A Reciprocal Model of Learning
As a scholar of Russian history, Tracy Dennison, the Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences and Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Science History, has been keeping an especially keen eye on developments since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. While she has primarily taught courses on past eras, including sections on nineteenth-century Russian literature and Soviet history, Dennison felt like it might be time for a lesson in contemporary politics.
"I know if I were an undergraduate, I would be really interested in having someone who knew about Russia explain to me what is going on there, or how we might understand the conflict, or how we might make sense of the different explanations that have been put forth for the Russian invasion," says Dennison, whose new class, Russia (H 124), focuses on looking at past events as a way to inform current issues.
Dennison, who started out as a biology major before falling for Russian literature and history, has spent her career at Caltech examining how economic systems, societal rules, and institutions like states interact to affect the everyday lives of people, primarily in Europe and in the pre-Soviet era of Tsarist serfdom and autocracy in Russia. So, while she's not a Soviet specialist or an expert on the events of the past 30 years in Russia, she believes that exploring past structures in the country is a useful way to contextualize the current political and social climate.
"My research indicates that Russia—and this is very counterintuitive—has always been a weak state," Dennison explains. "It's always been a core group of strong men, as they call them, running the country—a system of personal rather than institutional rule. And what I'm hoping to do with this class is to show that there's this continuity across the centuries in Russia. And this moment in Putin's Russia when you pull it apart looks really very similar to the Tsarist period and to the Soviet period, just with different superficial characteristics. But the very essence of the way the society is structured is the same."
She hopes that through this lens, students might also be able to probe their attitudes toward our own society and how much we take for granted about the way institutions work.
In addition to giving undergraduates a chance to learn about and scrutinize current events in a classroom setting, Dennison says another motivation for the new class came from questions that arose during previous course sessions. For example, the last time she taught Soviet history and explained how the hopes for the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union never quite materialized, she received several inquiries about why that was the case. Based on her research, she believes it would have been very difficult for Russia to transition to, say, a Western-style market democracy, because none of those institutions had ever been in place in the country. The society simply doesn't have those mechanisms available, and, quite frankly, notes Dennison, we don't really know how to create them.
"Students would say, ‘But don't you think it's a cultural problem? Don't you think that Russians are just more passive about authority?' And that argument really, really bothers me," she says. "There are no such mechanisms for pushing back against power in societies where power is very concentrated. So, I thought I could use that set of questions from students and others to inform the approach to this new course, especially since they're so relevant in the current moment."
The act of teaching such a thought-provoking course also provides benefits for Dennison's own research practice. She's currently working on a book that compares the end of serfdom in Russia and in Prussia by investigating the process of state formation in those two societies and the very different trajectories they took. The class will enable her to test a few of her ideas and see how the students respond.
"Students often put their finger on the weaknesses of your argument," she says. "Sometimes they, not being experts, ask questions about things you've taken for granted and didn't think you needed to explain. I expect that I'll come away realizing there are some sections of my next book that are going to need some work."
Beyond the thrill of launching a new class that will consider these events in real time, Dennison says she's excited to be fully back in person, reconnecting with students and colleagues both as a teacher and researcher, and in her new role as division chair.
"I'm looking forward to bringing everyone back together and having a presence on campus," she says. "Any transition is like turning a page, and it creates a lot of new opportunities."