Friday, June 29, 2012

[The Senior Essay] Prologue

I've been kidding myself since I submitted my senior essay to the head of my department in April that I'd go back and fix the many, many problems with it, but at this point I think the best approach is to make things...interactive (Academia 2.0).

Before we begin, some back story: as a Russian and East European Studies major, I was required to write what's called a "year long senior essay". That means that in both the fall and spring terms there's a spot on my transcript called "The Senior Essay"-- it's worth as many credits as a normal Yale course, but instead of going to lectures I was expected to research, write, and consult with an adviser of my choosing on my topic, culminating with the submission of "a substantial article, no longer than 13,000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography."

A few words about my major: there are essentially two Russian majors at Yale-- mine, and the actual Russian major. This is something of a relic of the Soviet era, when there was both more of an interest in and demand for Russianists with strong backgrounds in history, politics, and the social sciences. My major requires courses in Russian history and social science focusing on Russia and/or eastern Europe, and at least four years' worth of language study. In my department, one's language proficiency could in theory be in a language other than Russian (Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, etc), but because those languages are taught rarely or not at all very few people take that route. The other major requires only literature courses-- a lot of them-- at least two of which cannot be in translation (which, I'll point out, are not courses my Russian would've permitted me to take at any point in my Yale career).

I am the only person I know who picked a major her very first semester in college and never once entertained switching-- I briefly fantasized about doubling in history, but Yale is made very uncomfortable by double majors, and I didn't have the discipline for it. Why REES over Russian? The emphasis on history and politics was very attractive to me-- in fact it was sitting in the very first lecture of "Russia from the 9th Century to 1801" freshman year that I decided to be a professional academic Russophile-- and the less stringent language requirement didn't hurt either. 

Good thing, too, because over time REES became my own self-styled Orthodox theology/Church history major. While Yale does have a religious studies department, it's not any kind of place to study traditional Christianity, and I had little interest in courses like "The Sociology of Religion" or "World Religions and Ecology". Because it's such a small department (5/3021 in 2012, I believe) my Directors of Undergraduate Studies (they rotated often; kind of a Defense Against the Dark Arts type deal) were pretty flexible about allowing courses outside the department to count towards the major. "The Rise of Christianity: East and West?" I remember one saying. "Sure, it's foundational." I didn't end up taking that course, nor did I need the flexibility-- by the time I left there were very few Slav history or poli-sci classes I hadn't taken. Still, my professors knew that I had a strong interest in the Orthodox Church, and it was a comfort and a kindness that they didn't try to push me into a more conventional focus.

Typically responsible students start thinking about the topics of their senior essays toward the end of their junior years, to approach professors about being their senior advisers, if nothing else. One's relationship with one's senior adviser ought be relatively close-- not only ought he have some degree of expertise in the proposed topic, but he ought be someone with whom one either already has or can build a dynamic of comfort and mutual trust.

As some of you may know, after my junior year I was forced to take a year off, and while I could've thought ahead and contacted professors about my senior essay during my time off, I was too worried about being readmitted at all to take such a bold step. In August 2011 I was readmitted, though, and come September I was in quite a pickle-- there aren't too many Russianists at Yale, and even fewer with anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the Church. I hadn't thought anything through very much, let alone done any preliminary research, when my DUS called me in to ask how the adviser search was going. Everyone I'd asked (read: everyone who knew anything about Russian history) was already booked and couldn't take on any more advisees, and I couldn't very well not write about Russia! Owing to my unique circumstances my DUS agreed to "advise" me until our head honcho Russian historian (who was really ideal for me to begin with) got back from sabbatical the next term.

Suffice to say I did no work at all that first term, BS'd a two page long "prospectus" in December in which I babbled about Ober-procurator Pobedonostsev and the Holy Synod to avoid an F on my transcript, and had nothing at all to show my actual adviser when we first met in January. He rather promptly threw out the Pobedonostsev idea and told me that if I was going to research primarily in English, and wanted to write about the Church, I was essentially limited to Father John of Kronstadt or Vladimir Soloviev. I'd heard of them both, but knew more about Soloviev, so I started with Nadieszda Kizenko's biography of Father John, A Prodigal Saint. I finished it in about three days and never really looked back-- sorry Volodya!

While I did a reasonable amount of research, the essay itself I wrote over the course of a very strung out week, with the bulk of the writing happening in a 72 hour period. The more I read, the less it seemed there was to say about Father John-- whatever I was looking for, I wasn't finding, and entire books I'd read as background and taken heartbreakingly extensive notes on became completely irrelevant and unusable. By the end I was near constantly fantasizing about running off and wandering the country reading tarot for cigarette money. 

Eventually I did vomit something out, and I think there's a bit of potential tucked away in here somewhere. Let's find out together, shall we?

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