Professors within the department of Slavic languages and literatures faculty at Pitt encountered a shrinking student interest in their courses in the mid-1990s. They weren’t alone — many other Slavic departments across the country were likewise noticing a decline in enrollment.
“Not many students were interested in studying the Russian language outside of those majoring in Russian,” David Birnbaum, the co-chair of the Slavic department, said.
But Pitt came up with a solution to ensure the department didn’t sink. The then-chair of the department, Helena Goscilo, decided Pitt’s Slavic studies needed a course specifically designed to attract students outside of the Russian major — so she and several other professors created Russian Fairy Tales.
Now, more than 20 years later, the Russian Fairy Tales course is still incredibly popular at Pitt, winning the best class category in The Pitt News’ “Best Of” poll. Birnbaum said the course is filled to capacity every fall, spring and summer semester it’s offered.
The course introduces students to a wide selection of Russian fairy tales and examines the aesthetic, social and psychological values they reflect. Currently, the main section has a maximum enrollment of 350 students, but a second smaller course is offered through the College of General Studies for nontraditional students. The class has three exams and includes study sections such as “Wicked Stepmothers” and “Marxism and Disney.”
Russian Fairy Tales is currently taught by Robert Chip Crane, a visiting lecturer at Pitt who has been instructing the class since 2013. He’s changed the course structure slightly since he took over by incorporating more modern media, such as video clips, into his lectures. But he said the goals of the course are unchanged.
“We’re basically into three things — fairy tales as a specific type of art form, the tales as a way to introduce students to Russian culture and introducing people to the humanities through various methods, like doing feminist readings and Marxist readings of different material,” he said.
Initially, two instructors taught the the course to approximately 60 students in the 1990s, according to a report published in the journal Folklorica by the Slavic languages and literatures department in 2001. The main course went on to reach an enrollment cap of more than 200 students by 2000.
Student interest remained so high that the advising center urged the Slavic department to add another section of 100 students taught by another instructor and provided extra funding to support the course. By 2000 the department also began teaching the course in the summer.
J.D. Wright, a visiting lecturer in Pitt’s Slavic department, has taught recitations for Crane’s class for three years and sometimes fills in for lectures. He said the course is popular because of the unusual and wide range of content it covers that college students don’t usually encounter.
“We go from looking at medieval Russian peasants and what they believed about the spirits and the gods to looking at Marxist theory and how Marxism dealt with fairy tales,” he said. “The fairytales give us a doorway that we can walk through to a lot of different interesting rooms.”
Jenna Porter, a sophomore rehabilitation science major enrolled in the course, said she decided to take it to fill a humanities general education requirement. But she was also attracted to the class because she’d never had the opportunity to take a course on such a specific and uncommon topic.
“I’ve taken history courses before, but I never had the option to take something like this in high school,” she said. “The fairy tales are different than the ones I’m used to. There’s more witches than princesses.”
Birnbaum said the class is beneficial for all students — especially first years — since it serves as an introductory course to the humanities and helps increase analytical skills. Students in the course learn how to observe culture through reading literary texts and listening to music, among other activities.
“While centered around the theme of Russian fairy tales, it’s a really broad course,” he said. “The fairy tale material is fun, but hopefully long after [the students] finish the class they may forget the fairy tales but remember this is where they first analyzed a ballet.”
Professor Olga Klimova, a visiting lecturer in the Slavic department, is now spearheading an effort within the department to restructure the Russian Fairy Tales course. She said students enrolled in the large course would benefit from interacting more with each other through online note-sharing. She also wants to make lecture sizes smaller without decreasing enrollment.
She and other members of the redesign team — Crane, Wright and Sabrina Robinson, a part-time instructor in the Slavic department who teaches recitations for Russian Fairy Tales — are competing to win one of the University Center for Teaching and Learning’s 2018 Course Incubator Grants to assist them. They made it past the preproposal round and are currently competing for the grant against three other departments — biology, chemistry and economics. After handing in final proposals in March 2018, two to three applicants will receive the grant in April 2018.
“We’re the only proposal from the humanities,” Klimova said. “Our first proposal was more general — in this next one we will describe things more in-depth and hopefully get money from the University to support this initiative.”
Klimova, who taught the course from 2012 to 2013 during her final year as a Russian literature and culture doctoral student, said the course has a “special place in her heart” since she grew up with the fairy tales as a child. Though she admits many students come to the course to fulfill a gen ed requirement, the course may also be popular, she said, because of the “mystery” surrounding Russian culture, a former Cold War enemy.
“A lot of students are able to demystify that part of the world with this course,” she said.
But, Klimova thinks the course may also be popular for another very different reason — comfort and nostalgia.
“They hear ‘Russian Fairy Tales’ and think it sounds fun,” she said. “Everybody is familiar with fairy tales from their childhood, no matter what culture they are from.”