“You’re doing it all wrong” Course Revision and Planning in mid-career – True Confessions

by Christian Raffensperger, Wittenberg University

Editor's note: this article originally appeared in the March 2021 NewsNet. Citations can be found here

My scholarly goal since finishing my dissertation in 2006 has been to reshape how medieval Eastern Europe, specifically Rus’, is perceived in scholarship. Whether it was my grandiosely titled first book, Reimagining Europe, or more recent articles that question the place of Rus’ in medieval European studies, I have been attempting to shift the perceptions of my peers in the academic world, asking them to reshape their own images of either the Slavic or medieval world to include a more nuanced and interconnected Rus’.

However, despite that lofty scholarly goal, my daily life as an academic is much more consumed with teaching my undergraduate students than shifting the attitudes of the current generation(s) of scholars. When I obtained my first tenure-track position at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH, in 2007, I inherited a bipartite Russian history survey with a clean break at 1917. As a medievalist, and a young and eager one at that, I asked and received permission to reshape the class. Working within the existing framework of a bipartite class, I shifted the break to 1796 to try and give more space to the traditional ‘premodern’ period in Russia, and not emphasize the dominance of the Soviet Union in Russian history by making it the entirety of one semester. As a new faculty member, this was considered to be something normal to do. My colleagues in the History Department were immensely supportive of me putting my own stamp on the classes that my predecessor had taught for decades, as they would now be my classes for decades as well. It was also easier for me because I was writing my lectures from scratch at the same time. Of course, when I say from scratch, I mean that I was cribbing items from my oral exam preparation at the University of Chicago with Richard Hellie and Sheila Fitzpatrick from earlier in the decade. In so doing, I was not just putting in my views about Rus’, I was putting in Hellie’s views about Muscovy and Imperial Russia, and Fitzpatrick’s views about the Soviet Union. This new bipartite division was a success, to my mind, as both halves regularly filled, it supported the university’s Russian Studies Program, and it met my requirement of having more premodern content in the classroom.

When I was tenured and took my first sabbatical, I had the chance to take a mental break, work on new publications, and spend time discussing academic work with scholars at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Returning to Wittenberg in the fall, I endeavored again to reshape my courses, and created a tripartite division consisting of a Medieval Russian, Imperial Russian, and Soviet Russian history section, over a three semester rotation. Again, both the History Department and Russian Studies Program (now rebranded as the Russian and Central Eurasian Studies Program) were supportive. The main change that I made was in the first segment, my area of focus, where I incorporated more of my own research and expanded the piece on medieval Rus’. Eventually, I added to this a short book of my own that I wrote for a broad readership and an edited collection that I prepared with Donald Ostrowski, which was designed for classroom use. The content of the segments on Imperial Russia and Soviet Russia? Well, they stayed mostly the same – in fact, multiple lecture notes, I am ashamed to say, still have “add more here” in bold at the top. Those materials were a minimum of eight years out from the most recent scholarship, more likely much more than that given that I had written the lectures from orals notes of a decade before, based on material from books and articles published long before that. Of course, I had added a few new details, items that I learned from my friends typically, and their ongoing research. But by and large, the place that I improved, changed, and kept current in the classroom was in the area on which I was doing research. This was fine, for me anyway, but the students that I was educating were taking all three classes (some of them at least), and so the ones taking Medieval Russia were learning a much more current idea of history than those taking Imperial Russia or Soviet Russia. In fact, the ones most left out, I think, were the ones taking Imperial Russia.

Which leads me back to my scholarship once again. I have moved away from presenting regularly at ASEEES and have become more comfortable at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo or Leeds, or even the Medieval Academy of America. But at all of those venues, I talk about medieval Eastern Europe and how it needs to be integrated into the worldview of the scholars present, as it was clearly integrated into the worldview of the people at the time. I implore my colleagues to consider what role and impact Rus’, Rusian women, trade connections, etc. might have on their own research and work. I also urge them, perhaps self-servingly to use work like Portraits of Medieval Eastern Europe in their classrooms, to introduce their students to a broader medieval Europe than perhaps they, or their instructors, are used to. All of this despite the fact that I still have lectures that include “add more here” and that may have been dated when I wrote them, much less today. I am certainly not practicing what I preach.

I am preparing to head into another sabbatical and reading widely in preparation for my plan of research projects. And while I conceive of myself as a medievalist and scholar, I am still the “Eurasian” historian at Wittenberg and have a responsibility to educate my students to the best of my ability – on all the fields and classes that I teach. So, while I have been housebound due to the pandemic, I have added to my reading books from my shelves about Muscovy, the Mongols, Poland, Lithuania, etc. in periods not my own. What I have found, not surprisingly, is that I am doing it (my classes) all wrong. The question then remains to me; what to do about it? When I was just starting out as a new faculty member, I was in a position where I had to write the vast majority of my lectures and class materials from scratch – not having had a great deal of teaching experience in graduate school. This was a hardship at the time, but it was also a boon to my own learning and my classes. Now that was over thirteen years ago, and many of those materials are out of date. I am at a position in my career where I want to devote the time allotted for academic work to my own research and publications. Which leaves me with a conundrum of how to fix my classes, and be true to my own ideal of encouraging others to change their own research and teaching to incorporate my ideas and material.

When I began reading and finding problems with what I was teaching; material wildly out of date, facts simply incorrect, perceptions updated based on new analyses and methodologies; I thought to simply open a lecture and replace a line or a date and be able to move on. Instead what I found when I tried that was that what was required to really fix and update my lectures was a wholesale rewriting, and rethinking, of not just the material, but how I approach the material. Once I realized that, my gut instinct was a familiar, “I don’t want to!” This was followed by a series of rationalizations – everyone does this, my students will never know the difference, no one will care if I do this, and my university will not pay me more or less to improve or change my classes in any way. I admit that I lived with that for a bit, but I still felt uncomfortable with it and I think that instead of just living with the way things are (even though my rationalizations may all be correct), I need to make some changes.

This leaves me with a decision, and ideally a plan to be made. I need to devote some portion of my time over a summer, or during my sabbatical to reading something, or more likely somethings, about periods on which I teach, but do not actively research. And then, I need to sit down and really think and reconceptualize what I want my students to get out of those periods. I am continually appalled by the textbooks that present Rus’ as just a precursor to the greatness of Muscovy, or as a hotbed of internecine conflict because it doesn’t have what later polities have. I can well imagine that Muscovite and Imperial historians are similarly appalled by my Rise of Moscow lectures in which I repeat ideas that are several decades old, even though I know better; or present merely a litany of rulers in the nineteenth century with a focus on war and conflict rather than anything to do with the arts and sciences, or culture in the broadest form.

I know that for many of us time is at a premium. We have families, friends, jobs, research agendas, hobbies, and much more. And despite the fact that I have those things too, and despite the fact that I really do not want to spend precious time in other ways – I think that I need to. I have come to believe that updating my teaching regularly and learning new material will make me a better scholar as well as increasing the information and content that I can bring to my students in the classroom. So, I call on all of you who are still teaching from grad school notes to take time to read something new and try and incorporate it into your classes – there are a lot of us out there, I know. And, I admit, perhaps by doing this, I will have a little more validity in my own calls for scholars to integrate Rus’ into their classes – whether relative to the medieval or to the Slavic world.

Christian Raffensperger is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Pre-Modern and Ancient World Studies Program at Wittenberg U, Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.