#22 - JRL 7070
Chronicle of Higher Education
February 21, 2003
A Course That Ends in a Siberian Odyssey
By THOMAS BARTLETT
At the end of the Wellesley College course "Lake Baikal: The Soul of Siberia," the students are sent to Siberia.
That may not sound like an appealing field trip. But they go willingly. In fact, they are even excited about it.
This alone is remarkable. But for the two professors who teach the course, it's much more than an unusual junket. They use an ancient lake in Siberia to teach students about freshwater biology and Russian culture.
The first half of the course is taught by Thomas P. Hodge, an associate professor of Russian. Students learn about the relevance of the lake to literature, history, and religion. "It's a place that is deeply symbolic both socially and politically for Russians," says Mr. Hodge.
Halfway through the course, the focus shifts to science. That's when Marianne V. Moore, an associate professor of biology, takes over. She introduces the class -- which is split evenly between science and humanities majors -- to the particular biology of the world's oldest and deepest lake.
The course, which is taught in the spring, isn't over at the end of the semester. It reconvenes in August, when all 12 students fly to Lake Baikal, a journey that takes more than 20 hours. (Financial aid for the costly trip is available for students who need it.) For three weeks, they conduct research at the lake. Because the class lives in primitive conditions, the professors interview prospective students before admitting them. "We ask if they have any problem with not showering for a week," says Mr. Hodge.
When the class was taught for the first time, in 2001, Mr. Hodge worried that students might be disappointed when they arrived at the lake. His fears turned out to be groundless. "When they get there, they understand why it is such a special, almost mystical place," he says.
"For people who are in the sciences, it's really important to recognize the lake not just as a resource but as a cultural symbol," says Thea Sittler, an environmental-chemistry major who took the course two years ago. "And for the humanists, it was a great introduction to the sciences."
Students read science textbooks like The Biology of Lakes and Ponds (Oxford University Press, 1998) and works by Russian writers including Dostoyevsky's Notes From the House of the Dead and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Students write 10-page papers on the importance of the lake in Russian culture. They also take an exam on freshwater biology and are graded on the field notes they take at the lake itself. Thomas Bartlett