FEBUARY 24, 2022 — As geopolitical tensions have heightened over the past month between Ukraine and Russia, a course offered by the UTSA Department of Modern Languages and Literatures has been closely tracing these developments. The UTSA Russian Program is offering the course “Russia in the Fake News” for the first time this semester.
In the course, 18 students are currently reading, analyzing and discussing news currently disseminated by a wide variety of Russian government-backed media outlets. The goal of the course is for students to understand pertinent Russian social, political, and geopolitical narratives in the news across a variety of Russian-language and English-language media.
The course is co-taught by Andrew Chapman, director of the UTSA Russian Program and Elise Thorsen, a visiting lecturer who also works for Novetta, a Washington D.C.-based advanced analytics company and a part of Accenture Federal Services.
“We are really curious to see how by reading Russian media, we can understand the narratives that Russian media tells the rest of the world,” Chapman said. “What are the stories, or sometimes conspiracies, that Russian government-backed media is forwarding? We initially didn’t think that we would be focusing on Russian and Ukraine, but we have a fantastic opportunity to learn about media – and not just the topic of disinformation – through this conflict.”
While Ukraine-Russian conflicts have been pertinent in the news across the last decade, the class finds itself exploring a rapidly developing topic. Thorsen, whose industry experience is precisely to trace news stories on Russia at Novetta, has designed course assignments that see students reading the news and then coding articles with meta-data to enable the analysis of a bigger picture of trends. These are the types of tasks that students might do in a future career.
“Students are learning industry practices in open-source media analysis, which normally wouldn’t find its place in a Russian language program,” added Chapman. “When I took a similar news course during my undergraduate study, we mostly read the New York Times. Later, when I took another media-based course while studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, we used newspaper articles to study grammatical structures. This course is teaching students qualitative and quantitative approaches to studying Russian media through an ongoing project that might open their eyes to new career paths in intelligence.”
Bringing in Thorsen to teach the class introduces students to industry professionals. Thorsen is a senior analyst in her field who leads reporting for an advanced analytics project monitoring the impact of strategic communications and Russian influence campaigns that target Europe and the United States. Prior to working at Novetta, Thorsen earned her Ph.D. in Russian Literature and Culture from the University of Pittsburgh and her B.A. in Russian Studies from the College of William and Mary. At Pittsburgh, she studied poetry through the lens of Empire Studies and the poetic representations that depicted bringing new territories into the Soviet Union.
She is also a former Fulbright Student Research Fellow, who conducted research in Kazan, Russia in 2014. During her doctoral studies there, she became interested in Digital Humanities approaches to studying culture.
Thorsen’s expertise is being put to work at Novetta and now at UTSA.
Throughout the semester, UTSA students are reading news stories on Ukraine and Russia from media outlets around the globe, in English and Russian. Several students are also leveraging their fluency in Spanish to read articles about the conflict in Spanish-language resources. Each week, the class meets synchronously online to discuss developments in the news and other articles on Russian media.
Along the way, Thorsen says that students are learning about Russian culture and history.
“It isn’t just that these news stories are being propagated by Russian media outlets for Russian-speaking audiences to accept without thought,” Thorsen said. “Russian news streams are carefully crafted to tell narratives that touch upon longstanding stories, histories, and cultural artifacts that are dear to people. And this is where media is not just about recapping events that are taking place, but rather about telling narratives that reflect and address deep standing cultural legacies, as well as cultural wounds that never healed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
The UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA) is offering the course, explicitly designed to provide classroom to career experience for UTSA Russian program students, COLFA students, and anyone else taking the course in its cross-listed Comparative Studies in the Humanities (CSH) distinction. It has also been offered to UTSA Honors College students as an opportunity to fulfil experiential learning requirements.
By the end of the course, students will create a research poster on a topic of their choice and record a five-minute voiceover poster presentation. Other assignments guide students to prepare briefs that simulate working at a think tank.
“So far we are really having fun with this class, although the current news is looking like we are going to be analyzing a lot of tragic stories,” said Chapman, who is in his first year of directing UTSA’s Russian program. “One surprising observation was who registered for our class. We have students majoring and minoring in Russian language and we have global affairs students. That was expected. But we also have a number of veterans who served in different capacities, such as military linguists, prior to enrolling at UTSA. It is exciting to see students who have professional backgrounds contribute to our class environment, which already includes professional development in open-source media analysis.”
The UTSA Russian program provides four levels of instruction from elementary to advanced Russian for students to build language proficiency skills. In all levels of language study, students gain an understanding of Russia’s cultural heritage, discuss Russia’s role in the world, and explore cultures from other Russian-speaking countries.
In addition to language classes each semester, the program offers literature, film, and culture courses taught in English under the classification of Comparative Studies in the Humanities (CSH).
Additionally, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures offers coursework in American Sign Language, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish.
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