After taking “Intensive Elementary and Intermediate Russian” her freshman year, Rachael Maxwell ’04 had found her calling. She loved the class and the people in the department, so she decided to major in Slavic languages and literatures. She was the only student in a class of over 1100 to come to that decision and is currently the only Russian major in Yale College.
Slavic languages and literatures is one of the smallest majors at Yale, receiving only one or two majors a year, according to Director of Undergraduate Studies Hilary Fink. But though the Slavic languages and literatures course listings are shorter than those of more popular departments, students said they find advantages to being in a smaller major.
Maxwell said she enjoys the personal attention and freedom she gets as the only Russian major and has never felt singled out or lonely because of her unique decision.
“It is great because even my lecture classes are seminar-sized, and even though I am the only one writing a senior essay in the Slavic Literatures and Languages Department, I don’t feel like I have people breathing down my neck all the time,” she said.
Maxwell said there are not as many resources and classes available to undergraduate Slavic studies majors compared to bigger majors such as history. But she said she has the opportunity to take many more graduate classes than students in other majors.
In addition to the Russian major in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, one can also major in Russian and East European studies, or REES, for a broader and more interdepartmental focus. Six students are currently majoring in REES.
REES major Elizabeth Adams ’04 said while in theory having a small major means more individual attention, it also means that the students have to fend for themselves more than they would in a larger major.
“I did a lot of worrying at the beginning of this term because the requirements and deadlines were not set in stone, and there was no senior essay manual or set of guidelines,” she said. “All things considered, though, I enjoy being able to make up my own terms with my adviser rather than get lost in the shuffle.”
Both Maxwell and Adams said they enjoy the intimacy of their classes and the ability to become familiar with other students who share their interest in Slavic studies, even though many of the other students choose other majors. The survey courses in 19th- and 20th-century Russian literature in translation usually attract between 15 and 25 students, while the courses in Polish and Czech literature in translation each get around eight students, according to Fink.
“The majority of students who take our classes are non-majors, so we get students from across the board in both the humanities and sciences,” she said.
Fink said most of the students who major in her department are passionate about Russian language and literature and tend to go on to graduate school. Maxwell said she hopes to spend a few years teaching English in Eastern Europe after she graduates.
“I am so glad I was able to learn Russian here at Yale because it is a very difficult language to study,” Maxwell said. “Although there are not as many classes available in this department as in more common majors, it still has great resources and presents Russian as a very rich subject.”
While these students said they are not deeply affected by the small size of their major, Fink hopes to increase that size in the future.
“In my opinion, there are no advantages to a small number of majors [in the department],” she said. “We’d love to make the Russian major more popular.”