I am a member of an academic unit that brings together linguistic and cultural knowledge from diverse corners of the globe. To integrate language learning with an understanding of world cultures present and past, we have developed skills and teaching interests spanning a considerable spectrum of the liberal arts. Classes taught by Modern Languages faculty examine the multifaceted role communication has played in the evolution of art and literature, and also how social developments, in turn, have impacted language forms. Our academic expertise encompasses many aspects of human experience in addition to the grammatical structure of individual languages.
The subjects I teach include all levels of undergraduate Russian language, and also the cultures and history of Northern Eurasia and Inner Asia, from Mongolia to the Arctic, from Hungary to the Pacific coast. One of the innovations I have introduced into the curriculum is a minor in Eurasian Studies, which weaves influences from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia into a historical and cultural whole. The minor also harnesses together my training as a Russian linguist and folklorist with my current research documenting the languages and cultures of Siberia.
In becoming a fieldworker with the endangered Ket language isolate of Central Siberia, I have also had to become part historian and part anthropologist, pursuing new knowledge about cultural influences far removed from Siberia itself. In the process, I have become what I regard as a lifelong learner—someone who constantly acquires additional information about languages, history, and cultures, enjoying the learning process as a wonderful end in itself. In my classes I strive to harness my multidisciplinary background to introduce students to the often-surprising connections between languages and cultures across time. Most important, though, my teaching is designed to impart to my students what I regard as the most valuable skill I possess: the gift of truly wanting to learn. My teaching shows them how to enjoy learning and how to foster this enjoyment as a lifelong pastime.
If judged by their titles, many of the subjects I teach might seem peripheral to a core undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. After all, why would any 21st century American need to take a course entitled "Nomads of Asia?" Many students sign up for this course simply because the time slot happens to fit into their schedule. In other words, they enter the class with a vague curiosity at best. But they come away with a deep desire to learn more, as well as with an unexpected understanding of how peoples in seemingly remote parts of the world have histories that are surprisingly relevant to our current world. Students who leave my classes not only remember what I have taught them, they also develop a thirst to learn more about it. I believe that this self-motivated interest in learning for knowledge's sake will serve them well throughout life. If they pursue this mindset further they will eventually learn more after college than while they were students.
East Asian Studies 210 examines the non-farming cultures of Inner Eurasia. It not only covers the origins and history of such major pastoral peoples as the Turks, Mongols, Arabs, and Manchus, but also lesser known native tribes of the Siberian tundra plains and taiga forests. Students learn how the economic change from hunting to food production fueled the demographic differentiation of human societies and largely preordained the outcome of their competition for resources. Inner Eurasia is a place where foragers, farmers, and pastoralists competed intensively for dominance. My course examines the cultural adaptations developed by such societies as Ket hunters, reindeer-herding Nenets, and whale-hunting Yupik. The study of such groups unites the native traditions of North Asia with that of the Americas in both prehistoric and recent times. I draw parallels between Asian and American aboriginal cultures, which stem from a common origin deep in the past. This parallelism extends to the present day as well. Many of the problems and challenges faced by Native Siberians under Soviet communism turn out to be virtually identical with those faced by Native American communities in 20th century United States. Indigenous peoples on both sides of the Bering Strait are grappling with the same legacy of language loss and the erosion of native traditions in a rapidly changing world. My lectures bring this struggle into clear focus, tracing its ancient origins and delineating its present forms.
The East Asian 314 course covers the Mongols from the earliest times up to the present day. Students learn why Chinggis Khan was probably the most significant historical figure of the past millennium. I trace his rise from an impoverished child in one of the most peripheral nomadic clans to the unchallenged leader of "all those who dwell in felt tents." Course lectures chronicle the expansion of Mongol power across all of China, Inner Asia and much of the Middle East, as well as Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. The appalling destruction wrought by the initial conquests set back Islamic, Russian, and Chinese civilization by many centuries, helping indirectly to foster the eventual rise of Western Europe and Japan. At the same time, the unprecedented contact between Eurasian cultures brought about by the political and economic unification of such a vast and diverse area resulted in an unprecedented exchange of ideas, inventions, and experiences that ultimately catapulted all of the farming societies far ahead of the pastoralist Mongols, who ultimately were relegated an obscure geographic corner of the modern world—the place from which they started.
The study of post-empire Mongolia likewise offers much of unexpected relevance to a full understanding of world history. In 1924 Mongolia became the world's second communist country. It also served as an important buffer zone between the USSR and Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Defeats suffered by Japan against the Soviets in Mongolia in 1939 helped turn Japanese expansionism across the Pacific instead. The role played by Mongolia as a buffer between Communist Russia and China is also significant, as is the collapse of communism in the country, which occurred during the year between the failed Chinese democratic movement on Tianamen Square in 1989 and the successful one against Kremlin hardliners in 1991.
Students enrolling in Russian 101 will hear no English spoken on their first day of class. I immediately begin with greetings and move on to exchanging first names. It is easy to catch on from the context what I am asking about. As each student gives his or her name, I write it on the board using Cyrillic letters, having the students copy it down. By the end of the class the students have practiced most of the alphabet, are aware of how their names should be pronounced in Russian, and have acquired an understanding of about 10 useful phrases. All of this occurs in an engaging atmosphere of natural communication, where students use their basic problem-solving abilities and don't feel as if they are memorizing anything at all.
By structuring classroom time to be as interactive as possible and assigning homework that focuses on the more difficult points of grammar, I am able to build in students a solid active as well as passive knowledge of Russian. Within a few months, even those students who did not know a single word of Russian or a single letter of the Russian alphabet when they started are able to converse on basic topics and also write and read a new script. Active classroom use of new material cuts down on the amount of time spent on rote memorization, leading to an increased desire to learn new words.
Many factors contribute to success in language learning, but the most important is the desire to learn. Many students need to learn a language but they do not truly want to learn it. I teach them to want to learn.
When I greet a group of students on the first day of class, I do not focus on the obvious fact that I am the teacher and they are the learners. I want to learn from them too by observing how they perceive the information I am presenting. Students soon gain a sense that I am sincerely interested in their views, their knowledge level, and their opinions. In a sense, I am treating them as my intellectual equals, and this is one factor that encourages them to participate actively in my classes. They also soon find that I myself am constantly and energetically pursuing the acquisition of new knowledge in my own field. They see that I too am a student—one who truly enjoys the process of learning as an enjoyable end in itself. My enthusiasm rubs off on them before they realize it, and soon they acquire new interests that enrich their lives and broaden their education. Whether the subject I teach is a new language or a geographically far-away culture, students quickly realize how interesting the topic can be and how it can deeply enhance their understanding of things already seemingly familiar. Just as I make connections between disparate human experiences in space and time, I also show that teaching and learning are interconnected as part of the same process in each of us. My style of teaching is successful because it teaches students how to enjoy learning.