Category Archives: Methods

A Dead Blog? No, just a ridiculously long hiatus.

Courtesy Llewi034 at en.wikibooks
Courtesy Llewi034 at en.wikibooks

After nearly a year’s absence, I am again starting to blog on teaching history. The past year has been devoted to teaching blogging and many other media to my students. Now, I want to return to talk to other professionals about teaching methods.

I know that many of us are in a quandary when it comes to combining teaching and technology. Years ago I gave presentations on how to use PowerPoint in the classroom. How quaint that sounds now. Presentation programs like PowerPoint and Prezi are now ubiquitous in classrooms. Most professors don’t think twice about using presentations to accompany their lectures and discussions. Like many readers of this blog, however, the integration of technology into the classroom learning experience poses different problems. Most problematic: how to balance coverage of content (always a problem for historians) while at the same time teaching students skills that they will need after they leave college. Historians have long been comfortable teaching students to write papers as a means of assessment. Then we began to focus more carefully on writing pedagogy in our classrooms. This takes more time away from the “stuff” we want students to learn, but teaching good writing is a skill that all students need to learn. The newest conundrum is teaching students how to use technology. Just as writing is a process of thinking, so too can technology aid the learning process.

Over the course of this semester I will be providing my thoughts on teaching with technology both to develop skills, but also to reinforce learning of content in the courses.

In the coming days Gleb Tsipursky will join the blog to discuss his “class-sourcing” projects. I have adapted Gleb’s model for a Russian history course I am teaching this semester. I will be updating this blog on my course’s progress, and hopefully some of my students will contribute their thoughts.

Please join in the conversation.

Technology and Teaching

Courtesy Nixdorf at the English language Wikipedia

Well, it has been some time since my Willoughby training at Dickinson on how to use various technologies more effectively in the classroom. Not all topics, like 3D printing, were relevant for the courses I teach, but I learned about more methods and media than I can possibly wrap my head around at this point. For now, I am integrating just a few items, primarily in my First-year seminar on utopias, so that I can extend my learning curve over a number of semesters and begin to see how the technologies effect learning and the workload for professor and students.

The easiest of the technologies to introduce is the blog. When teaching in London a few years ago I used the blog extensively as a way to extend the conversation beyond the classroom. At first the dialogue did not happen organically. But through some repetition, instruction, and prompts, the quality of the posts and comments dramatically improved. Students learned how to write texts (and I view the blog primarily as a way to teaching writing and critical thinking in a new medium), post still and moving images, embed walking tours of the city with Google Earth, and more. In my current First-year seminar we are learning the basics of posting, tagging, and commenting. This weekend the students will have their first audio blog, in which they use Audacity to produce a podcast, which they then post with some minimal text to the blog.

We will also be working with video projects near the end of term. Students will practice with iMovie and Audacity to produce a multi-media final project. For their training session, they will use still and moving images from an upcoming field trip to Eastern State Penitentiary to produce a video blog. I think it is important that students have an introduction to these technologies, but my chief intention is to strengthen writing and thinking. For a video project, one has to master more than the technology. Storyboarding teaches students to organize their thoughts, think about what is most critical to their story, and imagine their audience. Without thoughtful content and a connection with the audience, we simply have visual candy. That is not the point of these exercises. By using digital media, I hope to get students to practice serious writing (their scripts) more and thereby improve their writing in general. The assignments also have students improving research and analytical skills.

I’ll let you know how the projects turn out and give you an update at the end of the semester about the time commitment for students and for me.

How do you use technology in your courses? Russian history is an easy venue for using Google Earth and maps, Twitter, blogs, and GIS. I’m hoping to use the latter in my Soviet history course next semester. If any readers have used GIS in their classrooms, please let us know.

Wilson Bell: The Gulag Seminar

“Gulag Studies” has progressed enough, at this point, that it is possible to teach a
seminar course on the Gulag. Steve’s excellent posts on images and primary sources show some of the amazing resources out there. In terms of historiography, we now have a developed (or developing) literature on memoir analysis, oral history, forced labor and economics, official camp culture, resistance, release, women in the camps, sexuality, local studies, special settlements, the post-Stalin era, and life for prisoners after the camps, and more. There is even an annual, peer-reviewed journal titled Gulag Studies, published by the small publishing firm of Charles Schlacks Jr. Indeed, the problem for the instructor, at this point, is not one of finding and locating enough material for a course, but making difficult decisions about what to exclude. In this post, I’d like to suggest possible topics and (taking up Steve’s challenge) secondary sources for a Gulag seminar course.

Steve has already pointed to two of the best on-line resources for students and instructors, his own and the excellent “Mapping the Gulag” ( There are other amazing English-language electronic resources, too, including the sound archive, “European Memories of the Gulag” ( – in multiple languages).

The Gulag as a seminar topic lends itself well to the use of Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom. The use of wikis and blogs can be an especially powerful way to reach students, who are comfortable with the on-line format and with expressing opinions “electronically.” If public, moreover, blogs are a way to break down the ivory tower. My 2011 course blog, “Communism and the Environment,” for example, had over 1200 unique visitors during the semester, from all over the world. The blog has continued to generate hits, with over 3000 unique visitors since it went live. But even a private wiki or blog would work well for a Gulag course. Students would have the opportunity to discuss issues and problems before coming to class; the class would thus be an in-person extension of what is already an active discussion. Because the Gulag is a topic that deals with issues of trauma and intense suffering and a topic that raises theoretical questions pertaining to state power and the nature of totalitarianism, an on-line discussion forum—whether private or public—could be extremely beneficial.

Structurally, I believe that a thematic approach would work best. If one wishes to assign a general overview of the camps, the abridged version of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago could work. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History basically follows Solzhenitsyn’s general argument and structure, and is more accessible. We now also have Steve Barnes’ Death and Redemption, which offers a scholarly analysis and, crucially, integrates the history of the Gulag with the history of Soviet state building and the Soviet ideological project. Both Gulag: A History and Death and Redemption contain chapters dealing with many of the main thematic topics for a Gulag history course.

Below I’ve outlined a possible 14-week seminar course on the Gulag, with some suggested readings (by no means an exhaustive list). The suggested readings will mostly be familiar to specialists, but hopefully readers find my arrangement and suggestions helpful. The order of these topics could easily be shuffled around. For more sources, see the two-part bibliography that I compiled with Marc Elie: “Selected Bibliography of Historical Works on the Gulag,” Gulag Studies 1 (2008); and “A Supplement to the Selected Bibliography of Historical Works on the Gulag,” Gulag Studies 4 (2011).

Week One: Precedents

This week one could examine the fascinating work by Andrew Gentes and/or Abby Schrader on the Tsarist-era penal and exile systems. Gentes is particularly sensitive to some of the similarities and differences between the Tsarist and Soviet systems, and thus provides a nice balance to Solzhenitsyn, who dismisses any comparison.

Another option would be to examine the origins of the concentration camp as precedent for the Gulag. There are some fascinating avenues for exploration with the Spanish reconcentrado camps set up in Cuba; the British-run camps in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War; and the German-run internment camps in South-West Africa during the war with the Herero. That all three of these early examples appeared in colonial contexts is not coincidental, and, for an advanced seminar course, it may be worth examining the extent to which the Gulag itself was part of a Soviet “colonization” process, as scholars such as Lynne Viola have begun to do.

Week Two: Understanding Soviet Criminal Justice

On the other hand, the Gulag was also the Soviet Union’s penal system, and thus some understanding of Soviet criminal justice is necessary for a full analysis of the camp system. Peter Solomon’s Soviet Criminal Justice Under Stalin remains the key monograph for this topic, but I also highly recommend work by Kragh (“Stalinist Labour Coercion During World War II”) and Kowalsky (Deviant Women).

One could focus on the Soviet police, and recent works by David Shearer (Policing Stalin’s Socialism) and/or Paul Hagenloh (Stalin’s Police) are quite useful. Shearer’s article in the Journal of Modern History, for example, raises a number of key questions about the growth of repression via the state’s desire to keep track of its citizens/subjects.

Week Three: Explanations

The historiography has developed to the point where there are now a variety of explanations for the Gulag. The main area of contention is whether or not the Gulag was primarily an economic institution of forced labor, or a political institution of repression. For a nice contrast that should raise considerable discussion, I highly recommend assigning the introduction to Paul Gregory’s The Economics of Forced Labor, the introduction to Barnes’ Death and Redemption, and the introduction to Applebaum’s Gulag: A History.

Week Four: The Peasant Archipelago

Stalinist repression of the peasants was key to the expansion of the Gulag camps and the “other archipelago” of the special settlements. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the Gulag through a focus solely on the intellectuals in the camps, incarcerated under Article 58 of the criminal code (counter-revolutionary crimes). The state’s antagonistic relationship to the peasants was a crucial factor for the Gulag’s growth. I recommend Scherer and Jakobson’s article, “The Collectivisation of Agriculture and the Soviet Prison Camp System,” as well as the many articles by Lynne Viola on the special settlements, or her excellent book, The Unknown Gulag, which adroitly places the history of the settlements within the history of the camp system. Nicholas Werth’s Cannibal Island, while not directly about peasant exile, is a fascinating narrative account of an exile settlement in Western Siberia that is highly readable for an undergraduate audience, and also provides considerable information about the inefficiencies of the Gulag and center-periphery relations.

Week Five: Gulag Official Culture

Perhaps surprisingly, each camp within the Gulag maintained a Cultural-Educational Department, nominally in charge of re-educating criminals into productive Soviet citizens. There is a growing body of literature on the subject of official culture in the camps, although mostly still in article format. Yet the topic of re-education is a thread that runs through Barnes’ book, and is also dealt with in some depth in Ruder’s Making History for Stalin. For article-length studies, see my own “One Day in the Life of Educator Khrushchev,” Barnes’ “‘All for the Front, All for Victory!’,” and Drasckozy’s (hyperlink is a .pdf) “The Put’ of Perekovka.”

Week Six: Unofficial Gulag Culture

The best resource for this topic remains the memoir literature. Steve made some good suggestions in his post. I’d also recommend Margarete Buber-Nuemann’s Under Two Dictators, as she has great descriptions of life in the camps and also provides fascinating points for comparison between the Gulag camps and the Nazi camp of Ravensbrück. Steve’s website, has excellent resources on this topic, too. Major research libraries may carry the Memorial Society’s Museum Catalogue, Art and Life in the Gulag. Some of this material is available on-line in English at

Week Seven: The Gulag Memoir

I recommend at least one or two full weeks devoted to Gulag memoirs. Again, Steve has suggested some of the more accessible and interesting first-hand accounts. For a short but powerful memoir, I highly recommend Hava Volovich’s “My Past,” in the memoir collection, Till My Tale Is Told. Unlike most memoirists, Volovich was not in the camps under Article 58. Other memoir collections in translation include Remembering the Darkness and Gulag Voices: An Anthology. There is a growing body of scholarship that analyzes memoirs from the perspective of literary criticism, and Leona Toker’s pioneering work on this subject is an excellent choice.

Week Eight: The Gulag in Fiction

As Steve suggested, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are both excellent, and raise many issues for discussion. Russian television has also made mini-series versions of Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. I’m not sure when or if these will be available with English subtitles, but they are both high quality productions, and one can find clips on YouTube (here and here, for example). Although I have not yet watched the television version of Kolyma Tales, the version of First Circle is quite well done.

Week Nine: Oral History and the Gulag

Continuing with several weeks focused on the prisoner experience, Jehanne Gheith’s Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile provides considerable material for class discussion, not only for what the ex-prisoners say, but how they say it, and what they leave out or do not discuss. Indeed, issues of memory and trauma can be discussed in some depth in relation to this text. Another possibility is Stephen Cohen’s oral history, The Victims Return.

Week Ten: Local Studies

Recent scholarship on specific camps is, I think, especially strong at pointing out the economic aspects of the Stalinist camp system. Articles on Norilsk in the aforementioned The Economics of Forced Labor, for example, show that central authorities could focus considerable resources and effort on camps that were viewed as high priorities, economically. Judith Pallot’s remarkable “Forced Labour for Forestry” examines the interaction between free and forced labor in Perm’ province. Alan Barenberg’s work on Vorkuta, Nick Baron’s on Karelia, David Nordlander’s on Kolyma, and others also provide students with an interesting picture of how the Gulag functioned in various locales.

 Week Eleven: Women in the Camps

Cathy Frierson’s English adaptation and re-working of Simeon Vilensky’s Deti GULAGa (published in English as Children of the Gulag) contains information and primary material about issues specific to women and children in the camps. The memoir literature is, of course, rich with material from women memoirists. There are two anthologies specifically devoted to women’s experiences (Till My Tale Is Told and Remembering the Darkness, mentioned above), as well as Ginzburg’s key two-volume Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, and more. Golfo Alexopoulos’ work on release from the camps sheds light on how the administration viewed women prisoners.

It may soon be possible to conduct a separate class session on sexuality and gender in the camps, as Adi Kuntsman has begun to examine this topic.

Week Twelve: Camp Personnel

Unfortunately, we still have little scholarly analysis of camp personnel. Mochulsky’s memoir, Gulag Boss, provides considerable room for analysis, and could be excellent for undergraduates, as the book raises interesting questions about what Mochulsky chose to include and what he chose to omit. There is a lengthy section on the guards in Galina Ivanova’s Labor Camp Socialism, and Nordlander has published an article-length analysis of the Dalstroi bosses, but much more work remains to be done. Recent conference papers (link is a .pdf) related to the topic show that more studies are likely forthcoming.

Week Thirteen: Resistance

Resistance is one of the few topics that has garnered considerable scholarly attention, mostly focused on the strikes and rebellions of the post-Stalin period. During the Stalin era there were also strikes and other acts of resistance (including everyday forms of resistance such as foot-dragging, data falsification, and other informal practices), but these have received less attention. Steve’s article on the Kengir uprising is very well done, and one can also look to earlier work of Graziosi (“The Great Strikes of 1953”) or Craveri (in the book, Free and Unfree Labour).

Week Fourteen: The Gulag after Stalin

Finally, several scholars have focused on the issue of what happens to the Gulag and its prisoners after Stalin. Miriam Dobson’s Khrushchev’s Cold Summer is the place to start, but articles by Jeff Hardy in the Russian Review and Kritika also point to new developments in this field. Both Dobson and Hardy’s work highlight some of the ambivalence surrounding the camps and Khrushchev’s “thaw,” but with a different focus and a somewhat different take. Alan Barenberg’s forthcoming monograph on Vorkuta, which traces Vorkuta’s development from prison camp to mining town, sheds light on the transition between the Stalin and post-Stalin era camps. Nanci Adler continues to research the ways in which ex-prisoners adapted to life after the camps, and work by Kathleen Smith looks at the issue of the memory of the Gulag and the collapse of the Soviet system. Some of the electronic resources, such as, cover the entire post-Stalin period, too.