Saturday, April 04, 2009

New Teaching Techniques that Work

Last year I was a bit frustrated by my inability to motivate really good class discussions in my Political History of the USSR class. Since history is my field I felt particularly perplexed at my failure to instill a passion for the subject in my students. This year I have been much more successful in sparking interesting and insightful discussions in the class. One technique that has been especially helpful is passing out short primary source materials and asking students to comment on them. On Thursday I passed out the following two documents*:

Council of Peoples' Commissariats of the Union of SSRs Resolution No. 35 of 8 January 1945 "On the Legal Status of Special Settlers" signed by Molotov and Chadaev

Ukaz of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of 26 November 1948 "On the Criminal Penalties for Flight from Places of Obligatory and Decreed Settlement of People, Exiled to Distant Regions of the Soviet Union in the Period of the Fatherland War" signed by Shvernik and Gorkin.

I then asked the students how these acts which clearly discriminate against whole groups of people defined by their nationality could be reconciled with the 1936 Soviet constitution which prohibited both collective punishment and discrimination on the basis of race or nationality. What ensued was one of the best class discussions I have ever seen. I basically just conducted an hour long group dialogue on issues of political legitimacy, propaganda, the various motivations for people fighting in the Red Army, the political uses of memory and history, and of course national repression and Soviet state building. The best thing about teaching at AUCA has been watching the very tangible improvement in critical thinking skills exhibited by my students. I have seen remarkable academic growth in many students that have taken multiple classes from me.

*The copies of the documents I passed out were in the original Russian. I have translated the identifying information in the documents into English for purposes of this blog post.

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