Letters to the Editor

On Teaching American History in the USSR

Various Authors, April 1989

I enjoyed and appreciated the article on teaching American history in the USSR by John Cooper. His pride in Wisconsin for sending two professors is understandable, but I must add that the University of Maryland is the only institution to send the same professor twice. I had the assignment in 1976, and in 1982 I was invited back for what Nikolai Sivachev always called my "second coming."

Professor Cooper's disappointment with the intellectual atmosphere was probably affected in part by the fact that those of us who went earlier expected very little, got more than we expected, and then wrote reports that reflected this. Professor Cooper read our somewhat exaggerated reports and expected more than he got. Perhaps those who taught the earlier periods have enjoyed a more flexible response. I taught the American Civil War as the first Cold War, and did my best to demolish the idea that economic rivalries and forces caused the war. The students may have been unconvinced, but they clearly understood the arguments.

The only surprise for me in Professor Cooper's report was his feeling that the students felt a disdain for religion. Many of them probably do, but every effort was made to convince us otherwise. Students took us to several churches, both active and museum, where they rather proudly interpreted the biblical scenes pictured in the murals. On one occasion we arrived in time for a funeral. On another we saw several children being baptized. Colleagues urged us to attend an all-night Easter service for which Sivachev had to get us tickets because the crowd was so large. A colleague went along to explain the details. The state-salaried Bolshoi Opera Company provided the music. We spent a full day visiting the Soviet "Vatican" at Zgorsk, and a large church was the major attraction at Rostow. Whether or not religion is actually making a comeback, we found significance in these efforts to make us think so.

I can write what Professor Cooper's modesty prevents. Mutual Soviet friends have assured me that he was greatly admired and that he contributed much to their knowledge and understanding. I believe that the American history program at Moscow State University has contributed to the recent changes in Soviet policy, and I urge any professor given an opportunity to teach in the USSR to go with enthusiasm. Your resulting contribution to the world's future may be very small, but it may be the only real chance you will ever get to make a difference.

Elbert B. Smith
Professor of History and National President
Fulbright Alumni Association

I have just read, with considerable interest, Professor Cooper's account of his sojourn at Moscow State University as Visiting Professor in American History, Clearly, despite some personal rewards, Prof. Cooper was disappointed in the impact, or lack of it, that he was able to have during his term in Moscow.

While some of his disappointment was doubtless site-specific, many of the expectations that were not fulfilled are general to the nature of such exchanges. Looking at them objectively offers insight into ways to improve the quality of scholarly exchanges.

My late husband and I made three extended sojourns in the country of his specialization, West Germany. On the first two occasions, we spent slightly more than a year; the last time—largely as a result of adverse changes in the exchange rate—we stayed six months. Reading Professor Cooper's comments and relating them to our own experiences leads to several reflections on such academic exchanges and how to maximize the good from them.

It is easy for the visitor to forget that the home team has a plethora of administrative and sometimes also extended social and familial obligations of which the visitor is free. A visitor is to the resident academics just one of many individuals to whom they may have social and professional commitments; moreover, the visitor is a short-term commitment, whereas the resident obligations are ongoing. The locals, for this reason, just don't have the free time that the visitor has—being himself geographically disconnected from his own set of administrative, social and familial obligations.

Europeans, being part of a more highly structured social system, are less ready to incorporate outsiders into their social and professional lives. Our observation was that the first year lays the groundwork, and that the fruits are reaped only in succeeding years. It is difficult for Americans, used to the more relaxed approach we favor, to accustom themselves to the slow pace of acceptance in a European framework.

Language is a major barrier. American officials in exchange programs are fond of telling visiting American professionals that all European intellectuals know English, so it's quite all right to lecture in English. This is simply incorrect. After my husband's first lecture, in English, to a group of German jurists, it became very manifest during the succeeding question period (conducted in German) that much of what he had said had not been understood. Henceforth he invariably lectured in German, his view being that even bad German that was at least understood served the fundamental purpose better than an English lecture that few comprehended.

What conclusions should be drawn from these observations?

  1. Effective exchanges should last for at least one year and preferably longer.
  2. Visiting American lecturers should lower their expectation rate. Europeans are slower to build professional and personal contacts. Moreover, while you, as visitor, are very conscious of the fact that you must pack your experiences into a limited time period, they feel no such sense of urgency.
  3. No one should go who does not have at least a working command of the native language. You don't have to be translator-perfect; but you should be able to express yourself in understandable fashion in the native language. Lecturers can write out their lecture first—in English if necessary—and have it translated; but it should be given in the native language.

To be sure, following these quidelines will severely limit the number of qualified and available applicants; but it is better to expose the students abroad to an American approach they can understand and interact with than to treat them to an exposition, however professionally distinguished, that is beyond their appreciation.

Nancy M. Gordon
Amherst, Massachusetts