American Literature in the Context of Russian-American Studies: Research and Curricula

Article excerpt

In the now distant 1960s, long before perestroika gave rise to serious changes in Russian attitudes towards teaching American Studies at Russian universities, my postgraduate supervisor and the founder of the chair of foreign literatures at Kuban State University, Prof. N.I. Samokhvalov, (1) would complain to his young disciples and assistants that the United States, a pioneer democracy whose social and cultural experiences required deep and careful examination, had been all but neglected by Soviet scholars, especially those who worked at regional universities located far from the capitals and their extremely rich libraries. He insisted that we develop American Studies topics in our literature courses and in our research projects as well, despite the obstacles we faced due to lack of information and ideological barriers.

This memory brings me back to the bitter emotions of my chief (2) when, as a member of the delegation of Soviet scholars headed by Professor Jassen N. Zassursky, (3) I participated in the Soviet/American Symposium, "Dialogue of Cultures: USSR-USA," at Duke University in May 1990. We visited the wonderful Triangle Center and worked in seminars. My report was discussed in a seminar directed by Professor Bernard Mergen of George Washington University. That first trip to America was the inspiration for establishing the Center for the History of Russian and North American Cultures at Kuban State University in 1992. Here we started a research and teaching project in American Studies that resulted in a new educational program and curriculum, leading to the formation of the department of Russian/American Studies as a branch structure of the Philological Faculty.

There are two important things that need to be mentioned when we discuss the structure of our program: the first is its close bond with philology, which means that the program has not become truly multi-disciplinary. Admittedly, we still depend to a great extent on the state educational standard, for our students expect to receive the customary state-certified diplomas. The philological outline of the program specifies the number of non-philological courses that are included in the course of study, and describes how these courses affect the goals and structures of the courses in linguistics and literature. In order to conform with state standards and student expectations, an emphasis on language and literature is retained, yet we believe that the program is potentially capable of evolving into a thoroughly revised interdisciplinary curriculum that would meet the demands of cultural anthropology, and may finally develop into a solid interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary program that would include the kindred fields of American Studies, Russian Studies, comparative cultural studies--all as branches of humanistic inquiry, focused equally on languages, literatures, history, philosophy, religion, art, etc.

Since 1993 we have trained forty students who have completed the five year program. In 1998,1999, and 2000 three groups of graduates defended their research projects and passed the state exams in English and American literature. The students majored in American Studies and minored in Russian Studies, and were tested by the state examination board in Russian language and literature as well.

The joint curriculum for Russian and American Studies in philology serves as the first step towards a program that combines comparative studies and cultural anthropology, and this goal probably defines the specific interdisciplinary vocabulary of our program. The problem that inconvenienced us was the 1994 wave of rebounds in state educational policy that prevented us from introducing a multilevel curricular structure. In view of this, the center staff made a decision to forego several years of new student recruitment. Our activity was reactivity in 2001, after the Kuban State University rector, Professor Vladimir A. Babeshko, won the support of the state education office in promoting non-traditional approaches to university academic studies and research. …