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