Commentary | Underfunding departments is insulting

Russian Studies’ merger with other language programs has reduced necessary course offerings

When other students ask me about my major, my response of “Russian Studies” always elicits either laughter or a string of questions, including (but not limited to): “Um, what?” “What’s so great about Russia?” “Do you even know Russian?” or my personal favourite, “McGill has a Russian Studies department?” As it is an incredibly small department, I usually laugh along with these confused Biology, International Development, and English majors. However, after checking Minerva on Monday afternoon, it seems as if those who had doubted the department’s existence would be proven correct.


For the Fall 2011 semester alone, five of about 13 classes open to Russian Studies undergrads have already been cancelled – four in Russian language, one in literature. Goodbye, advanced language intensive! Farewell, intro to Soviet literature! Who needs Russian syntax anyway? We do. These classes are integral components of an education in Russian Studies, and  now the chances of a McGill student becoming proficient in Russian will be quite slim. The Winter 2012 schedule looks equally empty. There are unbelievably few classes for Russian majors to take in the last semesters of their program. It seems there is only one 300 or 400 level literature class listed for 2011-12 – Russian Drama, which is at 8:30 a.m. with a cap of 25 students.


Students in the Russian program knew about the Hispanic-German-Italian-Russian dysfunctional family of a department planned for next year, although the explanations for the motivation behind this consolidation were unclear. What we didn’t know, however, was that our department would nearly cease to exist. By eliminating instruction in higher-level language and in deciphering challenging novels, the McGill bureaucracy will essentially render the Russian degree useless. How could a Russian Studies major graduate unable to speak Russian? How are we to map out degree plans if the courses we need to graduate keep disappearing? How many holes must there be in our education as a result of underfunding?


The fantastic Russian department professors, or at least those who have not mysteriously disappeared, are equally distressed. I remember going to see an advisor in the fall for what should have been a routine scheduling visit. Instead, she looked at my transcript and woefully told me that I would essentially have to complete my degree playing it by ear. She said that many of the courses listed online would be cancelled, and the situation was beyond her control. It is unsettling to think of how little input professors might have in maintaining the standards of a degree in their own department.


McGill is obviously having budget issues, but why these funds should be drawn from the language departments is unclear. I can only speak on behalf of McGill’s Russian Studies students, but I would imagine those in German, Italian, and Hispanic Studies are feeling similarly disappointed. If the school doesn’t have enough money to maintain a decent Russian studies program, perhaps it would be less embarrassing to cut the department altogether. It has been painful to see the program’s deterioration, and even more unsettling to discuss with current Russian students their game plans for graduating. There is more to Russia than vodka, Stalin, and Crime and Punishment, but how are Russian majors supposed to convey their degree’s importance and relevancy without an adequate academic background to support this argument?

Susannah Feinstein is a U2 Russian Studies student. She can be reached at