Introducing First-Year Students to Russian Studies through FIGs

When Quin Stack arrived at UW-Madison’s Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration (SOAR) the summer before his freshman year, he knew he wanted to enroll in a language course. He just didn’t know which language. After studying French for three years in high school, Stack wanted to try something different. “When I looked at the language offerings, there seemed like a million of them,” said Stack.

But a listing for a First Year Interest Group—called a FIG for short—helped him choose Russian. The FIGs program aims to create a smaller community for first-year students as they adjust to life at a large university. A student who enrolls in a FIG is grouped with roughly 20 other students taking a group of courses—usually three—as a cohort. FIGs are designed around a common theme and incorporate courses from different departments. UW-Madison faculty members affiliated with CREECA have offered several FIGs with a focus on Russia since 2005, beginning with history professor Francine Hirsch’s course “Revolutionary Russia.” In fall 2016, Professor Hirsch will lead another FIG, this time called “Russia and the World,” which will be linked with Political Science 106 (“Politics Around the World”) and Slavic 101 (“First Semester Russian”).

According to Dr. Nathan Phelps, director of the FIGs program, about one in five first-year students will enroll in a FIG. “This is one of the so called high-impact practices that the UW offers its students, so it’s the idea of coming in as a first-semester student and being exposed to something that has been proven to be effective in helping students make that transition both socially and academically,” said Phelps.

Other high-impact practices include research opportunities for first-year students and several types of seminars designed to limit class size, increase interaction with faculty, and extend learning beyond the classroom.

The FIGs program began in 2001 with four FIGs and 75 students. It has since grown to include more than 60 FIGs and more than 1,000 students each year.

One way the program evaluates its impact is through surveys given to students both during the semester they take a FIG and four years after the FIG has ended. That feedback shows some students continue to take courses together, form lasting study groups, and develop friendships.

“When we evaluate their GPAs, we find that students actually do have a higher GPA who are participating in a FIG than their peers outside of the FIGs, controlled for the factors that are relevant,” said Phelps. The data also suggests a positive impact on student retention and graduating within four years, especially for students with lower ACT scores. Phelps notes that with so many variables, it’s hard to measure the exact impact of a FIG.

For Quin Stack, the FIG he took helped him find a Russia-focused course of study. Stack’s group of courses included political science, literature, and first-year Russian. “It was my first week at UW that I found Russian and figured out that Russian was what I wanted to do and fell in love with it. And I found it through a FIG!” Stack will graduate this May with a major in political science.

This early start is important, according to sociology professor Ted Gerber, Director of CREECA, who led a FIG on contemporary Russian society. “One of the challenges of focusing on a place like Russia for one’s studies – whether in art, literature, history, or political science – is that you need to develop a whole range of skills,” said Gerber. “You need to develop language skills, you need to develop core knowledge of the country’s history and culture. The sooner you can start off on that track, the better.”

The program also helps foster interest in Russia-related studies. “There has been a tendency in the U.S. for interest in and enrollments in Russian language to decline,” said Gerber. “Many of us in the field are trying to think of ways to address and reverse that, and I think FIGs of the nature CREECA-affiliated faculty members have offered are a very promising mechanism to stimulate more interest in a part of the world that will continue to be extremely important from the perspective of the U.S. and Europe, and is also a very fascinating place to study.”

Gerber’s 2010 FIG focused on sociology. In other years, FIGs have introduced students to Russian studies through disciplines as varied as political science, theatre and drama, law, and geography.

The linking of different kinds of classes is crucial to CREECA’s mission as an interdisciplinary center, according to Professor Yoshiko M. Herrera, who led a FIG in 2012. Her FIG included courses in political science, elementary Russian, and 19th century Russian literature. “The idea was to connect politics with something in the humanities related to Russia, and to language,” said Herrera.

Kathryn Hendley, the William Voss-Bascom Professor of Law and Political Science, taught a FIG in 2014 that tied Russian studies with law. “I had a lot of writing assignments aimed at helping students read an article and distill what the point of the article was,” said Hendley. Her seminar was titled “Law and Disorder in Post-Communist Societies.” As part of the course, Hendley invited students to her home to meet with a guest speaker and for an informal pizza dinner.

In 2011, Manon van de Water, the Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor in Slavic Languages and Literature and Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies, taught the core seminar in a FIG titled “Russian Performance and Culture.” “For me, this is a way of looking at Russia through the lenses of culture. The lenses of culture in Russia are very much performance,” said van de Water. She notes this includes theater, ballet, symphonies, and large and small scale performances.

Enrollment in a FIG gives first-year students immediate access to top-tier University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in a small seminar setting. Students also have the opportunity to connect with one another and with their professors outside class. Van de Water, for example, gathered the students in her FIG seminar on Russian performance to watch the ceremony of the Nika Award (the main annual Russian national film award); she also hosted a potluck where students prepared and presented traditional Russian food.

“Whenever I meet parents that have a student coming to UW-Madison, I tell them to look into the FIGs if they can,” said van de Water.

For more on the FIG program and a list of offerings, visit