Positively Chaotic

Positively Chaotic
Dennis Browne is Bates neon-Renaissance man
Story and Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen


He helps “make Bates, Bates”

“You’re not going.”Dennis Browne got that advice-cum-warning from the Bates administration on the eve of his spring 1997 Short Term trip to the restive, deeply scarred Balkan cities of Belgrade and Zagreb.”You’re not going there. No way!”

That was the warning-cum-scolding Browne’s students got from their petrified parents, who, like the rest of America, were seeing images, bounced by satellite back to the States, of mass student protests in the streets of Belgrade against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The images and words pouring out of the Balkans implied chaos. But Dennis Browne, associate professor of Russian and a pragmatist par excellence, used his interest in the Internet to keep tabs on what was actually happening. For months, he had parked himself at his computer and cruised the ‘Net late into the night, gathering news reports from a variety of Belgrade sites. “I’d get the news before the people in Belgrade got it,” Browne said. Satisfied that the American media had overblown the situation, he declared that his Short Term course, A Balkan Tale of Two Cities, was a go.

Once in Belgrade, he and his students fanned out: interviewing, videotaping, photographing the citizenry, recording history on the go. A local newspaper caught up with Browne, who said the current chaos had “a positive side,” a phrase the paper splashed on its front page in a banner headline.

Positive chaos? The words could very well describe the Dennis Browne experience. In Dennis Browne’s world, the eclectic breadth of his fascinations breathes life into the often chaotic field of Russian and Balkan language, literature, and culture. If there’s a better way to teach his discipline, then Browne’s tried it — or at least thought about it.

“Dennis is interested in almost everything from how Star Trek might be a reflection of late twentieth-century America to what’s going on in Bosnia to the function of tennis balls,” said Michael Jones, professor of history and a tennis partner of Browne’s.

And yet in the classroom, he gets it all together. “It’s the clarity he conveys,” said Andy Stanton, a first-year student from Great Bend, Pennsylvania. “When he explains something, it’s like connecting the dots.”

Flash forward to a brilliant fall morning in 1997. A balding middle-aged man pulls up in front of Lindholm House behind the wheel of a not-so-new Plymouth Voyager. Four first-year Russian language students, moderately awake but significantly intrigued, board the vehicle for an improvisational driving and walking tour of the Bates Mill and its environs — Little Canada — conducted completely in Russian by the not-so-ordinary, goateed guide behind the wheel who bears a striking resemblance to that other
embracer-of-the-masses, V.I. Lenin himself. Browne concludes the journey by serving cups of steaming tea to his tourists, mesmerized by what they have just seen of the other Lewiston.

Browne arrived at Bates in 1986 with a Ph.D. and M.A. in Slavic linguistics from the University of Virginia, and two B.A. degrees, the first in philosophy from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, followed by a second in Russian from the University of Tennessee. He specialized in Slavic linguistics (particularly South Slavic languages) and produced a dissertation on “The Inflectional Morphology of the Slovenian Nominal System.”

He also specialized in the offbeat. For example, there’s Browne’s rock band, Bad Borscht, an itinerant musical group that performs entirely in Russian. The band does to Russian rock what Spinal Tap did to heavy metal. The act’s signature piece is “Lewiston,” a mournful version of a song originally titled “Babylon.” (Sample lyric: “We’ve lived so strangely for two thousand years, but Lewiston is a state of mind.”)

“It’s fun to listen to yourself in a different language,” said Bad Borscht member Gregory Sundik ’99 of Portland, Maine, a Russian major with an interdisciplinary concentration in environmental studies. “It brings language to a different cultural plane, from the textbook and workbook to having fun singing together.

“When I approach him with an idea, he’ll give me a different perspective. It’s the Dennis Browne twist,” Sundik added. “He leaves his signature, like the Nike Whoosh. He gets people to laugh. You get a funny response from him, and the conversation deteriorates. He makes Bates, Bates.”

Teaching Russian language and culture at the height of glasnost, Browne carved his unconventional niche at Bates early on. Soon after his arrival at Bates, he gave a faculty talk on the formation of baseball terminology in Russian, how “ground ball,” as described by the Russians’ Cuban advisers, ended up as “the rolling” in Russian. Political scientist Jim Richter, an expert in Russian politics who has compared baseball card collections with Browne, remembers the presentation for its symbolism and wordplay: “He takes symbols and ideas and is very inventive with them. And he encourages this in his students, too. He allows them to go a bit wild.”

Prior to his arrival at Bates, three trips to the Soviet Union had armed Browne with an array of Russian music, from rock, pop, and disco to folk, which he proceeded to broadcast once a week on WRBC. Hosted by Browne, a close follower of underground culture in the Soviet era, most of the program was in Russian and also featured book reports and film reviews by first-year Russian students who were required to tune in to the two-hour show and subsequently quizzed on its contents.

Though no longer assailing the airwaves around Bates, Browne continues to use the tools of mass culture to inspire language students in mastering a tongue-twisting idiom. “Films, music, TV, and newspapers are all authentic, immediate, and widely distributed and consumed,” he said. Class work might include playing a homemade board game or analyzing personal photographs brought in by students, whose classmates must then articulate the identity and cultural tastes of those pictured. All in Russian, of course. Occasionally, Browne will throw in a series of “okayokayokays.”

With the alluring glow of glasnost faded and the fascination with the former Soviet Union ebbing, enrollments in Russian language at Bates have been weak in recent years. To attract more students, the Russian language faculty have begun to broaden their offerings to include more classes in literature and culture. Browne raised a few eyebrows two years ago when he posted a flier around campus that showed the universal “no” symbol over the word “macarena.” The message? Better to study Russian and give your mind — rather than your body — a sense of joy.

Browne spends quite a bit of time considering the nexus of entertainment and intellect. “He takes pedagogy extraordinarily seriously,” said Richter. “He’s willing to devote more intellectual energy to unique ways of teaching. What’s really rare, too, is his willingness to work with students in new technologies.”

In the course Yugoslavia Re/Dismembered, a first-year seminar Browne taught last fall, he asked students to surf the Web to examine the often painful realities engendered by the breakup of the Balkans. During one of several visits the class made to the new Language Resource Center in Hathorn, Browne directed the students to a newspaper Web site from the Eastern Slovenian city of Vukovar, which posted a postcard of the city before the war. “It was a lovely city,” Browne pointed out. The text beneath the postcard read, “Cities look like the people who inhabit them. You can see what the people are like, because this is what they look like on the inside, too.” And then the site shows a picture of ruins.

But English-language Web sites and Internet chat rooms from the former Yugoslavia tend to be a benign reflection of the current culture, Browne said. The culture’s cold depths are illuminated by displays and conversations in the native languages. “These are more frightening because of the degree of hatred, the quickness with which they deny the other side’s human rights at all,” Browne said. “These scars from the war are the ones which will take the longest to heal.” Browne followed a discussion between a Croat and Montenegrin, where the Croat mentioned a “heroic” Croatian tennis player. His correspondent replied bitterly, “You should have seen the `heroic’ Croatian soldiers I pulled out of the basement.” To which the Croat responded: “You Montenegrins are the toilet paper of Serbia. At least Serbs are a nation. I respect them, their culture, and their church.”

Browne’s students, thrust into the maelstrom of Russian and Balkan language, literature, and culture, quickly conjure ideas for academic projects and strategies to support them. Andy Stanton ’01 enrolled in two fall-semester courses with Browne. In the class Yugoslavia Re/Dismembered, after choosing the psychological effects of war on children as his proposed research topic, Stanton got some inside support. During a one-week Bates residency, leaders of the Belgrade Circle, a politically independent voice of opposition in Yugoslavia since the early 1990s, assured the young student that he had an excellent idea and would be able to find material already published on the topic. Stanton was excited. “Dennis is encouraging us to do it really,” he said, projecting ahead to a possible senior thesis in psychology.

Stanton is a Bobcat defensive end who braved five early mornings a week of first-year Russian in concert with two and a half hours of afternoon football practice. Browne made getting out of a warm bed worthwhile. “He makes it interesting and breaks up the routine. We go to the Den and have coffee and class. He manages to teach all the material. I wanted to take a language that wasn’t offered in high school to broaden my horizons.”

Stanton found himself entertained as well as educated. “He played Serbian rap in our seminar. It was just hilarious. You could hear the rhyming in Serbo-Croatian. He showed us the cultural side of Yugoslavia: the movies, films, and music. Culture is a very important part of war. He plays music that you can play in Serbia and not in Croatia and explains why.”

Browne doesn’t grandstand in class. He is very low-key, radiating self-centered calm during a quiz in first-year Russian. In the midst of the test, a student poses a question, and Browne answers readily by writing on the board. He begins a countdown to signify the exam’s end, and smiles
comfortingly. He smiles often, but slowly and quietly, in response to those around him, the wrinkles on his smooth skin telegraphing his amusement. Frequently, both of his hands work simultaneously, one chopping the air with five-finger engagement, the other presenting a jabbing forefinger.

These days, Browne has become increasingly enamored of video production as a teaching and research tool. He himself is a self-taught moviemaker with a Tarrantino zeal. Browne encourages his students to use video in classroom assignments, ranging from the analyses of Russian motion pictures (using videotapes of films and simple video editing procedures) to producing short documentaries. In one instance, a group of his fourth-year Russian students produced a documentary about Bates, prepared a Russian language translation of the work, and sent the finished piece to the Pedagogical
Institute in Orel, Russia, where all four had participated in either Short Term or Junior Year Abroad programs. In another instance, he directed an independent study for a rhetoric major producing a documentary about
female musicians at the College.

In the winter of 1995, deciding to take video production more seriously, he received permission from Robert Branham, professor of theater and rhetoric, to audit the course Documentary Production, the popular video documentary production class in which students collaboratively produce short documentaries on subjects of their own design.

“Working with students was fantastic,” said Browne. “I knew I was
accepted when they cut a two-minute chunk of work I thought belonged in the final version — and they were right!”

For Branham, having Browne among his students was a treat. He’s “a
person without any pretension,” Branham noted, and someone who can deftly manage small-group dynamics. “He was a wonderful person to have in there, because group work is often difficult.”

With four other classmates, Browne wrote, photographed, directed, and editedAmerican Standard: The Culture of the American Restroom, a comprehensive and straight-faced — but very funny — ten-minute exploration of the bathroom. Using a faceless student parked philosophically in a Pettigrew stall as the cornerstone of the work, the film makers covered history, science, and habits, including wide-ranging interviews with a variety of student toilet users, in addition to commentary from Bates professors Kathryn Graff Low (on sublimated sexual urges) and Lee Abrahamsen (on the mythology behind catching the AIDS virus in a public restroom), plus a rather bland yet devoted spokesman from the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum, who commented on a Japanese study that considered expenditure of time by gender.

Browne has been known to say that collaborative achievements like Bad Borscht or American Standard are “better than getting that teaching award.”

Oh, yes: that teaching award. Citing Browne’s “ever-present enthusiasm and energy” in fostering independent
student research and innovative approach to teaching
Russian, the Sears-Roebuck Foundation presented Browne with its 1990 Award for Teaching Innovation. Nothing to sneeze at, but how can it compare to belting out Russian rock lyrics with a bemused bunch of students? Although Browne refers to himself as something of a “control freak” (indeed, a fellow student in Documentary Production remembers fighting, in a congenial way, with Browne for time on the editing machines), he conspires and inspires in a concrete fashion, transforming good-intentioned ideas into reality — as in advising a group of students who created a language program, now in its second successful year, for students at a Lewiston elementary school.

Exhilarated by his success in documentary video production, and interested in using video as both a teaching and research tool, Browne decided to incorporate elements of Branham’s course into an off-campus Short Term unit. He first had to become a student once again, and received a faculty grant to attend a Maine Photographic Workshop on video camera technology, which opened his eyes to the importance of composition and lighting, “whereas
before I thought about motion and sound.” Thus a 35mm still camera became Browne’s constant companion during the fall. “It’s for composition, lighting, and depth-of-field practice. At the workshop, they stressed to the videographers how important still photography was.”

In midwinter 1997, some fifty students turned up for an informational meeting on Browne’s proposed Short Term course, A Balkan Tale of Two Cities. The course abstract was compelling: an invitation to both witness and document history in the two capital cities of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, now Croatia and Yugoslavia. Unique? While many colleges have programs for students in places like Moscow or St. Petersburg, Browne and his Russian colleague, Associate Professor Jane Costlow, take their Bates students to places off the beaten path such as Siberia, Orel, Krosnadar, or Lake Baikal, the deepest fresh water lake in the world.

The lure of travel to Belgrade and Zagreb was more than academic for Browne, who lived in Belgrade in the ’70s during his graduate-school days. Although the Serbians were condemned for their brutal siege of Sarajevo, Browne remembers the lifelong friendships he forged during his stay in Belgrade, a city that Browne recalls as emotionally warmer and more open than Sarajevo. He was also moved by the suffering he observed two years ago among family members of his Serbian friends.

Through video and audio interviews augmented by still photography, Brown and his cadre of students recorded these stories and more,
accounts from young and old residents of Belgrade and Zagreb. “I don’t think
people realize the cost of the war on the apolitical middle class in Belgrade,”
he said. “Although Belgrade and Zagreb did not suffer the physical
destruction and tragic loss of human life of other former Yugoslav cities,
the Balkan wars did leave deep scars in the major cities of the Serbs and Croats.”

Browne wanted his students to probe beneath the surface to reveal individual identities and histories. How are the cities remembered by life-long residents? Has the local culture of Zagreb survived the influx of new inhabitants from all corners of the former Yugoslavia?”

Having arrived in the Balkans in April, Browne waded into the thick of things, supervising student enterprises as he simultaneously pursued his own. The
local press took notice of this roving band of American scholars, and that was when a Belgrade newspaper interviewed Browne. He told the reporter that his students, mostly from small towns, were absorbing the culture
shock of landing in a city of a million people in Yugoslavia, “the land of the political devils.” Browne also gave his quick assessment of the Belgrade
political scene, suggesting the chaotic demonstrations “had a positive side.” The interview resulting in a front-page, above-the-fold story and photo
of Browne, the banner headline proclaiming: “Positive Chaos in
the Land of Political Devils.”

Canvassing the two cities, the students recorded interviews with a Jewish student from Zagreb, a Muslim cleric in Belgrade, a member of the Belgrade Circle, and a member of the Women’s Studies Center in Belgrade. Browne then incorporated all of the material into his course on Yugoslavia this fall. Browne also spent hours videotaping a wheelchair-bound Belgrade teenager, paralyzed by a gunshot years before, whom Browne had befriended back in Lewiston several years prior when a humanitarian effort brought her to St. Mary’s
Regional Medical Center for rehabilitation.

Sophomore Dzenana Idrizovic is the only Bosnian student at Bates, but she could not make the Short Term trip back to her native country last spring — a biology requirement kept her in Lewiston. A biochemistry major, Idrizovic is a Moslem native of Banja Luka, the capital of the Serbian part of Bosnia. She immigrated to Nashua, New Hampshire, with her family five years ago.

For her, Browne is a lifeline, not a professor. “I can’t go back,” she said stoically. “It’s ethnically clean. Ninety-five percent of the city is now Serbian, and it used to be fifty-fifty.” The semester she arrived at Bates, Browne
e-mailed Idrizovic an introduction, inviting her to practice her native language over coffee. “We can understand each other,” she said. “Serbo-Croatian is really hard to learn, with seven different cases. He’s really talented at languages. It’s nice to be able to speak my language with someone.”

But it’s more than language proficiency. “I’m really happy that someone cares about Bosnia, what’s going on there. He’s been there and honors the culture there. Even though he’s a Russian professor, he’s involved in a thousand different things.” From the Balkans, Browne funneled all his news updates to Idrizovic, keeping her apprised of her homeland, as she prepared to give an
informal talk on Bosnia to the Bates community.

Recently, Idrizovic faced an unanticipated financial aid glitch and turned instinctively to Browne for moral support. “I knew he couldn’t really help me with my problem, but I called him anyway,” she said. “I feel he’s one of my best friends.”