Americans and Russians Study the Cold War Together

The Bergen Record reports:

Glasnost is alive and well in Ramapo College in Mahwah, where an undergraduate course in the Cold War pairs American and Russian students who communicate in real-time via videoconferencing. The Russian students all speak English, and in each class the students look at U.S. and Soviet accounts of events and issues that shaped global relations after World War II.

The Cold War, of course, is purely history to the young students. Most, if not all, of them were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the students are still steeped in their respective society’s outlooks and that can make for some spirited debate. “We did the Cuban Missile Crisis and one Russian student said it was clear that Russia had won,” recalled Ramapo Professor Tom Heed. “My students went absolutely apoplectic; they literally erupted from their seats.”

The course is the brainchild of Heed, working in consort with his friend, Professor Alexander Kybushkin at St. Petersburg University. Both groups of students work off the same texts and an extensive Web site for the course created by Heed. They also are in a Facebook discussion group.

And, while they may not share a time zone — its 4 p.m. in Russia when the class meets at 8 a.m. in Mahwah — the webcam connection is so clear it’s almost as if they are one class, students say. “We’ve had a lot of long discussions with the kids in Russia,” said Jeremy Bisson, an American history major who is taking the class. “It’s pretty wild.”

“It’s interesting to see other people’s perception of us,” said Jennifer Rosales, who is also a history major.

A recent class covered Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and the superpowers’ proxy battles in Angola and Afghanistan. Kybushkin, the Russian professor, said students in the course cover a wide variety of readings and other data, “but the most important thing is the value of human contact.”

The two professors said they hope to collaborate on similar classes in the future.

Heed met his Russian counterpart when they worked together on a State Department grant in 1999. The Ramapo professor is officially retired, after nearly 45 years of teaching — in China, Russia and London, as well as the United States.

His methods have changed over the years — his Web sites are geared to students who have become much more visually oriented. But there is no sign that his enthusiasm for the job has waned.

“I love it,” he said. “I find it absolutely fascinating to give students a different perspective.”

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