Russian and East European Studies

What motivated you to apply for an IL grant for CL/REES/ENG 265 Dostoevsky in a Global Context?

I was teaching the course for the first time and wanted to experiment with alternative writing assignments and new kinds of authentic material. Riffing on Dostoevsky’s word and legacy – the theme of my own research – would provide the background. The idea of breaking apart the traditional structure of the academic paper (intro/thesis – discussion – conclusion) appealed to me because I thought it could allow students to think about source use in a new way. Since the writing assignment sequence I adopted relied so much on novel interactions with secondary texts, objects, archives, and scholarly apparatuses like the bibliography and the index, I thought the IL grant would give me the resources to develop a new writing pedagogy.

The major assignment for this class was a “Hundreds” essay. What was the “Hundreds” essay? Why did you use such a non-traditional assignment? How did it go?

I first heard about The Hundreds (Duke, 2019) when Hua Hsu reviewed it in The New Yorker. Co-authored by Kathleen Stewart and the late Lauren Berlant, The Hundreds assembles entries, or “makings,” composed of hundred-word multiples. This form is indebted to Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse and to Stewart’s own earlier ethnographic-autobiographical experiments aimed at describing how experiences, objects, encounters, and ideas in the world coalesce in between and underneath the larger structures and narratives we tend to assign to them. Texts, objects, and ideas are listed at the conclusion of each entry. They invited friends to “index” their entries, which took the form of poetry, comics, and indexes deriving from intimate contact with the book.

I tried to adapt this form into a structured assignment in which students were given 3,000 words to make their own set of hundreds (I used a traditional prompt and rubric to explain their task). Each entry needed to have a theme inspired by our work with Dostoevsky’s legacy and they could not be longer than 800 words. Students were to create thematic bibliographies, including a non-traditional source, which would be incorporated into their hundreds. At the end of the semester, students were to index a peer’s hundreds and present on that process, but the pivot to remote learning in March 2020 (when I last taught the course) necessitated a revision of that element of the assignment.

The point of adopting the hundreds form was to help students become more aware about how their minds make connections between ideas, texts, and the emotional valances they create. I wanted to defamiliarize them from habitual ways of writing and thinking, which I hoped might allow them to reflect more objectively on those skills. I also hoped that the form would let them take more seriously what we normally reject as obvious, random, or unimportant in our course materials, challenging our conceptions about what knowledge and experiences become part of canons, archives, and indexes, all of which form the bedrock of knowledge production and preservation. I think the first iteration of the assignment was a step in the right direction, but I continue to add more structure to it in order to help students get a better foothold. On the one hand I want them to feel free and a bit apprehensive, but not so much that they feel rudderless. It’s a hard balance to strike.

For the midterm, you asked students to write an essay based on the Ed Brown papers in Special Collections. Why? Who was Ed Brown?

Ed Brown was a professor at the college in the 1950s and 60s. As his papers indicate he was quite the polyglot and he was the first person to teach Russian language and comparative literature at Lafayette. The Ed Brown Papers are a local example of the manner in which Dostoevsky was canonized during the Cold War. I wanted students to examine his lesson plans, lecture notes, translations of Russian materials, and syllabi in a module of the course dedicated to the ideological reception of the writer. It was also a good way to introduce them to the concept of an archive and how these institutions can make certain narratives possible and others less possible.

 Could you also talk about the indexing exercise and why you created it?  

 I think the index is like an archive, but at a smaller scale. It privileges certain items or topics over others. I wanted to call attention to the question of what topics enter into an index and which don’t. It shows a snapshot of what scholars value or what the dominant conversation of a given time may be, but it also blinds us to other ideas or practices in plain view. I thought if students could try their hand at a mini-index, it could invite them to think about what is considered important about a book and what is not (because it is omitted).

 Would you continue to incorporate IL into future versions of this course or other courses?

 I am continuing to do so this semester in the second iteration of the course. But I also feel that most of us in the humanities are always doing IL, whether we name it as such or not.

 You have been working closely with Terese Heidenwolf on your class. What are the advantages of collaborating with a librarian?

 Terese has been an incredible collaborator. She helped me develop the assignment sequence for this course and provided welcome support and advice, especially for the indexing portion. Her expertise on research methods in the humanities helped us design an indexing workshop and enhanced our discussions of bibliographies. Librarians are incredible people. They are trained to think in terms of a bigger meta-verse than we are. Terese helps me see the forest while I’m off looking at blades of grass.

 Do you have any advice for faculty who are interested in integrating IL into their classes?

 I would encourage other faculty to make use of special collections in whatever way they can. It never gets old to introduce students to an archive and to see them start to reflect on why and how we preserve knowledge. I think it is an essential path to critical thinking. It is like finding yourself in the Matrix or something, which can be both a jolt and an inspiration.