidden Zone
                        Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 64-82
                        W. R. S. Ralston, Songs of the Russian People, “Demigods and Fairies” (Moodle)

Friday, October 10: The Undead 
            Reading: Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death, pp. 29-65 (Moodle)

Monday, October 13: Fall Break Holiday

Wednesday, October 15: Hysteria
            Reading: Jan L. Perkowski, The Darkling, “Slavic Testimony” pp. 75-100 (Moodle)

Friday, October 17: Dracula
                        1. Readings: Jan L. Perkowski, The Darkling, “Slavic Testimony” pp. 100-126 (Moodle)
                        2. “The Tale of the Warlord Dracula” (Moodle)

Monday, October 20: Midterm Review

Wednesday, October 22: Midterm

Unit Three: Power to the People

Note: During this section of the course, we will be having discussions on your research projects.

Friday, October 24: Signs and Omens
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 5, sections 1-4

Monday, October 27: Predictions
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 6

 Wednesday, October 29: Curses
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 7

Friday, October 31: Talismans and Amulets
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 8

Monday, November 3:  Numerology
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 11

Wednesday, November 5:  Alchemy and Astrology
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapters 13, 14, 15

Unit Four: Legacy

Friday, November 7: The Pagan Capital of Russia
            Reading: Powerpoint Presentation “St. Petersburg” (Moodle)

Monday, November 10: Nikolai Gogol I: Gogol Retells the Legends
1. Nikolai Gogol, “St. John’s Eve” 
                        2. Nikolai Gogol, “The Night Before Christmas”
                        3. Nikolai Gogol, “The Drowned Maiden”

Wednesday, November 12: Nikolai Gogol II: Gogol Remakes the Legends
1. Nikolai Gogol, “The Terrible Vengeance”
                        2. Nikolai Gogol, “Viy”

Friday, November 14: Film: Nikolai Gogol, Viy, the Spirit of Evil

Monday, November 17: Film: Nikolai Gogol, Viy, the Spirit of Evil

Wednesday, November 19: Nikolai Gogol III: Gogol’s Tragic Ghost
            Reading: Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”

Friday, November 21: Guest Lecturer, Dr. Mark Konecny: Paganism and the Avant Garde
            Reading: TBA

Monday, November 24: Film: Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring”
            No reading

Wednesday-Friday, November 26-28: Thanksgiving Holiday

Monday, December 1: The Last Sorcerer
            Assignment: Guess who I’m talking about

Wednesday, December 3: Review