In the wake of budget cuts and the elimination of their major and graduate programs, Russian language faculty members at SF State are now focusing on solidifying Russian as a minor and attracting new students to the program.
“We have excellent support from the (department) chair, excellent support from the dean,” said Russian program coordinator Professor Catherine Siskron. “We’re regrouping as a minor.”
One of the strategies the Russian program plans to use to attract new students is offering two of its core courses – Russ 401 (Russian Culture and Civilization) and Russ 511 (Russian Literature II) – in English. Required reading for the courses, which was previously in Russian, will now be in translated to English. This way, students who want to take these courses no longer need prior knowledge of the Russian language.
“We want to reach out to more students,” said Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Professor Midori McKeon, Ph.D.
McKeon said this is how most universities offer such courses that teach culture and history supplemental to foreign language programs.
“We are not ‘watering down’ to an unacceptable level,” McKeon said. “Students will still get solid language training since we offer the language sequence up to the advanced level.”
Even though sections of subsequent Russian classes had to be reduced to every other semester, students will still be able to advance efficiently through the minor program, as McKeon formed a system to calculate which class should be offered each semester.
“She did her best,” said Russian lecturer Svetlana Kristal about McKeon’s efforts to convince the university to keep the Russian B.A. program. Kristal said McKeon was very disappointed when the program was cut.
According to Kristal, one of the challenges faced by the program is that Russian is a relatively difficult language compared to other foreign languages. “But the students we have by the fifth semester are really motivated,” she said.
Kristal said she particularly enjoys working with “heritage students,” or students who are of Russian descent and speak it at home, but were born in the U.S. or immigrated when they were very young. Kristal said these students often study Russian in order to get back to their roots.
“I feel like I can help them,” she said.
Ilya Gershov commutes to SF State from San Jose every day because San Jose State has no Russian program.
“I was really happy to see they offered it as a minor,” said Ilya Gershov. “I wanted to major in it.”
Gershov, a 23-year-old junior, came to the U.S. from Moscow when he was 6 and he speaks Russian with his parents, but never learned to read or write the language.
Stacey Burge, an 18-year-old freshman enrolled in First Semester Russian, didn’t know the Russian program had been cut.
“I don’t understand why they would do it,” Burge said. “Why don’t they keep it?”
Burge, who is majoring in social work, said she’s considering minoring in Russian.
Joe Herlicy, a 22-year-old senior, assisted professors on the Russian faculty during the hearings on the proposal to cut the Russian bachelor’s program in late 2004. Herlicy said he was considering pursuing a graduate degree in Russian when the program was discontinued.
“I was thinking about staying, but they cut the program,” he said.
Herlicy will be one of the last students to graduate from SF State with a bachelor’s degree in Russian.
Siskron said she hopes the bachelor’s degree program will be reestablished in the future, as students who wish to continue their education in Russian or Slavic studies in graduate or Ph.D. programs usually need a bachelor’s in Russian, but the current focus needs to be on getting more students to be interested in Russian.
“From a practical standpoint, Russia is a very important country. It has political importance, natural resources. It’s important to maintain good diplomatic relations with Russia,” she said. “We can learn from each other."
Siskron said it's important for the Russian program to continue offering courses that spark students' interest in Russian just to keep students aware that the Russian program is still there and is not going away.
"We love teaching our students," she said. "I love sharing my culture and my language with other people."