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Why You Shouldn't Take "Russian Lit" at Northwestern University

Updated on May 25, 2014
Professor Gary Saul Morson
Professor Gary Saul Morson | Source

It is difficult to attend Northwestern University for a single quarter—let alone four years—without someone telling you how much they love professor Gary Saul Morson. Professor Morson has a prestigious line of academic titles that follow him, (such as Frances Hooper Professor, Henry Fellowship at Oxford, Yale alumnus) clinging to the ends of his coattails wherever he goes. As a new transfer student in the fall, I eagerly signed up for his class “Introduction to Russian Literature.” However, I soon discovered that after all of the recommendation, praise, and impressive credentials surrounding it, the most popular class at Northwestern ended up being the worst class I had taken since “Health 2” my sophomore year of high school.

Before I go any further, I want so say that the point of this article isn’t to offend or upset anyone. (My health teacher, for instance, had a very arbitrary curriculum she had to teach, and my class was particularly disruptive, so it wasn’t all her fault the class was so bad.) But I do want to get students thinking about the classes they choose to take. I want them to reflect before automatically picking a course just because of its reputation, its easiness, or the name of the professor teaching it.

When I hear students talk about Gary Morson, they usually describe him as “amazingly enthusiastic,” or “charmingly funny,” or just “profound.” I would agree that Morson is very excited about Russian literature, and have seen how he goes out of his way to talk with students outside of class. However, his enthusiasm does not necessarily make him a good professor. Neither does his top hat, his suit, or the voice impressions he uses for different characters while reading from the text. I don’t think this has ever made anyone a good professor, and has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to interpret and teach literature. If students stopped focusing on Morson’s use of rhetoric and the way that he pauses at certain moments during the lecture so that it sounds like he is about to say something profound, then students would probably realize that what he says is either 1) simple plot summary, 2) opinionated praise about major Russian authors, or 3) unsupported and irrelevant philosophical advice, which is at best boring and naïve, and at worst redundant and offensive.

I’ve arranged the main philosophical points from his course in numbers 1-6 below. It should be noted that while these points summarize the themes in his lectures, they are also the entire substance of what he says. I’ve removed the irrelevant tangents and plot repetition, and written them down in concise forms. (Indeed, most students are encouraged to write down these themes before the tests in order to pull them off the tops of their heads and copy them down onto the page in front of them, so that the they have to use the least amount of thinking as possible.) Morson uses these themes nearly every lecture, and they do not change throughout the entire course. As you can see, the whole quarter can be condensed into just about a page of writing. On top of this, the content of these ideas ends up being painfully hypocritical.

1. “Focus on little actions.” This was Morson’s main point about The Brothers Karamazov. He wanted us to see that to make a big change, you have to make a little change first. Professor Morson came to this conclusion by reading the chapter entitled “The Onion” and by summarizing the dialogue of the character Father Zossima. Repeating what the book states outright is not analysis—it is plot summary. Plot summary does not focus on the little details, such as the complexities of the narrative, variations in tone, point of view, and character inconsistencies. This idea covers about the first three weeks of the course.

2. “Don’t assume you can predict another person’s actions, no matter who they are.” This is another universal theme that Morson has deciphered from his analysis of Brothers K. While it is a valid point, it does not take two different hour-and-a-half lectures to explain. It would also be nice if he applied this philosophy to his character analyses. Whenever a major character is introduced, he stamps them with a rigid stereotype and ignores any later action the character exhibits that challenges this stereotype. (The worst example of this is Anna Karenina herself, who Morson declares from the outright is a wicked and conceited woman; nine hundred pages later, nothing about his analysis has changed).

3. “Freedom of choice is what makes people feel worthwhile and human.” Again, another universal theme in The Brothers Karamazov. While Morson was able to give some direct evidence from the text to support this, it became apparent that his analysis of it was little more than paraphrase. Unfortunately, this ends up being the main point from his lectures about “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” the two most heavily philosophical chapters in the novel.

4. “Don’t subject people to a single, pre-determined model.” This is at the heart of Morson’s interpretation of Anna Karenina. He gives about fifteen analogies that have nothing to do with the book in order to explain it. I cringed when he started explaining how people should solve problems from the bottom up, using their own unique knowledge of specific problems. As he said this, there were five hundred students with their faces buried in their laptops and notebooks, all copying down exactly what he had just said.

5. “You convince yourself what you want to believe is true.” I don’t want to go into this one because by its nature it is impossible to disprove. (I will admit it gets me nervous that my whole assessment of this course is based on bias; but this could be true if I was praising or condemning the course.) I’ll just say that it doesn’t take almost 2,000 pages of reading to figure this out.

6. “Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are the greatest authors ever to draw breath.” I will admit it is an impressive feat that Morson has all the facts of Dostoyevsky’s life committed to memory. I’m less impressed that he repeats these facts like a tape recorder whenever he begins a new course in which he teaches Dostoyevsky. When starting to read Anna Karenina, Morson took ten minutes to read an extended passage from the book, and the only point he made afterward was: “This is why Tolstoy is the supreme realist author, and other writers aren’t.” While I agree that both of these men are tremendous writers, I don’t need to take a college literature class in order to come to this profound conclusion.

The reason I’ve summarized the main content of “Intro to Russian Lit” in this article is to show how little students actually learn in the course outside of reading the books on their own. Instead of being asked to think critically about literature, students are given these oversimplified conclusions that are supposed to encompass the entire books and, more importantly, get them A’s in the class. This would be a problem even if Morson’s interpretations weren’t close-minded, one-sided, repetitious, and not very responsive to the ambiguities in the text. The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina are both amazing pieces of literature—the characters are developed like real people, the language is rich, the plots are complex, and yet all of this is glossed over and simplified by Morson’s personal opinions and inability to engage readers to interact with the words on the page and challenge their ways of thinking. The books should be taught in a way that opens students’ minds to the rich possibilities in the novels, and encourages them to analyze these in a way that stretches their own mental capabilities. The course needs to change radically (and it could start off by reducing its size by about 90%) before it comes even close to being worth your time and money.

I realize that this is not the popular opinion about Morson’s class. It’s possible I had a uniquely bad experience, and that my above analysis of Morson’s course is just a conceited way to settle a score with a professor, or to justify a bad grade, or to whine about a class I didn’t like. But if my reaction to the course isn’t any of those things—if it is a fair assessment based on a considerable amount of thought—then I think we are left with a number of unsettling questions.

First of all, if this class is not worth our time and money, then why is it so popular? And why is Professor Morson so revered among the academic community? Also, why are so many students content with being told what to think and with staying inside their comfortable intellectual bubble, where they can easily (and incorrectly) interpret and deal with the resounding complications depicted in these texts? And, most importantly, why is this a such a big problem?

I think the only way that we can fairly address these questions is if we take a step back from our Northwestern sphere and consider them from an outside perspective. We should try to answer them not as college students, but as young adults who take part in the real world, but have been privileged enough to get into college, and who ultimately rely on others for the resources we need.

First of all, we have to own up to the fact that we like doing easy things rather than hard things. It makes sense—like water, we tend to take the path of least resistance. Therefore, if a class requires only two in-class essays, if you don’t actually have to read the books, and if it’s considered an “easy A,” it makes sense to take it. What’s the harm in giving yourself a break while boosting your GPA? Especially if it’s a class taught by one of the most renowned faculty members at Northwestern and is described by many students as a “must take” and “life changing” class?

The truth is, there is a lot of harm in taking a class like this. The fact that five hundred students take this class every year at one of the country’s leading academic institutions is an actual problem. If students’ expectations for a college course never rise above the level of “Introduction to Russian Literature,” then colleges and universities have no place in our society. If professors are not held responsible to teach students to think for themselves and prepare them to face real-world problems, what good do they serve? Is it only to wear a top hat, stroll back and forth across the front of an auditorium, and mimic characters’ voices as they read from a book? In order for a college to be a legitimate, meaningful institution—one that does more than preserve and protect the rights of the privileged—then it must provoke its students in a way that will reach beyond the confines of the lecture hall.

Under these expectations, Morson’s class is a drastic step backwards. It is a draft of stuffy, academic air dressed heavily in rhetoric and reputation. It is an easy way to fill up a transcript that will later keep you aloft once you graduate, granting you entrance into a life of advantage, as if it were a lucky golden ticket you did nothing to deserve. So before you think about taking “Intro to Russian Lit” or any other mega-literature class by Gary Morson, I urge you to think about how much you want to grow and challenge yourself during your college years. If you want your experience to be worthwhile, you should not take “Russian Lit.” If you want to bring something to the world that can sustain itself outside of college lecture halls, if you want to make a difference to people of all sorts of positions and privileges, then you should walk past these types of easy, oversimplified, feel-good courses with your hand covering your nose, as if they were a sack of rotten onions deteriorating in the garbage can where they belong.


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      TA 5 months ago

      As a former TA for this course who found this thread while googling something else (Morson's still-not-finished Dostoeveky book), I agree with most of what you say. Morson's philosophy is shallow to the point of New-Age snake oil, and his readings are simplistic and politicized. It's worth pointing out that Morson does not speak a word of Russian, and his "encyclopedic knowledge" of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is just a carefully rehearsed charade. In reality, his expertise on both authors is limited to a carefully selected collection of quotations and anecdotes (some of them questionable) that support his right-wing political views. You will never hear him mention that Tolstoy was an anarchist-pacifist-vegetarian. Nor has Morson ever published original research on either author's life, and as far as I know he hasn't been to Russia in the last 40 years, maybe ever.

      As for his interpretations, they aren't nearly as radical as he claims. As he is forced to note in his Anna Karenina book, many scholars have criticized Anna before him, despite his claims to be the first. What makes Morson different from previous scholars is just how much he is willing to criticize a fictional character in a nearly powerless position. He has all the sympathy in the world for her elderly bureaucrat of a husband who married her as a teenager and whom (understandably) she finds repulsive, and he seems to really think that the solution to all her troubles is to "focus on the little things." Folks, Morson is a far-right Republican. He is strongly opposed to feminism. If all you ladies and your mothers and their mothers took his advice and "focused on the little things" instead of rallying for social change, you wouldn't be at Northwestern--you'd be at home raising children and looking at the gold in sand.

      The last thing I'll mention is that Morson is enormously pretentious. He rails against literary theorists and their jargon, then turns around and invents expressions like "forgettery" and "false listening" when "selective memory" and "selective hearing" would do just fine. Giving new names to old ideas does not make them original, and, as the author of this post points out, having students write "I will think for myself" fifty times on a page is no substitute for actual critical thinking. It's a pity, cause Tolstoy is a great author and Anna Karenina is a much better book than the plodding, moralizing, banal tome Morson describes. Do yourself a favor and take a real literature course, not this Trumpist hallmark card.

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      Adam 13 months ago

      If you believe that the point of that course is to learn about Russian literature, you probably just didn't pay any attention at all.

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      Swamiwilly 18 months ago

      Brialliant! Thanks!

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      WillHamel 23 months ago

      Dear Anonymous,

      I am more than happy to reply to your comment. Although I am very busy working on my Ph.D. dissertation for quantum post-structuralist linguistic relativity (in which I prove theory of everything, unlock the cause of the nuclear force, and determine the secret code in which extra-terrestrial beings have for centuries been communicating to us through the great authors of classic literature), I can think of nothing better than to re-visit this farcical op-ed piece I wrote one night, two and a half years ago, after a six pack of PBR. Indeed, I believe it was none other than this particular article in which my mounting genius could no longer be contained by my mortal cranium, and burst onto the virtual page like a snot rocket, or (better yet) a squelch of Taco Bell-induced diarrhea.

      In all seriousness, I am glad to see that someone has engaged with my article in a spirit of earnest skepticism. I am very curious: how did you come across it? (The page hadn’t seen activity in 18 months). Do you attend Northwestern University? Have you taken any classes from Prof. Morson? Unfortunately, I had very few meaningful conversations about Morson’s class while attending NU, but would be delighted to engage in one now.

      Looking back on the piece now, I realize that the frustration I used to write it also doomed it to be nothing more than a rant. As a rant, it alienates readers from my point of view and encourages them to poke holes at every angle of the argument. In this sense it’s a complete failure. For instance: that I did not persuade readers such as yourself that I had, in fact, considered the unlikelihood “that Professor Morson, a celebrated lecturer, is presenting students year after year with a narrow view of these books,” is a perfect example of why it’s a poorly written piece. For the record, I had indeed considered my ludicrous position. I even included an entire paragraph about it. (It begins, “I realize that this is not the popular opinion about Morson’s class. It’s possible I had a uniquely bad experience.”) The problem is that when you write a rant, even the most clearly intentioned messages become muddled and unconvincing. I appreciate that you bring up some problems with the article; doing so has pinpointed the ideas in it that need more clarification. I hope you allow me to start doing some of that here.

      First off, I think you bring up a good point that I, as a sophomore undergrad, was in no position to outright reject Morson’s interpretations as completely obvious. However, I’d like to clarify that I did not immediately throw out his ideas as narrow. I wrote this article after attending weeks of Morson lectures with an open mind, and trying to figure out if there was more substance to them than there seemed to be on the surface. It was only after I took the first in-class exam that I realized the folly of this endeavor. On the test, the three questions in which I repeated Morson’s themes, sometimes word for word, I received full marks. For the fourth question, in which I deviated from the mold and wrote about my own ideas, I received half credit (not for poor analysis but for misidentifying the appropriate theme).

      Secondly, I wasn’t so much concerned with what the themes were as what they did to the books. Morson’s themes aren’t so much analysis as moralistic aphorisms. Not sure about you, but I learned in high school that looking for morals was a very simplistic way of reading literature. The class condensed these 1000-page books into a few truisms, which regardless of what these truisms are, fails to engage the full story of either book.

      Third, and most importantly, I strongly disagree with the format of the class. The teacher sprays students with knowledge like a fire hose, students hold out giant buckets to catch knowledge, and then dump said knowledge into in-class exam booklets. This is the type of class in which I felt I did not belong, and that I hoped other students would have felt disappointed by. Instead of encouraging original thought, the class encouraged memorization and essentialization. I wanted my article to encourage other students to examine not just what they had learned, but if they had learned to think for themselves.

      I’m not sure whether or not you’ve taken this course. If you haven’t, I see it hard for you to defend your claims with any credibility. If you have, I would love to hear your opinion of the class, and how you would defend its anarchic and thought-stymying format. Then we can have a debate.

      As for my “interpretation” of the books before Morson’s lectures: I admit that I had none. I would read a section of text and come into class mulling rudimentary ideas in my head, and then hear Morson talk about some of his universal themes. I never developed my ideas into fully-realized and supported analysis, partly because I was never encouraged to do so in class. I agree that “to come up with a unique, and compelling interpretation on your own” is a difficult task that takes time and reflection, much like correct comma usage. It would take many hours to develop original interpretations, especially if these are to rise above morals aphorisms.

      However, I would prefer not to use the word “interpretation” for the way that I, or anyone, experiences novels, unless perhaps that person is an interpreter. Instead of reading novels like a secret code (d’oh, my dissertation!), readers can experience novels as exercise for the imagination, in which they study the relationships of words, dialogue, narrative structure, point of view, and meaning. Thinking up interpretations is merely one way to experience a novel. I will say that in my experience of reading Anna Karenina, I explored how the desires and class status of particular Russian characters created, changed, or maintained their identity and relationship to others in their society. That Lenin, for instance, was attracted to a particular way of life that both ignored aspects of upper class culture but also necessitated a political state of mind. But the point is to read the novels for every word, character, and feeling it has. Not to condense these into a few witty, well-packaged themes.

      As a side note—that you find my oversimplification of Morson’s themes comical proves that my original article was at least somewhat successful. Everything about the themes numbered 1-6 was a big joke. Just like the class! I enjoyed that you contributed to the joke by placing Morson and Einstein at the same end of your analogy about the theory of relativity. I really got a kick out of that.

      Write back soon—please. I am currently wasting my apparently brilliant mind at a temp job for an online fashion company in which I am paid to twiddle my thumbs and occasionally fill out an Excel sheet using only my elbows. That I was given the chance to spend some of my workday responding to your comment was a true blessing. I look forward to more banter soon.

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      Anonymous 23 months ago

      I would have loved to see your interpretation of the books before his lectures. Its easy to say something is obvious once you have already been presented with it, but to come up with a unique, and compelling interpretation on your own is a completely different matter. It is also interesting that you seem to look down on your fellow peers so easily. Consider the following: what is more likely, that Professor Morson, a celebrated lecturer, is presenting students year after year with a narrow view of these books, or that you yourself failed to understand the message he was tying to explain. While it is possible that you truly are the genius you implicitly make yourself out to be in this article, I think it much more likely that you are not. Lastly I find your oversimplification of these themes comical. What you did in this article would be the equivalent of a first year physics major proceeding to explain Einstein's theory of relativity, and then proceeding to declare how obvious it really was. Perhaps you will find this analogy somewhat of an exaggeration, but I believe my point remains. I would love to hear your response to my comments, as I may be having the privilege of engaging with clearly one of the brightest minds of our generation.

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      SylviaSky 3 years ago from USA

      Most of your classmates were probably not familiar with any sort of literature, much less Russian literature, and Dr. Morson at least gives them someplace to start. Also, students who grew up on Sesame Street demand that their instructors be "entertaining," friendly, and easy graders, and not challenge them too much so they can feel good about themselves, and Dr. Morson is giving them exactly what they want -- and what they deserve. By the way, did you ever have courage enough to raise your hand in class and challenge Dr. Morson directly?