Russians always ask Russian-speaking foreigners why they chose to study Russian, and it’s a difficult question to answer. There was my friend, Vlada, who taught me my first phrases (“That is Volodia. He eats borscht with sour cream. He likes sour cream.”) and then wrote me a letter when we graduated that said, “I pledge that we will go to Russia and Ukraine together someday.” There was the vague desire to learn a non-Latin alphabet. There was the fact that part of the reason I chose to go to Sewanee was because they had a surprising number of random departments for such a small school (Russian? Astronomy? Medieval Studies?). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was an appalling translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from under the Floor that was part of the Humanities curriculum (a random department, incidentally, that I definitely could have done without). The next semester I registered for Russian 103.

Over the years I have made a couple of valiant efforts to read Russian literature in the original, an endeavor that has always, without fail, resulted in blood, pain, and tears. Lots of tears.

So imagine my delight when, now that I can read books without wanting to actually die, I get to take a class in classical short stories at KFU. This class sets itself apart from the other ones in the Russian department in that after you go to class, you know more about the subject than you did before. You actually learn some. Sometimes. I really don’t know how non-Russians manage to get through Russian literature without someone to explain imperial Russian culture to them. There are so many ranks of public servants (14, in fact) and kinds of carriages that it’s really quite impossible.

I would have enjoyed getting back into literature, which I haven’t worked with properly since high school. But the professor gives quizzes that ruin the experience entirely.

My favorite teachers always had a bit of a John Keating streak: when we read fireside poetry, we turned the lights out, pushed the desks to the perimeter of the room, and ate s’mores while we discussed the literature by candlelight. We designed amusement park rides based on early American sermons (Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was kind of a given for that one). We took an entire school day to go to UGA and find resources together as a class for our term papers, the first time that any of us had used a college library (buh-bye, Dewey decimal system). All dramas were acted out, with each student keeping the same role for the duration of the play, and the most talented actors given the main roles so it would be sort of interesting. When we read “A Doll’s House” by Ibsen, I, the quietest person in the class, was cast as the door. I didn’t necessarily love these activities (especially the amusement park one), but I did like the perception of literature from which they spring. Even a 300-year-old text from a religion that no longer really exists has relevance today–it’s all a matter of perspective. Literature was always something to be interacted with.

Similarly, it was more important to understand the themes and to build a relationship with it than to remember who said what to whom on which page and where they were standing. So when Profprof gave us a pop quiz on the first story we’d read (“The Station Watchman” by Pushkin), I felt like I’d just jumped into a hole in the ice for no good reason. I was so overwhelmed by the inappropriateness of literature quizzes that I didn’t even care–or feel bad–when I made a 50% on the first quiz. I haven’t made a 50% on anything since the day before I got kicked out of smart-kid math in 8th grade. The next week revealed that even reading, understanding, and studying minute details from the story can’t prepare you for the tests, as the professor goes out of her way to trip you up.

This is really and truly how Russians get baptized. In the river. In January.

Here are examples of typical questions from Profprof’s quizzes:

1) “In what month did this story take place? (a) March (b) April (c) May” (The season is not relevant to the story and was mentioned in passing in the 2nd line.)

2) “What is the relationship between the year in which [story 1] took place and the year in which [story 2] took place? (a) [story 1] is 4 years before (b) [story 2] is 4 years before (c) [story 2] is 5 years before (d) [story 1] is 5 years before” The stories were completely unrelated. Also, one of the questions I missed on the first quiz was the year in which the story took place. I didn’t look it up after class, since it was a dumb question to begin with– and then it cost me twice. I barely resisted the temptation to inform the professor that there’s a reason why double jeopardy is illegal in countries where people have rights.

3) “Which of the following things did [main character] do after discovering that his daughter had run away? (a) went to the hospital (b) went to his relatives (c) got drunk” (In fact he did all of the above, in that order, and the drinking eventually killed him. Yet the answer she was looking for was “went to the hospital”.)

4) “How many years after the death of [male love interest 1] did [female lead] get married? (a) 3 years (b) 4 years (c) 5 years” This was the worst one. In the story, Male Love Interest 2 says (in passing, because not even Pushkin thought it was important) that “It’s the fourth year since [male love interest 1] died.” I circled that in the text, because it was just the kind of pointless fact that I knew would be on the quiz. So I answered (b) 4 years, and got it counted wrong. When we argued with the professor, she said that if it is the fourth year, that means that only three years have passed.

I would rather take the COGAT than participate in this class.

(Note: between writing and publishing this post, I decided to drop the class. So today I didn’t go. And, of course, I ran into the professor immediately after having skipped class. Like, not 10 minutes later. That’ll learn me.)

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