First, they focus on technical details (“Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing?”) Second, they judge the characters: (i.e., “the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were.”) Finally, they stress historical context (“teaching documents instead of literature”).The author of the Commentary article is Northwestern's Gary Saul Morson of the Slavic Languages faculty, who teaches a course in (translated) Russian literature that gets raves in the campus grapevine.
Students are generally not aware that there is such a department as “Slavic Languages,” which teaches “Russian literature.” For them it’s all “English,” which is the shorthand for studying novels and poetry, and so it is only by word of mouth that the course manages to perpetuate itself.Run everything through the meat grinder of so-called theory, turn students off. Let the students empathize with the characters and get a sense of the writer's point of view, and there's engagement with the material.
The material isn’t easy. We read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’sAnna Karenina, and I devote another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300. Now, Northwestern is supposed to be the model of a pre-professional school. So why, of all subjects, should these students be attracted to Russian literature?
I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. And when I hear their descriptions of these classes, I see their point.