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April 8, 2018

Politics? In MY classroom?

by razumov

(This untimely post is in honor of Chuck, who certainly must have thought about these things over the course of his life.)

Two things have happened to me recently. One, I got a tenure-track job at a university where the students have a professional and not just a personal interest in learning about Russian history. Two, I became politically active, to the extent that joining a socialist organization and doing stuff with them a few hours a week is considered active. It’s my second semester now and I’m teaching Intro to Russia Since 1825–and, of course, this being the revolutionary centennial school year, thinking about the eternal question of Politics In The Classroom.

As an undergrad, even a politically-opinionated one, my opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I did not want to hear about my dumb professors’ political views because I knew that these would amount either to the tepid NPR liberalism I got plenty of elsewhere or something noxiously right-wing that would be even worse. I had enough acrimonious debates with profs in seminars that I knew that a prof who had trouble concealing his (usually his) politics was also unlikely to argue for them in good faith. Instead my favorite classes were the ones that seemed to point to an escape from the political tractor beam of the late Bush era.

As a professor, I’m much less confident of all this than I used to be. First of all, of course, there’s no way to teach the history of Russia’s twentieth century without “classroom politics,” if nothing else because students come in with preconceived ideas shaped by a deeply political process. Even if it were possible, though, would it be desirable? As a socialist I want to help people understand the Soviet experience in the light of its real strengths and weaknesses, not through the kind of propaganda that still wins Pulitzers. As a scholar….I want the same thing. (I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have beliefs if I didn’t think they were true.)

Yet converting this growing comfort with classroom politics into actual teaching has been surprisingly hard. A lot of what I try to do in my lectures–the debunking aspect–involves my mental image of what students already believe. To my surprise, I’m consistently off in my evaluation of these beliefs. The whole class pretty much already understood that the Soviet Union’s role in WWII is consistently downplayed in US schools, for instance, and their opinion on the place of Jews in Imperial Russian and Soviet life (a Fiddler on the Roof narrative I’d thought was fairly widely shared) was in fact pretty much nonexistent. Half the time I must be confusing them awfully, the poor things, as I shadowbox with an opponent not relevant for American students since the 80s. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

The flipside of this is that I’m finding that my interventions make little difference anyway. I assigned an article legendary in my field for marking a shift away from both the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality (Jochen Hellbeck’s “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul”), but my students felt no compunctions about fitting it into their familiar totalitarian view of Stalinist life. Hell, maybe they’re right.

At least, if nothing else, my rant aboutĀ Nineteen Eighty-FourĀ being the worst possible book for understanding the Soviet Union will stick. I hope.