For any students interested in AIFS St. Petersburg, here is a review of each course I am taking this semester. Students are required to take an intensive Russian course, which translates to 6-9 American credits. You complete a placement test during orientation, and may end up in Beginner I, Beginner II, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, Advanced I, or Advanced II. These classes meet for 3 hours a day, Monday through Wednesday, and 1.5 hours on Thursday.
Then you may choose one, two, or three elective courses (you need at least one to register as a full-time student, which keeps your student visa valid). Electives are in taught in English and generally cover Russian politics, culture, religion, society, literature, and history. They only meet once a week, mostly on Fridays (when there are no language lessons), and last 1.5-2 hours. If you are an advanced Russian speaker and would feel comfortable in an all-Russian classroom, you may also choose from the university’s more extensive Russian course offerings.
Students are usually concerned about the difficulty of classes, and it should be said up front that the program really wants you to get out of the classroom and explore the culture. While language classes are rigorous (any level above total beginner is conducted almost entirely in Russian), electives tend to have little to no homework, do not require research or group projects, meet once a week, and have only a midterm and a final exam. Electives are there to support an understanding of the culture you are experiencing, not keep you in your dorm.
Probably the only difficult adjustment for Americans is that even the smallest elective classes are conducted lecture-style, with very little student participation expected. One important thing to note about grading: exam grading, and especially essay grading, seems very arbitrary. Make sure that you only include information that the teacher mentioned in lecture. The professors are only looking for one right answer. Extraneous information is not welcome, in many cases simply because the professor doesn’t know enough English to understand what your tangent is about. While this does prevent slackers from bullshitting their way through questions, it also hurts good students who were taught to provide critical analyses instead of “regurgitating.”
Grades range from 1 (fail/F) to 5 (excellent/A), but anything below a 3 (average/C) is more or less unheard of.
Here are my classes:
Language course: Russian 203 Intermediate III
Instructors: Viktoria Gorbenka and Yevgenia
I am not yet sure how this course will appear on my transcript. Language levels here at IMOP (the international branch of SPb State Polytechnic) don’t always correspond exactly to those in the United States. The exact level is determined later in the semester by the professor, who is best able to assess where the class is at as a whole. Every class starts out with a bit of review, which the professor uses to gauge the students’ proficiency and plan future lessons. My group went over basic dialogues, revisited concepts in grammar (especially irregulars), and summarized some short stories.
Because I have no formal experience with Russian (I self-taught starting last semester using the following methods), I would consider myself at the bottom of my class. Most other intermediate students have had 1-2 years of Russian already, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Although it will be more difficult than the class I tested into initially, I would rather be challenged at the bottom than bored at the top.
Language courses are taught in a kind of tag-team fashion: one instructor for conversation, one instructor for grammar. I’m not entirely clear on which is which, because every class inevitably involves so much of both. Sometimes they alternate every other day, or every other week. The purpose of this is so you don’t become dependent on one instructor’s voice or speaking style for comprehension. It’s a good concept, but can be difficult in practice as it sometimes seems that the two instructors don’t always seem to be operating on the same syllabus.
Elective 1: Political Science/Sociology 311 (Contemporary Russian Life)
Professor: I. Kuzhmin is a riot. Everyone in the program should take at least one course with him (he teaches almost every history/politics course). He wears a Communist Party pin to class, candidly discusses Russian racism and xenophobia (“you call Obama black, when really he is not and a Russian might say he is chocolate”), and makes sure you keep up with current events.
About: This class would more helpfully be entitled “Russia 101,” although previous knowledge of the region’s political history are extremely useful. It is very much a “social studies” class, integrating geography, cultural trends, social issues, demographics, recent military conflicts, and politics. While you’re not going to delve into the “Russian soul,” this class is enlightening in the sense that it can help explain some of the otherwise inexplicable experiences you will periodically run into.
Elective 2: Religion/Sociology 319 (The Russian Orthodox Church)
Professor: M. Chumovitskaya clearly knows her subject incredibly well—so well in fact, that each class consists of her straight lecturing to the class (often with no notes). While impressive, this does get very monotonous, very quickly.
About: I had to take this class to fulfill my home institution’s religion requirement (as did many of my classmates), although I was mostly interested in taking it to round out what I learned as an intern at the Museum of Russian Icons. Some students had difficulty with the subject matter, because early Russian history and Orthodox religion rarely if ever appear in American curricula. That aside, we were often provided with a set of printed notes at the beginning of each class, so everyone automatically has a failproof study guide.
Elective 3: Literature 307 (19th Century Russian Literature)
Professor: T. Shustrova is an amazing professor. Her knowledge of Russian literature is incredibly comprehensive, from the plots of individual stories to the larger historical narratives into which they fit. She is probably the most engaging of all the professors here in that she encourages the class to ask questions and contribute during the standard lectures.
About: This course begins with “classical” Russian literature, i.e. from the Kievan Rus period. What I really love about this class is that the literature is discussed in the context of the culture and historical events that produced it. For each work, we spent the better part of the class reviewing the author’s life, any relevant ideological or political movements, and influential contemporary events. Russian literature is intimidating and incomprehensible to most people (I had a terrible time with Dostoevsky in high school), because it makes little sense without an understanding of the audience to whom the author “addresses” the work. Most of the books are available from the AIFS office mini-library, or just online (they’re old enough to be in the public domain). Here are the works our class covered: The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Eugene Onegin, A Hero of Our Times, Dead Souls OR Diary of a Madman, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina OR War and Peace, and Uncle Vanya.