Kevin Windle responds to Robert Dessaix and Paul Thom

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The rationale set forth in Professor Paul Thom’s letter for his decision to call off the first-year Russian course at ANU may appear simple and incontrovertible (see Thom’s response to Robert Dessaix’s article). It leaves aside, however, a number of pertinent facts.

Firstly, in discussions at the end of 1996 regarding the future of the Russian Programme, the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and the staff of the Programme agreed that, whatever retirements or resignations might occur, the Programme would retain a minimal base from which to expand when conditions were more favourable. In the event retirements left a staff of one senior lecturer. Although this is not stated in Paul Thom’s letter, it is no secret that the cancellation of first-year Russian is intended to be the first move in phasing out the Programme. This is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the agreement.

Secondly, in speaking of numbers of students Professor Thom’s letter makes no mention of the role of the University itself in driving numbers down. In late 1996 there were reports in the press, citing highly placed authorities at ANU, that the Russian Programme might have to close. This was widely perceived as meaning that it would definitely close, even that it had already closed. Robert Dessaix, writing in mid-1997, referred to ‘strong rumours’ to this effect. This was certainly the public perception on Open Day in September 1997, when the Department of Modern European Languages attempted to counter the rumours by a poster headed ‘Whatever they say, Russian is still on next year at the ANU’. This news clearly came as a surprise to many of the Department’s visitors.

It is clear that Russian studies are in difficulty by virtue of being currently unfashionable, as Robert Dessaix has so eloquently stated. This is an important factor affecting enrolments nationwide. Enrolments can be further reduced, however, by simple rumour and black propaganda at the local level. It is not only Russian (but Russian has been most vulnerable) which has been affected by this: ‘Don’t study X. The programme’s being run down.’ Clearly this kind of rumour may serve an institution very well if it is bent on using low enrolments to rid itself of small disciplines. We may expect to see further use of this technique to exert pressure on other small but academically highly respectable departments and programmes. It is very difficult for departments or individual staff members to counter this sort of whispering campaign.

Robert Dessaix’s piece might in fact present an excessively pessimistic view. In most Australian universities student numbers in Russian were stable throughout the ’70s and ’80s, before the steep rise following perestroika. It is since that period that we have seen a decline, but not, as Professor Thom would have it, a ‘collapse’.

Regarding the figures themselves, before the cancellation Professor Thom had named a figure of ten, below which consideration should be given to calling off first-year units. By my count, RUSS1001 had a total of thirteen students, but three of these had not formalized their enrolment on the date the decision was made — they were on the point of doing so. Two others were fully-enrolled post-graduates, whose names did not appear on the undergraduate list. One was auditing the unit through the Centre for Continuing Education and had therefore paid a fee to the ANU. The minimum number had therefore been exceeded. Despite this, and the fact that some students had come to the University specifically to study Russian, the unit was called off in the second week of the semester.

Finally, there is no mention in Professor Thom’s article of a resolution passed by a clear majority in a meeting of Arts Faculty members on 13th March, calling upon him, as Dean of the Faculty, to reinstate RUSS1001. The view of the majority in the Faculty was ignored. The students, whose wishes have been so lightly disregarded, are continuing, by their own wish, to receive instruction for no credit. Given that the numbers exceeded the stated minimum, the course should be reinstated.

Dr Kevin Windle is Senior Lecturer in Russian in the Department of Modern European Languages at the Australian National University.

If you wish to protest the decision to stop teaching Russian at the ANU, please email Professor Paul Thom, the Dean of Arts, Australian National University, Canberra.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]