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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Faculty Profiles - Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Dr. Thomas Garza – Language Teaching Pedagogy and Russian Language and Culture


Academic Background: Ed.D., Teaching, Curriculum and Learning, Specialization: Foreign Language Education and M.A., Russian Linguistics, Harvard University – Cambridge, MA; M.A., Russian, Bryn Mawr College – Bryn Mawr, PA; B.A., Russian Language and Literature, Haverford College – Haverford, PA

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
By the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I knew that teaching was in my future, and that my subject was turning out to be Russian language. I had an amazing mentor/role model professor at Bryn Mawr College, who showed me how much really excellent teaching could have an impact on a student. We’re still good friends and colleagues even today. His example was key to my decision to continue my education – especially because I would be the first person in my family to pursue a doctorate, so I really didn’t want it to be the wrong decision.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
The title of my dissertation was “Russian Learning English: An Analysis of Foreign Language Instruction in Soviet Specialized Schools.” This project involved my teaching in four different “special schools,” in which students began languages in the second grade, as a Fulbright Scholar in 1985-86. It was right at the beginnings of Gorbachev’s “glasnost” period, so I had unprecedented access to classrooms, students, and teachers – as well as being permitted to videotape a number of classes. A good dissertation topic can make all the difference in how the actual writing will go in producing the finished document.

What are your areas of specialization?
My primary area of specialization is language teaching pedagogy, which is concerned with the methods, materials, and techniques used in effective language teaching. This area couldn’t be more important now, as more and more academic institutions face tighter and tighter budgets that demand that we all look seriously at how we “deliver” our subjects to students. So pedagogy is proving to be a very useful and practical area. I also do a great deal of work in contemporary Russian culture, and actually, this area is very closely connected to my teaching of Russian language. I firmly believe that language cannot be effectively taught without cultural content, and our students are naturally particularly interested in the culture of their peers in Russia.

What is your current research focus?
At the moment I’m working on two projects. The first involves looking at ways and means of doing intensive language training to bring students to higher levels of functional ability in the language as efficiently as possible. This kind of course involves extensive outside work on the part of the student, using web-based materials, much more interactive activities in class, and a great deal of self-study. My other project is a comparative study of contemporary popular “portraits” of masculinity in Russian and Mexican film. I’m interested on how these cultural products portray images of machismo in the language and culture of modern Russian and Mexican men.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by Russian studies scholars in the U.S. or around the world?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, much scholarship has focused on the Post Soviet experience, everything from literary works previously repressed, to migration of populations, to the effects of diaspora in the emerging states. But much of the scholarly conversations today are being eclipsed by the immediate topic of educational budgets damaged by the economic crisis and what effect these cuts will have on programs in the humanities – especially foreign languages.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
Yes, I was fortunate to get a National Endowment for the Humanities “Youth Grant” in my senior year and used it to support a research project on the Russian verbal system. I worked with my faculty mentor, used resources in outside libraries (This was in 1979 – way before the internet would have made this work much easier and cheaper!), and actually compiled a small handbook of Russian verbs that got used in a number of colleges. Undergraduate research is crucial for students even thinking about graduate school. It allows then to try their hand at taking on a project, developing it, and bring it to completion – a kind of practice run for a master’s thesis. It helps them understand how to use a faculty adviser, work with original documents, and bring a project to fruition. It’s a great experience all around.

What topics do you teach at UT?
I teach Russian at all levels – from first year to fourth, and a graduate course on language teaching pedagogy, as well as undergraduate courses in Russian culture and literature, including Russian Youth Culture, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (a source study of what I consider to be one of the best novels of the 20th century!), the Russian Fairy Tale, Russian Cinema, The Chechen Wars, and – my favorite – The Vampire in Slavic Cultures.

What makes a good grad student?
A good grad student really needs to want to pursue an advanced degree. It should never be a solution to figuring out what you might want do later, or a stop-gap to a bad economy, or an alternative to “getting a real job!” Graduate school is a very serious and demanding enterprise, and a good grad student enters it with such an understanding. That said, when the good grad student finds a good program match, one’s graduate years can be the most enjoyable and fulfilling of a lifetime. So a good grad student understands what s/he is getting in to, has a serious commitment to the area of study and scholarship, and demonstrates a desire for a lifelong commitment to the academy.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to your program?

  1. Talk to several students currently in programs that you might be interested in. Don’t be shy about asking them the tough questions about studies, lifestyle, and money.
  2. Talk to your adviser and favorite teachers about your interest in pursing a graduate career. Again, be candid with your questions, and be sure that they talk to you candidly about their personal experiences during graduate school, as well as whatever they can tell you about other current graduate programs.
  3. Have a serious conversation with yourself about your interest. Be certain that this enterprise is really what you want to pursue at this point in your life. If your family and friends are very honest with you, talk to them as well. Encourage them to try to talk you out of your decision, so that you’re very sure that you want it!

What are the top five Russian studies graduate programs in the US?
If I’m advising a student to pursue the pedagogical side of Russian study, then I recommend schools – besides UT – that include Bryn Mawr College, University of Pittsburgh, Indiana University, and University of Wisconsin. For Russian literary and cultural studies, my list would include Columbia University, University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Indiana University, and University of Wisconsin.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
Most Ph.D. students pursue careers in university teaching and research, with some going into private sector jobs, or government service. But our MA students are actually much more diverse in their employment record, landing jobs in the military, government think tanks, in-country businesses and government agencies, teaching in schools, and public service.

Download Dr. Garza's Profile

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