Can the liberal arts model thrive in Russia?

When Christopher A. Stroop began teaching at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow, he had no idea how receptive the institute or his students would be to a more liberal Western pedagogical approach. The results were revealing.

Drawing by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Click to enlarge

It was a late afternoon in June 2013, and I was in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, waiting to pick up my uncle for a little bonding time and tourism when I received a phone call.

“Did you teach Pussy Riot lyrics?”

“What?” I thought I had heard right, but this was an odd thing to ask.

“Did you teach Pussy Riot lyrics?” 

Despite ambient noise and a bad connection, the question – posed by an administrator involved with international programs and foreign hires at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow – came through with what seemed like gratuitous concern. The administrator wanted me to come to campus right that minute without even explaining the situation until I said that I was more than 400 miles away.  

“Strictly speaking, no.” I fumbled for an answer. “I did allow a liberal Russian student to present on the trial, and she distributed lyrics as an aid to her presentation.” 

I had actually done more than passively approve the student’s topic. My American training had instilled me with the notion that the classroom was precisely the place to discuss controversial current events, and I had included Pussy Riot [a feminist punk-rock group known for singing a “punk prayer” against Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior - RBTH] on the list of potential presentation topics for my English-language course, “Religion and Society: Contemporary Debates and their Historical Origins,” part of the first-year curriculum for the Master’s Program in Change Management. 

While the administrator didn’t know whether there would be consequences, I insisted that if RANEPA really wanted me to implement the kinds of Western pedagogical methods I thought I’d been hired to implement, with an emphasis on critical thinking, then it couldn’t ban this kind of material from classroom discussion. The administrator seemed to accept that, and the minor scandal blew over. 

While there are limits to what can be discussed in a Russian classroom – I categorically refuse to touch Ukraine – many of my colleagues at RANEPA, including the above-mentioned administrator, have from the very beginning of my time here given me the sense that they value my contributions to both pedagogy and research.

Although my first year was marked by misunderstandings and a lack of clarity about my place within the university, by my second academic year, I was better integrated into the liberal arts curriculum and reform initiatives associated with RANEPA’s School of Public Policy. Under the visionary leadership of university scholars and administrators, along with the world-renowned cultural historian Andrei Zorin, and with the support of RANEPA’s rector, Vladimir Mau, the School of Public Policy is attempting to construct something like an Anglo-American style liberal arts college within RANEPA, complete with small seminars devoted to the Great Books and a modicum of student choice over courses taken. 

While this is all very progressive, the Russian classroom remains a challenging place for the realization of these ideals. For the most part, students at RANEPA still take most of their classes in a single group, with the schedule for their group simply dictated to them – the typical Russian university experience. The students have far more assigned subjects than they can possibly keep up with, meaning an instructor generally can’t assign more than 20-30 pages of reading per class. This, and the length of the classes, makes it difficult to sustain discussion-based teaching. 

Many Russian classes follow a “two pairs” (dve pary) system of academic hours, meaning two pairs of 45-minute units. That’s right — many classes last three hours, and nothing is shorter than one para. The Russian university system’s strengths lie in the breadth and systematic nature of its programs, but the daunting number of subjects and lack of choice foster a culture of truancy. Students frequently don’t show up to classes that don’t interest them.

The flattering flip side of this is that you may attract groupies of a sort, unofficial auditors who prefer your class to the one they’re supposed to be attending at the same time. You end up wondering if you should feel guilty over your implicit complicity in their class-cutting. Furthermore, the Russian school system is still based primarily on rote learning, and often unselfconscious plagiarism is second nature to many students. 

As I have learned over time, there are ways to adapt. Three-hour classes can be divided into lecturing, in-class exercises, and discussion of the text, which often still requires considerable structure and hand-holding. Fortunately, the administrators in charge of our liberal arts and Great Books programming are supportive and helpful in strategizing about how to pursue the goals of a liberal arts education in a Russian environment

For example, this August, the directors of the Humanities Department met with me and a talented Russian instructor prior to the beginning of our teaching a Great Books module on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a massive tome the students couldn’t possibly be expected to read in its entirety over five classes. We discussed effective ways of structuring the module and decided to assign whole chapters rather than shorter excerpts, and we instructors were given permission to increase the usual tiny reading load allotted for any individual course. By and large, my students kept up. 

Furthermore – thanks, I assume, to me hitting them over the head with my explicit grading rubric and clearly demonstrating that I meant it – most of them also did reasonably well with the presentations I assigned them, avoiding plagiarism, which had been a huge problem for me in some previous courses. While the discussions were not always as active and student-centered as I would have liked them to be, I saw many students improve in their ability to assess texts critically, from their own perspective. I’m proud of that progress, just as I am to be a part of reform efforts in Russian higher education.

Christopher A. Stroop (Stanford University, Ph.D.) is a senior lecturer at RANEPA and editor of its English-language journal, State, Religion and Church:

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