Studying Russian and Russian Humor with Frank Miller

This article is part of an AATSEEL initiative to create an archive of memoirs about the great scholars and colorful personalities of Slavic Studies in the United States. If you are interested in writing such a memoir, please contact us

Emily Johnson

Frank Miller (1940–2016)

I met Frank Miller when I arrived at Columbia University as a graduate student in 1988 and had to take what at the time was the Russian program’s placement test: four single-spaced pages of fill-in-the-blanks questions that focused on known trouble spots in Russian.¹ We were quizzed on whether or not we recognized that путь was a masculine noun and that картошка was non-count, our command of irregular plurals in the nominative and genitive, and on our knowledge of advanced number declension rules. How exactly would you say: “I went to the movies with 23 young female crane operators”? I was dismayed to learn that I had scored an 82 on this placement test, but Frank just laughed and reassured me, with a big grin, that my result really wasn’t bad. Though he set high standards for the Russian program at Columbia, Frank was always encouraging to students and projected cheerful optimism: he believed that we all could achieve high-level Russian-language proficiency and expected great results from each of us. Frank’s laugh filled the seventh floor of Hamilton hall and made it a joyful, welcoming place.

A year later, I had Frank for one of the two Russian-language classes that the Slavic Department required all in-coming graduate students to take at the time. Once a week for two hours we sat in an old-fashioned auditorium with Frank and worked through the finer points of Russian grammar: every possible verb conjugation, how соловей declines and why, preposition usage… Lectures were accompanied by densely formatted hand-outs: single-spaced sheets crowded with variant forms and exceptions. It sounds as though it must have been torturous, but it actually was really fun. Frank’s great love of Russian, his wit, and his ability to illustrate every conceivable language issue with a joke made the class a joy. In response to questions, Frank would invariably say: “I have a joke that is relevant to this.” He taught Russian brilliantly through jokes.

It did not immediately occur to me to wonder exactly how Frank had managed to collect so many Russian jokes. He just knew them and generously shared them. Several years later, however, Frank invited me and a Russian friend who was visiting from Petersburg to his apartment for dinner. Frank loved entertaining faculty and graduate students and often played the host. He lived on one of the top floors of a modern high-rise in several large but very crowded rooms that were filled with books and what passed for computers at the time. Two very large Doberman pinschers romped through the living room, which had a great view across the water to New Jersey and seemed weirdly serene and quiet because it was so far above the noise of the city. When the take-out Chinese food arrived, Frank spread it out on an old barn door that served as both his dinner table and a work surface–it was a souvenir from his time in Maine. We served ourselves from the take-out boxes, and, as we ate, Frank swapped jokes with my friend. At some point that evening after dozens of jokes had been exchanged, my Russian friend asked Frank: “how exactly did you learn all of these?” and Frank got out a pocket-sized battered notebook. He had, it turned out, been writing down and saving jokes since he was seven. When he began studying Russian, his hobby simply shifted to a new language.

No matter what question you had about Russian, Frank always had an answer. Shortly after I started taking Czech language classes at Columbia, I came to Frank to ask him why, when I heard the adjective “Czech” in Russian I kept hearing an “R” sound in it. There was clearly no «р» in «чешский». Frank dragged me into the nearest classroom and with great enthusiasm began drawing a schematic view of the human mouth on the board: I was, he told me, having an auditory hallucination—the «ш» was made in the position where an English speaker articulates an “r,” so my brain was simply misinterpreting it—probably because of the following “с,” which required an abrupt change of tongue position.

When I started teaching first-year Russian at Columbia after receiving my MA, I again got to work with Frank. He had a weekly seminar for all first-year TAs that was effectively a non-credit-bearing class. For two hours a week, we would sit around a seminar table with Frank, and he would walk us through the unit we would be covering that week in our respective classes. He always had useful suggestions for how to help students understand and practice new forms and patiently answered all our questions about both the material and more mundane aspects of classroom management. He showed us how to move from textbook materials to communicative exercises in the classroom and also how to integrate authentic cultural material into our lessons. We graded quizzes and tests together, seated around the table with Frank as he told jokes and answered our questions. The time he spent with us gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in my first classes. Even now when I am teaching language classes, I often find myself recalling Frank’s explanations and approaches and using them with my students.

After I finished my Columbia degree, Frank became a wonderful, encouraging colleague, and I loved seeing him at conferences. I ran into him for the last time at ASEEES shortly before he passed away. He was seated in the bar with Olga Kagan and pulled me aside to ask how things were going at OU. He wanted to hear about our enrollment, the classes we were teaching, and the textbooks we were using. And then he told me several new jokes. I miss his warm presence and his generosity of spirit. I am very grateful for everything he did to mentor me as a graduate student and as a young faculty member.

¹ Thanks to Milla Trigos for her editorial suggestions and for sharing her memories of Frank with me as I was working on this piece.

Emily D. Johnson is Professor of Russian at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of How St. Petersburg Learned to Study Its Self: The Russian Idea of Kraevedenie (Penn State University Press, 2006), the editor and translator of Arsenii Formakov, Gulag Letters (Yale University Press, 2017), and, along with Julie Buckler, coeditor of Rites of Place: Public Commemoration in Russia and Eastern Europe (Northwestern 2013).  She received a PhD in Russian Literature from Columbia University in 2000.

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