Padelford Hall is home to perhaps the most complex web of hallways and rooms, each twisting through the building in a disorienting manner that removes all sense of direction. In a small room at the corner of this illusion lives an overlooked department that has intersected the academic lives of thousands of UW students.
While the UW department of Slavic Languages & Literatures will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018, its roots reach much further back than its 1968 founding would suggest.
Russian was first taught at the UW in 1915, when it was part of the department of Asian languages. Bulgarian was added to course listings in 1965, and the Slavic department was born three years later. The UW is one of five schools in the state teaching Russian this year, along with Washington State University, Central Washington University, Western Washington University, and Evergreen State College.
Along with Russian, Slavic Languages & Literatures currently teaches courses in Czech, Polish, and a block called BCMS: Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Serbian. The department is also teaching Ukrainian this year, thanks to the arrival of Fulbright Scholar Oksana Zubchenko.
The UW Slavic department is among the best on the West Coast, which does not see as much focus on the topic as do schools in the Midwest, where there are greater numbers of Slavic immigrants.
There are currently 12 students majoring in Slavic Languages & Literatures, a number that has been fairly consistent over the past few years. While the government still considers Russian to be a “critical need” language, the department has seen less funding and support since the fall of the Soviet Union.
But the Slavic department maintains an academic niche here at the UW, where it is especially important to students from other majors looking to fill visual, literary, and performing arts (VLPA) requirements.
“Some of the decisions we make based on what’s current and what’s interesting,” undergraduate adviser Eloise Boyle said. “These are really interesting VLPA classes.”
Boyle and department administrator Chris Dawson-Ripley said they have become especially entangled with the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (REECAS), which focuses more on politics, while the Slavic department is centered on language and art.
Like other branches of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS), REECAS refers students to its linguistic counterpart to take care of major prerequisities, and the instruction of language and arts fosters better productivity for the students within their own majors.
“The instructors are so amazing, and the topics are really fascinating,” Boyle said. “Students have to be studying our languages and our literatures for a reason, and let’s try to match what we’ve got to make it the most relevant that we can to our students.”
Part of that adaptability includes offering a variety of courses and changing direction when necessary. As mentioned, the autumn arrival of Zubchenko brought Ukrainian to the table, but when visiting lecturers head back home, their courses usually go with them.
While Slavic courses touch on languages and historic literary figures like Fyodor Dostoevsky, there are also unique classes that examine the life of “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov and the films of Roman Polanski.
But the department also looks at more mainstream attitudes when deciding how to evolve.
“The direction of study at the university I think has been moving towards more of a STEM-based [approach], and we’ve kind of adapted with that,” Dawson-Ripley said.
The department now offers Medical Russian and Business Russian, advanced courses that focus on the mannerisms and “social niceties” of Russians working in these fields, which Dawson-Ripley says are more prominent in the Seattle area.
Russian for STEM is another new course that looks at both Russian linguistic and strategic approaches to working in such fields, and Boyle said students have been impressed at how their ideas of STEM have changed after taking the class.
Boyle also stressed the importance of linguistic and artistic skills for students, regardless of their professional path.
“When you’re in the humanities you develop so many critical skills,” she said. “Transferable skills that employers are looking for, they’re in the humanities, they’re in the social sciences, as much as in the STEM fields.”
Slavic Languages & Literatures’ efforts are not relegated to the classroom, and the department has fostered greater connections within Seattle communities.
At the UW, the Slavic department sponsors the Russian Film Club, which meets each Friday to watch Russian films both classic and contemporary. Department faculty members are also involved in UW Startalk, part of the National Security Language Initiative, which strives to improve education of critical needs languages like Russian.
Paired with Russian Table, a conversation hour open to all, these programs help connect speakers native and learned alike.
“It’s helpful because a lot of those communities, the heritage speakers we call them, will grow up speaking Russian in the household, but maybe they’re not formally taught the grammar, or taught the Cyrillic alphabet,” Dawson-Ripley said.
Outside of campus, the Slavic department works with a number of organizations, most notably Dom Polski (Polish Cultural Center) to help promote cultural festivals, bazaars, and other events. The department has been involved in Seattle’s Polish Film Festival and the Seattle Center’s CroatiaFest. Partnerships work both ways, the Dom Polski often brings interesting guest speakers to Slavic courses.
Dawson-Ripley said that Slavic Languages & Literatures promotes many interesting events that most people wouldn’t even think to search for, which can be found on their Facebook page. The department administrator said that students can contact the department with their own events, and they will be posted on social media outlets for all to see.
Boyle said the department’s small size is conducive to its dedication and professionalism, and the department is an important resource to students, who help form a tight-knit community on campus.
“We are a small department, but there’s a great advantage in that all of our professors know our majors,” Boyle said. “We really get to know our students and take care of them very well in this big huge university, and they always know that they have a place that they can come in and ask questions or just sit on these red couches and chill for a while.”
Reach reporter Alex Visser at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @thealexvisser