The Amherst College Russian Department has a two-fold mission: to provide instruction in a foreign language at all levels, preparing students for informed study of the culture, and to offer literature and culture courses in translation as part of the broader liberal-arts tradition. The study of Russian gives our students a comprehensive knowledge of the language which will allow them to develop competence in speaking, understanding, reading, writing, and cultural literacy, while illustrating how language, society, and culture are inextricably linked. The purpose of a Russian major is to furnish a nuanced appreciation of Russia's rich cultural achievements as well as an understanding of Russia's historical significance on the world scene. Through the study of at least three years of the Russian language, including a highly recommended (though not required) semester or summer-long stay in the country, as well as an opportunity to choose from among a wide variety of courses (some conducted in Russian) in literature, film, theater, cultural studies, and history, majors have the opportunity to explore multiple facets of the "Russian experience" under the guidance of scholars and teachers who are actively engaged in the profession. The reliable presence of a historian increases the appeal and depth of the Russian major, adding a more global and historic aspect to the curriculum.
Acknowledging the diverse nature of, and various approaches to, the subject matter, faculty assist concentrators in putting together a series of courses which cohere to a well-defined whole, often interdisciplinary in nature. A senior honors essay is optional, but each student, in a required comprehensive essay composed over the course of two semesters that is followed by an oral defense during the second semester of senior year, explains and defends the primary focus of his/her studies as a Russian major. Earlier that year the major is also asked to demonstrate Russian language proficiency in a 90-minute translation exam which reflects the ability to comprehend the written language at a sophisticated level. Our students are readily accepted into all semester programs in Russia, and when they return, they claim that they were as well — or better — prepared than most of their counterparts from comparable institutions. An unsually high number of our majors have gone on to graduate study in the field of Russian and Slavic cultures, and to academic and other employment using their knowledge of Russian.
To achieve these stated goals, we require a level of competency, demonstrated by these abilities:
- to write in Russian clearly about a variety of non-technical topics with significant precision and detail and a fundamental grasp of the general rules of morphology and syntax;
- to speak comprehensibly about a variety of non-technical topics convering everyday life and culture, making ideas known through a mastery of basic vocabulary (about 3000) words) and intonation;
- to comprehend ordinary, non-specialized conversation of a native speaker at a moderate or moderately rapid pace;
- to read original Russian literary and non-fictional prose, with the occasional use of a dictionary;
- to achieve competence through readings in English in the broad areas and periods of 19th and 20th century Russian literature and culture, with some knowledge of modern Russian cultural history.
The major program in Russian is an individualized interdisciplinary course of study. It includes general requirements for all majors and a concentration of courses in one discipline: literature, film, cultural studies, history, or politics. Eight courses are required for the major, including RUSS 301 and one course beyond RUSS 301 taught in Russian. Language courses numbered 202 and above will count for the major. Normally, two courses taken during a semester abroad in Russia may be counted; 303H and 304H together will count as one course. Additionally, all majors must elect at least one course that addresses history or literature before 1850. Other courses will be chosen in consultation with the advisor from courses in Russian literature, film, culture, history and politics. Students are strongly encouraged to enroll in non-departmental courses in their chosen discipline.
The College-wide comprehensives requirement is satisfied by completing two projects. The Concentration Essay is required of all majors. Students entering the College in Fall 2018 and later are required to complete a Capstone Project, as described below; students who entered the College before that semester can elect, by the end of the add/drop period in the penultimate semester of study, to pursue a (year-long) Capstone Project or to take the Translation Exam (during that semester).
Concentration Essay and Senior Conversation
By the last day of add-drop period classes in their final semester of study, all students majoring in Russian will complete a draft of an essay, around a thousand words in length, in which they describe the trajectory and primary focus of their studies in the major. Throughout this process, majors will have the help of their advisors. The final draft of the essay, due approximately four weeks later, will be the subject of the Senior Conversation between the student and a committee of departmental readers.
The Russian major program aspires to prepare students for independent analysis of authentic Russian materials. The College has exceptional resources for such study: the rare book and archive collections of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture and the Russian art collection at the Mead, most of them donated by Thomas Whitney ’37. During their final two semesters in the program, Russian majors will complete a Capstone Project that involves selecting and studying an artifact from one of the collections: a work of verbal or visual art or a document of significance to Russian cultural history. Throughout the process they will be supported by their major advisors, the staff of the Center, and/or the Mead Museum’s Curator of Russian and European Art. During the penultimate semester of study, students will research and establish the contexts that they judge most crucial for understanding the chosen work’s significance. The goal is to prepare a fifteen-minute-long presentation to be shared with the department’s faculty and students at the Russian Department Capstone Symposium, to take place about half way through the final semester of study. Students will confirm selection of the artifact with their advisors by the middle of the penultimate semester of study. By the last day of classes in that semester they will submit to their advisors: (1) a draft of their presentation; (2) an English translation, from the original Russian, of an excerpt from the chosen material (for printed or handwritten documents) or from a Russian-language source consulted in the course of doing research on an object or work of visual art. The final version of the presentation draft and the translation, which respond to comments and notes from faculty, will be due by the first day of classes in the final semester of study.
Departmental Honors Program
In lieu of the Capstone requirement, the Honors candidate will enroll RUSS 498-499 during the final two semesters of study and prepare a thesis on a topic approved by the Department. They will present an overview of their thesis work at the Department Capstone Symposium along with majors pursuing capstone projects. Students who anticipate writing an Honors essay on a topic that focuses on Russia's social history should consult with Professor Glebov (History) or may request to work under his direction. All Honors candidates should ensure that their College program provides a sufficiently strong background in their chosen discipline.
Majors are strongly encouraged to spend a semester or summer studying in Russia. Students potentially interested in study abroad should begin planning as early as possible in their Amherst career. They should consult members of the Department faculty and Janna Behrens, Director of Global Education, for information on approved programs and scholarship support. Other programs can be approved on a trial basis by petition to the Director of Global Education. Study in Russia is most rewarding after students have completed the equivalent of four or five semesters of college-level Russian, but some programs will accept students with less. One semester of study in Russia will ordinarily give Amherst College credit for four courses, two of which may be counted towards the major in Russian.
Summer language programs, internships, ecological and volunteer programs may be good alternatives for students whose other Amherst commitments make a semester away difficult or impossible. (Please note that Amherst College does not give credit for summer programs.) US-based summer intensive programs can be used to accelerate acquisition of the language, and some of these programs provide scholarship support. Consult the department bulletin board in Webster and the department website for information on a wide variety of programs.