Constantine Muravnik reports on the 2013 AATSEEL Conference

On January 3 – 5, 2013, I attended the annual AATSEEL conference in Boston.  (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages http://www.aatseel.org/program/2013-aatseel-conference-program/.)

I served as the chair and discussant on the panel “Nabokov’s Ethics and Aesthetics.”  I delivered a half-hour presentation on three papers sent to me one month in advance and moderated a discussion.  The topic of the panel was of special interest to me: I wrote a dissertation on Nabokov’s Philosophy of Art (Yale’10) and have used Nabokov’s work in my content courses in Russian.  The panel helped me compare and discuss my personal views on the matter with the views of those who currently work on similar topics.  The panel largely confirmed my own polemics against both dominant trends in Nabokov Studies, the “metaphysical” and the “metaliterary,” in favor of the aesthetic one (with ethical implications inherent in it).

Out of many interesting panels and round tables at the conference, I found one called “Making Content the Core in the Intermediate Language Classroom” to be particularly stimulating.  One of the presenters from Brown University, Lynn deBenedette, discussed her intermediate courses organized exclusively around content, not form.  While generally attracted to this model, I have one fundamental concern related to it.  Of course, it is wonderful when content and form reinforce each other in a language course.  However, as it often happens in intermediate courses, too much emphasis on content may compromise the presentation of and practice on formal grammar without quite raising its “content” to the level appropriate to a standard college course.  In other words, such a hybrid course, while entertaining for students and instructors, may end up being insufficiently rigorous both linguistically and intellectually.  The test of its intellectual appropriateness seems to be easy: we just need to ask ourselves if such a course would stand on its own as a college course if its linguistic component were to be entirely eliminated.  If not, then it would be intellectually “inferior.”  And the same with its linguistic component: is it sufficiently deep and thorough to qualify for a language course?  Or is the designation for such a course as “intermediate” sufficient to justify its shortcomings in both areas? I would say that much depends on the course and Lynn’s example, in my view, showed how one can successfully navigate between Scylla and Charybdis of content and form in second language acquisition.

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