Thursday, April 18, 2013

Russian History: A Comparison of Three

For this assignment, I chose to identify three syllabi that roughly corresponded to the Russian Imperial period, which is something I loved to study in college. The first syllabus is from a school is Turkey, though the syllabus is in English, and it is from Fall 2012. The syllabus can be found here. The second syllabus is from MIT of Fall 2010 and can be found here. Lastly, I also chose a syllabus from Harvard from Fall 2012, and that can be found here.

It was really interesting to see the different ways Russian history is taught. It is easy for one to assume that the way they learned it is the only way someone can learn it. In my own class, we were told that the textbook we used was the definitive guide to Russian history, as if every introductory Russian course would use it. However, I did not see A History of Russia by Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg on any other syllabus. Furthermore, on a deeper level, since Berkeley lacked Russian history courses I began taking a lot of courses that outlined different philosophies in history that finally led me to the study of historiography, or which is basically the history of history. I was the most engrossed when we were discussing not just the stories of people, but the way people chose to tell those stories. Studying the syllabi of three different courses on the same topic is extremely similar: it is a look into how people tell the story.

The first two syllabi I studied followed a linear narrative pattern. They generally follow the path of monarchs and rebellions until it gets to the Russian Revolution. The Turkish syllabus follows sweeping changes that followed because of bottom-up actions (rebellions, revolutions) and top-down changes from the monarchy and bureaucracy. This narrative is further upheld by the course goals, which include identifying and explaining important Russian people and events. Beyond that, the professor wants to teach critical thinking skills and methods to interpret primary documents when writing a long research paper.

The syllabus from MIT sees Russian Imperial history with a little more complexity. The professor asks weekly questions to keep students on track that show me how inter-connected and complicated a society can be; she does not seem to see history as top-down or bottom-up decisions, but an interplay of literature, autocratic decisions, specific peoples' political pamphlets, and ideas. She still follows generally a linear line through history but doesn't just include a rebellion here or a reform there, rather she focuses on literature to emphasize different perspectives of these events, as Russian history has a deep connection to stories. I also appreciated that she highlighted the Russian psyche of its comparisons to the West.

The syllabus from Harvard may be the closest to an expert historian's point of view. It doesn't attempt to view Russian history through events or people as much as it interprets the actions of people through the lens of processes and institutions. The Harvard syllabus stresses strands within a society, such as industrialization, transportation, religion, government, ideas, and so on. More importantly, it also connects Russia to world history and does not consider it as a bubble. The syllabus connects monarchy and rebellion much more to the specific era those people were in rather than how the people or events shaped the era.

The syllabus from the Turkey is the kind of history most people learn: this happened, and then this happened, and so on. The MIT syllabus improved that kind of study to include more perspectives and interpretations. This seems to be the study of history that more university classes want to be like, as much more critical thinking is involved. However, the last one from Harvard tells the story of Russian history like the other two do, but doesn't tell it inside a bubble. It offers explanations of why one movement might take over another. I think it's the way universities should teach history.

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