By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo by Beth Rooney

I love how you see them mature in their thinking … I see how, gradually, it starts to make sense to them.”
—Valentina Pichugin

For Valentina Pichugin, there is nothing quite like hearing one of her students complain about English translations of Russian literature.

“The students say, ‘It’s all wrong!’ They translated the words, but not the ideas,” she says.

When students can look beyond the grammar and see the broader picture, Pichugin, who prides herself on teaching Russian culture as well as language, knows she’s done her job.

Culture brings language to life

Pichugin offers what she describes as “languages classes with a twist.”

Rather than relying exclusively on drills and memorization, the mainstays of many language courses, she uses topics in Russian history, art, and culture to help guide her students. In the first quarter of her “Third-Year Russian Through Culture” class, for example, students study the role of the banya (bathhouse) in Russian history and culture. In another course, students watch and discuss Andrei Tarkovsky’s influential 1979 film, Stalker.

By the end of their third year of study, students are able to hold a 50-minute, complex discussion in Russian. “It’s a language course, but the conversations are very real and very intelligent,” Pichugin says. She thinks that’s part of the reason many of her students continue on to the more advanced Russian courses, even when they’ve fulfilled their foreign language requirement: “They can have exciting conversations about interesting things.”

She especially enjoys watching undergraduates grapple with new ideas as they discuss Russian novels and films. “I love how you see them mature in their thinking,” she says. “I see how foreign the topics we discuss are at the beginning; I see how, gradually, it starts to make sense to them.”

Students embrace challenging lessons

Pichugin’s former students remember fondly her remarkable dedication to teaching. “The individualized attention and support that Valentina gives to all of her students—in addition to the eclectic, relevant, and challenging lessons we could expect every day—made her hands-down one of the best teachers I was fortunate enough to work with at the U. of C.,” says Sarah Kull, AB’09.

“Valentina was one of the best foreign language teachers I've ever had,” adds Brinton Ahlin, AB’09. “She was able to simultaneously improve our fundamental foreign language skills and alert us to the nuance and complexity of close linguistic analysis in all languages.”

Pichugin says she was humbled and joyful when she learned she had received a Quantrell award. “I already have the satisfaction, because I get to work with my students—and on top of this, they gave me an award!”

Originally published on May 27, 2011.