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The Russian Language at Stanford
For many beginners who come to it from English, the Russian language is immediately beautiful. To all, however, it is initially strange. Almost every Russian word or sentence exists in a variety of alternate forms. Often the English-speaking beginner feels lost in this dense growth of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. It takes a while before the contours of the forest become real, the trees appear to belong together naturally, and power and harmony emerge from the complexity. Nonetheless, the first two years of Russian are far from discouraging. On the contrary, there are rewards and excitement at every stage, from the initial exhilaration of deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet to the first reading of Dostoevsky and beyond. The undergraduate study of Russian is like a roller coaster ride. It is not for the unadventurous; the highs and lows are more intense than, say, with French; but if you ride to the end, you will be glad--and amazed--that you did. The rewards are commensurate with the effort. You will have acquired a unique and invaluable skill, access to a new world, and perhaps, as the saying goes, another soul.
Contemporary teachers of Russian spend a lot of time trying to ensure that the language is used actively and meaningfully, and not simply tabulated for memorization. This does not mean that students now spend less energy on endings and verbs: if you want to learn Russian, you cannot avoid these topics. However, the classroom process is more alive and topical than it has ever been. Interaction with the teacher and among the students is highly valued. Class sizes are small, so each student receives ample attention. For all these reasons, many students develop a special connection with their Russian teacher.
Third- and fourth-year Russian are largely a broadening and deepening of themes laid out during your first two years. That is, first- and second-year Russian provide the basic map of a terrain which you will cover more than once as a student of the language, in increasingly greater detail. This fact has some important consequences for the first two years. Effort put in at this time is crucial; it is an investment: if you are diligent, it will pay off many times over in the future. Study the major themes of Russian as carefully as you would lay a foundation; neglect none of them. On the other hand, don't be frustrated at the sheer volume of what must be absorbed. Realize that no one expects you to master this material the first time around, and that you will be taught the same things again in the future. Remembering this will free you to take greater pleasure, and enjoy greater confidence, in what you are learning--which in turn will enhance your academic success.
Students significantly expand their grasp of grammar and vocabulary in second-year Russian, under the careful tutelage of Eugenia Khassina. Subsequently, a turning point in the study of Russian occurs in the third year. Sometime in the middle of your third-year Russian class, you will remember what you have heard many times from your teachers that “eventually it all comes together.” To experience this moment is worth the steep price of admission, and the returns will keep multiplying.
Whether they are watching Schupbach’s famous “show and tell” sessions, or are sitting in Fleishman’s “Gogol,” Frank’s “Dostoevsky,” Greenleaf’s “Nabokov,” Safran’s “Chekhov,” or Freidin’s “Dissent and Disenchantment”--all of a sudden, students discover that they can read just about any Russian text--slowly, at first, and with equal time spent on the already-worn pages of their dictionary--but quicker and more easily, as they proceed. At this point, students appreciate the verb conjugation lists foisted upon them over the years.
Third-year students usually take third-year Russian, taught by Marina Marcos, concurrently with Professor Schupbach's conversation course. The two courses complement and reinforce each other. The atmosphere of the conversation class is warm and relaxed; every student feels welcome and invited to contribute to the conversation. There is always more than enough opportunity to practice the spoken language. Each week is dedicated to a different subject ranging from Russian rock groups to crime. Russian TV and radio programs as well as newspaper articles provide the basis for discussion.
The fourth-year class in Advanced Russian with Dr. Greenhill is agreed by everyone to be the peak experience of our department's undergraduate program. At this point, one no longer feels the language to be so resistant; there is less struggle. Russian has become familiar. The fourth-year class is conducted entirely in Russian and consists of readings from various contemporary authors, written work, conversation, and TV viewing of Russian films and topics to supplement themes of classroom discussions. Confidence is developed in oral and written work; classes focus on subtle points of grammar, contemporary idioms and colloquial speech. Students achieve flexibility of expression. Experience has shown that Stanford students who combine completion of this course with time abroad in Russia (see Stanford-in-Moscow program) possess a graduate-level proficiency in Russian by the end of their fourth year. Finally, we cannot neglect to mention the magic of being in the classroom with Dr. Greenhill, whose gifted teaching, in a recent survey, received the following student evaluations: one "No Reply," one "Good," one hundred and forty three "Excellent."
Students who, usually through study in Russia, attain superior proficiency in the language are more than welcome in the fifth-year Russian class, taught by Eugenia Khassina. This class has a mixed undergraduate and graduate enrollment. It offers lively conversation on topical issues and current political events, through which fluency is strengthened and vocabulary enhanced. Advanced compositions give students the opportunity to fine-tune their knowledge of Russian grammar and style.
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