Writing in the Russian Major:
From Exposition to Transposition
The Department of Slavic Languages graduates Russian majors whose writing skills prepare them for careers in both Russia and the United States and provide them with a distinct competitive edge in graduate school. Our majors pursue careers in foreign affairs, academia, business, teaching, law, and a host of other fields. Through our focus on writing in Russian, we teach students to recognize the complexity inherent in all cultures, and we provide them with the skills requisite for navigating an increasingly globalized world.
Writing for Russian majors is vertically embedded into a sequence of required courses stretching across all four years of the undergraduate curriculum. Beginning with the first semester of our “Intensive First-Level Russian” course, students complete nightly writing assignments. This intensive approach to writing continues in every course up to and including “Sixth-Level Russian.”
Instruction in writing is central to achieving the Department’s broader learning goals. Slavic Languages recognizes four interrelated curricular foci: communication; culture; academic and professional applications; and de-Othering the Other. Writing is clearly a critical aspect of “communication,” and we expect that, upon completion of our curriculum, students will be able to write detailed texts in Russian that relay information and support a particular point of view. But writing is relevant to each of the other three foci as well. We require our students to understand and write about various aspects of Russian culture including: the place of Russian within the context of world languages; major religious, artistic, and social currents that inform Russia’s past and present; major periods and currents in Russia’s cultural, literary, and political development; and popular entertainment and media. Additionally, they must be able to apply their writing skills to the academic and professional arenas (e.g. writing short academic papers in Russian and writing reports, memos, letters, etc. in the context of working for the U.S. government, NGOs, or private companies conducting business with Russia). Finally, we strongly believe that our focus on rewriting original Russian texts to reflect other points of view and other speech registers is a highly effective way to help students view Russia from various angles and, accordingly, to deconstruct and reconstruct distinctive cultural agendas.
Writing in Russian
The Department of Slavic Languages’ focus on developing strong language skills is one of its defining hallmarks. Accordingly, we focus on writing in Russian (although we firmly believe that our attention to the writing process pays dividends for writing in English as well, since we constantly and explicitly contrast English and Russian linguistic structures and rhetorical strategies). After graduation, many of our students go on to live and work in Russia; it is one of our primary objectives to enable them to function there at a professional level.
In devising the writing component of our curriculum, we have consulted ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for writing in Russian. The majority of our Russian majors have not studied Russian prior to their arrival at Georgetown. Accordingly, they begin their study with Intensive First-Level Russian and, progressing through the curriculum, end by taking a minimum of two fourth-level courses taught entirely in Russian. In our experience these students generally function at ACTFL’s “Advanced-Mid” writing level by graduation. Specifically:
They can meet a range of work and/or academic writing needs. They demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe with detail in all major time frames with good control of aspect. They are able to write straightforward summaries on topics of general interest. Their writing exhibits a variety of cohesive devices in texts up to several paragraphs in length. There is good control of the most frequently used target-language syntactic structures and a range of general vocabulary. Most often, thoughts are expressed clearly and supported by some elaboration. This writing incorporates organizational features both of the target language and the writer’s first language and may at times resemble oral discourse. Writing at the Advanced Mid sublevel is understood readily by natives not used to the writing of non-natives.
Some students come to our program with significant previous language training and begin their studies with “Intensive Second-Level Russian” (or, occasionally, an even higher-level course). They may take our fifth-level class “Professional Russian” or even “Sixth-Level Russian” and achieve ACTFL’s “Advanced-High” level. Specifically:
They are able to write about a variety of topics with significant precision and detail. They can handle informal and formal correspondence according to appropriate conventions. They can write summaries and reports of a factual nature. They can also write extensively about topics relating to particular interests and special areas of competence, although their writing tends to emphasize the concrete aspects of such topics. Advanced High writers can narrate and describe in the major time frames, with solid control of aspect. In addition, they are able to demonstrate the ability to handle writing tasks associated with the Superior level, such as developing arguments and constructing hypotheses, but are not able to do this all of the time…. They have good control of a range of grammatical structures and a fairly wide general vocabulary.
At Georgetown, we teach the first four semesters of Russian (First-Level and Second-Level Russian) intensively. All sections meet five days per week for a total of six academic credit hours per semester per section. Students complete low-stakes writing assignments for every class and receive comments and corrections on them. They also engage regularly in higher-stakes writing (quizzes and exams featuring compositions, written dialogues, etc.). Students are required to correct and rewrite high-stakes assignments.
At the third level, the Department offers two different courses, both of which require substantial writing and rewriting (“Russia/n in Context” and “Third-Level Russian”). Russian majors are required to take both courses, one of which meets on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays, thereby guaranteeing regular writing assignments. Most majors spend at least one semester in Russia, where they must write in Russian in all the classes they take.
In their fourth year, Russian majors choose a minimum of two courses taught in Russian from a menu of options including advanced language, translation, literature, linguistics, film, and the Russian internet. Students who take the equivalent of our “Third-Level Russian” abroad must take “Fourth-Level Russian” at Georgetown in order to assure a strong, Georgetown-guided focus on writing. At the fourth level, written assignments are somewhat fewer in number but are more sophisticated and longer. Those students who take our graduate-level language courses complete correspondingly more advanced writing assignments.
Moving from Exposition to Transposition
“Intensive First-Level Russian I and II” focus heavily on low-stakes writing such as short responses to questions and translations from English into Russian. By the second semester, there is a noticeable shift toward guided compositions and dialogues in which students are given a topic and asked to use the vocabulary and linguistic structures they have learned to create their own texts. In ACTFL terms, “Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. [They] are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics….” By the end of “First-Level II,” students are able to produce uncomplicated examples of expository writing in Russian that focus primarily on description and/or conveying concrete information.
“Intensive Second-Level Russian I and II” continue and deepen the focus of “First-Level,” with low-stakes writing still paramount. Translation exercises utilize increasingly more complicated grammatical patterns and sophisticated vocabulary. Compositions are longer and require more challenging strategies, including comparison and cause-and-effect. As per ACTFL, “[Students] can write short, simple communications, compositions, and requests for information in loosely connected texts about personal preferences, daily routines, common events, and other personal topics.”
Beginning with the third level, students’ language acquisition has progressed to the point where they are able to read, discuss, and write about authentic Russian texts; formal language textbooks function as reference resources rather than as primary course materials. At this level, writing takes the form of compositions and transpositions of texts into other genres. Typical assignments include: making oral presentations based on students’ own written texts, summarizing the content of Russian blogs and other social media; reacting to texts that advance an argument by expressing one’s own opinion; rewriting literary texts from a different narrative point of view; rewriting texts in a different verbal tense and changing aspects and adverbial constructions accordingly. Problem solution becomes a more important compositional strategy.
“Fourth-Level Russian” continues the movement from exposition toward transposition. Students transpose an authentic piece of Russian journalese or legalese into stylistically neutral Russian and create texts in different genres in order to exercise their skills in such varied types of writing as blog postings in Russian, film reviews, descriptions of imaginary companies in which they might work, and PowerPoint presentations. Each project requires students to pay careful attention to genre and point of view.
Fourth-level classes in translation ask students to translate texts with an eye to comparing linguistic structures between English and Russian and ascertaining what they reveal about cultural difference. “The Russian Internet” requires students to create their own webpages. Literature and linguistics classes feature complex, paper-length projects based on compositional models appropriate for their respective academic disciplines. In all instances, students write and rewrite major assignments.
Slavic Languages is unique among similar departments in offering two levels of graduate courses focused on language, “Professional Russian” (a fifth-level course) and “Sixth-Level Russian,” targeted at M.A. students in Russian and East European Area Studies but also open to qualified undergraduates. More of our majors are progressing to the point where they can enroll in them. In these classes they learn to: deconstruct rhetorical strategies in the writing of others; contrast American and Russian mentalities; make implicit rhetorical strategies explicit. They are encouraged to imitate Russian rhetorical strategies in their own writing.
 It should also be noted that all Russian majors are required to take at least two upper-level classes taught in English, most of which promote writing through: regular low-stakes assignments (typically, nightly reading responses) and formal papers. Assignments vary, of course, according to whether the course focuses on linguistics, literature, or other aspects of Russian culture, but each instructor explicitly addresses the expectations of scholarly writing for his/her discipline.