Introducing Undergraduate Slavics Courses at the University of Michigan-Flint, 1987-1991

Theodosia S. Robertson

The experiences recounted here are those of only one Slavist, an independent scholar who teaches as an adjunct. They are presented, however, out of the conviction that despite the many limitations of such part-time employment, it can become an avenue for the introduction of Slavics courses in a variety of settings - regionally, in America's upper midwest and northeast, in fact in any area where Slavic communities exist, and perhaps also at smaller institutions dedicated to teaching, often private or church-related colleges that cannot afford either highly specialized staff or course offerings. While the introduction of Slavics courses at University of Michigan-Flint was accomplished before 1989, the potential for their development elsewhere is much greater today. The enormous changes resulting in the independent states of the east-central European region should act as a dramatic catalyst for interest in the Slavics field. Moreover, recession economics in America has combined with this new interest in east central Europe: fewer teachers must teach a greater variety of courses.

The University of Michigan-Flint is one of two regional campuses of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the other regional campus is located at Dearborn. The Flint campus began its existence as a two-year college in 1956, but has been a four-year institution since 1964. It has grown to comprise the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Management, and the School of Health Professions. It also grants Master of Liberal Studies and Master of Business Administration degrees. Its enrollment in Fall of 1991 was 6,603, of whom 6,168 are undergraduates and 435 are graduate students. Of the undergraduate population, 700 or 11.3 percent are classified as minority persons. (Data from U of M-Flint, Office of Admissions, Fall 1991.) The College of Arts and Sciences has a Foreign Language Department offering programs in Spanish, French and German; beginning Russian language is listed in the catalog, but is not offered as a part of a language and literature program.

Just as important as the campus, however, is the history of its setting. Flint, Michigan, is a plant town with a predominantly blue collar and multi-ethnic population. Its decade-long recession woes connected with General Motors were the subject of a recent successful film, Roger and Me, by Flint-born Michael Moore. However, the community's earlier and more colorful history is relevant to a Slavist, for at the turn of the century large east European populations migrated to Flint where they combined with other migration groups. A tour of city and township mailboxes or a glance at the phone book reveals an extraordinary number of Slavic surnames. Catholic parishes hold annual ethnic festivals and until the last few years the Hungarians and the Poles preserved their linguistic identity in at least one Sunday mass. An Eastern Orthodox cultural presence also exists in Flint. The local FM station, WFBE, features two weekly programs directed at Slavic and/or Orthodox listeners: "Sacred Music of the Eastern Orthodox Church" and "Echoes of our Homelands." Ethnic clubs remain active. The strongest and most solvent of these organizations is the Dom Polski where the Sons of Italy and Hibernians hold their regular meetings as well. A well-known and still patronized Balkan bakery is now complemented by newer Middle Eastern and Asian food shops serving more recent immigration.

I used the department's empty 300-level number which always appears in the Schedule of Classes as "Topics."
Much of the "old" east European immigrant population lived from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s in an area called St. John Street, the history of which was lovingly chronicled by a local amateur historian, Michael Evanoff (St. John Street: Through the Melting Pot, Flint, MI: Edelweiss Press, 1989, 4th ed.). That residential area was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a Buick Industrial Park. Even prior to World War II, however, this east European neighborhood had been changing, as its sons and daughters moved to the suburbs and their housing was taken over by the great African-American northward migration of the 1940s. Today the city of Flint boasts its second African-American mayor. The most recent successors to east European and black migrants have been southeast Asians and Soviet Jews, the latter welcomed and assisted by the well-established and vigorous Flint Jewish Federation. Many among the Jewish population of Flint have Slavic roots as well.

The above-described history is probably not untypical of any upper midwest or northeastern American "rust belt" city. Many longtime residents know this history and proudly recount their forebears' role in it. As a newcomer to Flint and a Slavist, I have found it essential to learn this local lore, for many of my students are interested in their family roots.

The University of Michigan-Flint is primarily a non-residential campus; its enrollment draws from the local population and hence many are of Slavic or east European descent. Moreover, the University's current administration reflects the variety of backgrounds and heritages in the history of the Flint community: the Chancellor is African-American, the Provost is Asian and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is Jewish. Affirmation of diversity and multi-culturalism in academe is stressed by the U of M-Flint administration and this commitment provides a context for Slavics courses as well.

The next step was to advertise, both on campus (newspaper, bulletin boards, announcements in colleagues' classes) and in the newsletter of the Flint Polish club, and ultimately obtain an article in the city newspaper.
I literally stumbled into this situation in 1986 after moving to Flint because of my spouse's employment. I initially attempted to interest the University's Foreign Language Department in a Slavics program of Polish and Russian, but to no avail. Since in addition to my PhD in Slavics, I also have a BA in European history, I instead began teaching Western Civilization courses on an adjunct basis for the U of M-Flint History Department. Being hired in the History Department turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise. Western Civilization is a two-semester sequence taken not only by History majors, but by numerous other students. Taught every Fall and Winter term in as many as six sections, "Western Civ" is the largest course in the History Department, and hence the course where a cross-section of the student population is met. A few semesters of informal statistics showed that 10 to 15 percent of the average "Western Civ" section enrollment were of Slavic descent. Moreover, if students from Baltic, Hungarian, and Jewish backgrounds were also counted, the resulting number of students with links to "East Europe" was even higher. The History Department already offered one course in Russian history, but it concentrated on the post-Petrine period. I was convinced that, first, potential enrollment for Slavics courses existed and, second, that there would be no encroachment on the fiefdoms of my historian colleagues who did not specialize in Slavics.

With departmental approval I began by introducing a course entitled "History and Culture of Poland, " a survey that would complement departmental offerings in European history. I used the department's empty 300-level number which always appears in the Schedule of Classes simply as "Topics in British and European History." The procedures for a new course introduction were initially avoided; once the course enrolled and received favorable student evaluations, then its "institutionalization" with its own number and description in the catalog could be attempted. Enrollment and student satisfaction would convince skeptical colleagues and administrators of the value of Slavics courses.

The next step was to advertise, both on campus (newspaper, bulletin boards, announcements in colleagues' classes), and in the newsletter of the Flint Polish club, Dom Polski, and ultimately obtain an article in the city newspaper. Students had to be encouraged that all readings would be in English and that the instructor would help them with difficult and unfamiliar material. As an optional course, but with no pre-requisites, it could be "sold" to students. The first semester that "History and Culture of Poland" was taught, twenty students enrolled and they gave the course excellent evaluations. It was assigned a regular department number and the paper work was done to have it carry "Cultural Studies" credit, thereby fulfilling one area option in students' programs and providing an incentive to choose it. The best advertising ensued: word of mouth among the students themselves. Having heard that "someone who knew about Poland" was on campus, students came to the office to ask questions about their own roots.

Two more courses were introduced in the same way: "Polish Culture Through Literature" and "The Slavs and Western Civilization." I continued the pattern: 1) to introduce it quickly via the available topics number, 2) to do my own advertising before each offering, 3) to avoid pre-requisites and seek an area option designation, 4) to emphasize the personal help available to students with no previous background in this area, 5) to tie the material in the Slavics classes into what was already taught in the two-semester Western Civilization sequence and finally, 6) to seek "institutionalization" of the course, requesting a permanent number and description in the catalog, after it had been successfully taught. Each course enrolled more than the minimum ten (usually up to twenty) and each received excellent student evaluations at the end of the term.

A few semesters of informal statistics showed that 10 to 15 percent of the average "Western Civ" section enrollment were of Slavic descent.
In addition to the introduction of individual courses through the History Department, two other possibilities for Slavics emerged once a good reputation for the field was established. A committee of faculty from the History, Foreign Languages, Sociology and Economics Departments has begun assessing the possibility of an International Studies Program or minor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Courses will be drawn from all four departments . The courses that I have introduced are now sought by this program to comprise, together with other courses and with the Russian language, an East Central European emphasis within the program or minor. Other Slavics courses can now be conceived as a part of this larger interdisciplinary program.

A second area in which a Slavist could be useful evolved through discussions with a colleague in the English department regarding a possible course on the Holocaust. My colleague's specialty is Holocaust literature; she is Jewish and her family roots are in Vilnius. Through our conversations we realized that as a Polonist I could provide a survey of the long history and tradition of Jewish civilization in Polish lands, while she could provide an overview of the different kinds of writing produced during the Holocaust. Using our combined expertise, we constructed a course offering entitled "The Holocaust: An Introduction to its History and Literature." With our departmentsŐ approval we co-taught the course, again utilizing the History 300-level course number, "Topics in British and European Literature." The venture illustrates one more way that a Slavist may function in a relatively small university that does not have a Slavics program.

It is clear to me that there is a market for Slavics courses. Becoming well-acquainted with students first through courses like Western Civ allowed me to adapt difficult and seemingly exotic material both to their programs and their level of knowledge. An emphasis upon Slavics as an area studies field and willingness to see Slavics courses as a component in diversity and multiculturalism enabled me to promote them to administrators concerned about the range of offerings at the institution.

The enormous changes resulting in the independent states of the east central European region should act as a catalyst for interest in the Slavics field.
Nevertheless, this is a story without a happy end. Despite the successful introduction of Slavics offerings at an institution which previously offered only beginning Russian, the ultimate reality of adjunct teaching remains. Hired on a continuing basis, the independednt Slavist leads a precarious life. Lack of appropriate status and compensation is a fate shared by many across the academy today. At U of M-Flint, as at many other institutions, rising enrollments are not being met by the creation and financing of new posts in relevant areas, but by reliance upon underpaid adjuncts. At the moment, exploitation of scholars continues while truly creative use of their expertise remains unexplored. That, however, is a topic for another article.

Theodosia S. Robertson is Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her publications in east central European culture include works of criticism on Czeslaw Milosz and Bruno Schulz, and translations of several authors.

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