What is “CLAC”? The Communist Experience in Russian

We at Wesleyan are now entering the third year of offering “Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum” (or CLAC) courses. These are courses taught in languages other than English, all of which provide students and faculty across the campus with opportunities to deepen their engagement with their subjects through the use and further development of their language and intercultural skills. A list of all the CLAC courses we have offered so far, including those being offered this academic year, is on the Fries Center website.

One great example of a CLAC course was Prof. Victoria Smolkin’s course “The Communist Experience in the Soviet Union” (see here for the WesMaps listing). The student language background appropriate for this class was listed as “(preferably advanced) intermediate to native,” and the eight students enrolled in the class had a range of linguistic backgrounds, with some speaking Russian to varying degrees before coming to college, and others learning it entirely while at Wesleyan. Prof. Smolkin asked her students to comment on how the CLAC course differed from a language class and from a conventional history class. Here are some of the responses:

It differed from a language class in that the emphasis was on speaking and getting one’s message across, instead of on having correct syntax or grammar. We were also able to discuss the material in its original language, which helped in understanding certain cultural nuances that we wouldn’t typically have time to go over in a conventional history class.

I think it was also different in that we had a mixture of Russian language learners and native Russian speakers, so we could all learn from each other. I don’t think that so many Russian speakers [of different language levels] would typically find themselves in the same classroom, unless through a CLAC.

The CLAC class has its focus on “using language” (with native speakers) and gave me opportunities to actively engage with the language. But the same time, it has been a challenge for me to keep up with the speed and contents in class as my Russian level is not high enough to jump into the discussions happening in a class all the time. So that bitter experience encourages me to study harder the language itself as well.

As the CLAC class opened up a greater variety of ways to interact with Russian language and culture other than literature, I feel more motivated to take on my tasks to study harder the language.

Literature is heavy and not the strongest academic interest of mine, though I enjoy reading literature. Therefore, I appreciated the CLAC class as an alternative opportunity to learn and interact with Russian language and culture.

This class wasn’t focused on grammar; that fact made me spend more time outside of class brushing up on my grammar and practicing certain expressions so that I could better articulate myself in class.

Asked about aspects of the class that really captured what it was like, students said:

The class presentations by my classmates were helpful and reassured me of my understanding of the materials. I was scared when my turn came up, but my fluent presentation buddy always helped me to understand the class materials and reassured me that I was on the right track. I am thankful for their help and I was able to do the presentation on the complex historical materials with more confidence.

I liked the podcast assignments every week: to listen to a podcast of our choice and write a diary on it. It trained us to get used to the language and actively and regularly engage with the language itself and the cultural learning we aimed to do in class. And we were able to explore the topic of ourselves, so it was easier for us to continue as well.

One anecdote that I think captures the sentiments expressed above is one class during which we were discussing the meaning of the Russian word byt’. The word refers—more or less—to the static, humdrum rituals of everyday life. We had a long discussion about its meaning because it doesn’t translate perfectly into English. It was productive to try and untangle the meaning of the word in Russian along with other Russian learners and native speakers of Russian.

As you can see, CLAC courses can expand the opportunities we have on campus as well as further motivate people to study languages. They are not exactly language classes, but complement our formal language instruction. Try one out!