The first sentence in Carol Apollonio's course synopsis describes her class as "Dostoevsky with the gloves off." It's up to students to handle the brooding Russian master without fear of getting their hands a little dirty along the way.
"Dostoevsky has traditionally been read secularly, with all of his dark stuff being psychologically analyzed—'he was depressed; he was schizophrenic.' But psychology can't answer the bigger questions," says Apollonio. "We want to address what's really going on morally and spiritually with The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground. The class needs to answer the hard, foundational questions."
Apollonio wants her class, as a discussion-based collective, to pursue its own answers to the broader questions about Dostoevsky's work. Such a free-ranging intellectual imperative can lead to some surprising conclusions. "I think we decided that Crime and Punishment is comedy," she says.
Unusual for a professor in an advanced humanities course, Apollonio administers daily quizzes on the assigned reading—"How can I do this if they aren't going to read?"—and assigns peer reviews of papers. The scrutiny is aimed at recalibrating the sincerity and intensity of the classroom. "I aim for a kind of visceral intellectualism," she says. "You should have to think hard and care about what you come up with."
Apollonio says she doesn't have specific conclusions in mind for her students. "I have my own thoughts about Dostoevsky, but where the class ends up is entirely up to them." Nonetheless, she believes that to teach well in the humanities is to leave a lasting mark.
"I just heard from a student who graduated a few years ago, and she told me that she'd been re-reading Crime and Punishment. She had read it for class within the last couple of years, but she was taking time out of her busy life to go over it again. That kind of interest—staying dedicated to Dostoevsky even in light of all the other ways you might choose to spend the limited free time we have nowadays—is what I'm after."
That goal lines up well with an underlined claim that jumps out on Apollonio's syllabus: "Dostoevsky is for your soul."
Carol Apollonio is an associate professor of the practice in the Slavic & Eurasian studies department. She holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked as a conference-level interpreter for the U.S. Department of State, including at arms-control talks between American and Soviet officials in the late '80s and early '90s. She has published a book on Dostoevsky—Dostoevsky's Secrets: Reading Against the Grain (2009)—and has another book forthcoming, The New Russian Dostoevsky: Readings for the Twenty-First Century.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk and Other Stories; Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky; The Memoirs From the House of the Dead; Crime and Punishment; The Brothers Karamazov; A Writer's Diary; one work of criticism, memoir, or biography pertaining to Dostoevsky
Daily reading quizzes, three papers, a midterm exam, and a final exam