Teaching Crime and Punishment in Time and Space

by Chloë Kitzinger

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the fifth in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first four posts in the series can be found here: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Anyone who teaches nineteenth-century Russian (and not just Russian) literature has grappled with the question: how do we go about teaching really long novels? This question has implications that reach from before the beginning to after the end of a course — for syllabus design and recruitment, assignments, grading, and beyond. What kinds of courses will place novels like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov in a frame where students feel free (and motivated) to make the investment of time and intellectual energy they demand? What does one do about all the study guides out there online — from Cliff’s-Notes-style interpretive summaries full of secondhand wisdom, to collections of passages ready-made for common paper topics? And what better tools might there be to help students dig into such exciting and bewildering narratives on a first-time reading, and make some aspects of those narratives their own?

The narrative structure of Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie, 1866) poses particular difficulties. Crime and Punishment is built as a spiral — a chain of repetitions-with-variations that brings Raskolnikov ever closer to the discovery of his own true motives and identity, but that actually can become more confounding the more slowly you read it — especially in a reading that follows the novel’s own claustrophobic focus on Raskolnikov’s evolving perspective. Linger with the “pro and contra” of Part One[1]—the forces pushing Raskolnikov toward and away from murder— and the debate about consequentialist ethics may last long after Dostoevsky himself has moved on. Emphasize that the question of Raskolnikov’s self is at stake in his crime from the beginning,[2] and it’s hard not to grow impatient with how long it takes Raskolnikov to figure this out. I want to sketch two approaches I have taken to adjusting the pace of classwork to such a deliberately- (and trickily-) paced narrative.

For one approach, in a single-author course on Dostoevsky, I have asked students to think spatially, gathering details throughout their reading of Crime and Punishment that will allow them to draw a “map” (a schematic visual representation) of a key aspect of the novel or a pattern they have noticed running through it. This assignment was inspired by an experiment I recently undertook to trace the character-networks of Crime and Punishment, collating encounters and connections among characters by hand and then graphing them using the open-source, freely available visualization software Gephi.[3] I designed the network graph as a tool for teaching, in the hope that it would defamiliarize the experience of reading the novel and serve as a laboratory for exploring how one side of its fictional world is constructed. However, my students have found the task of making their own “maps” just as useful. Approaches have varied widely — from drawing Raskolnikov’s sequence of dreams in concentrated emblems, to sketching the floorplan of Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment, to designing a modified Meyer-Briggs system to classify the novel’s characters and reveal unexpected lines of affinity or opposition among them. While some students use digital tools, many choose to represent the scenes or patterns they have noticed by hand. The assignment encourages students to choose an aspect of the novel not to read sequentially — or at least, not in the sequence of Dostoevsky’s narrative — and in turn, to take on the challenge of compressing their observations into an image that fellow readers of the novel can grasp in a single glance.

For another course that includes Crime and Punishment, I have taken the opposite approach. The course, entitled “Serial Storytelling Across Media,” asks students to read Crime and Punishment as part of a continuing tradition of serial melodrama that is still evolving in the present day — together with Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–39), Season One of David Simon’s The Wire (HBO, 2002), and Season One of Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder’s podcast Serial (2014). The course asks students to draw a connection between an experience that is no longer a common part of daily life (reading Dickens or Dostoevsky in serial installments, and perhaps later as a single-volume novel), and an experience that still very much is (waiting week-by-week for the next episode of a podcast or television serial, or — increasingly — “binge-watching” entire seasons online). Juxtaposing nineteenth-century serial narratives with contemporary ones, what emerges is the enduring power of serial form — to interweave fiction with the course of current events and the rhythms of everyday life, and to draw together (or in some cases, bitterly divide) diverse audiences of readers and viewers over the hard questions that these narratives frame. Assignments follow the divisions of original serial installments whenever possible, and throughout the semester, I ask students to keep “serial response diaries” in which they track their ongoing reactions to these narratives, and reflect on the techniques being used to shape them — from the construction and ending-point of a serial installment, to the manipulation of background music, to shifts in narrative perspective (textual, auditory, and visual alike). The course thus asks students to think about the temporality of reading, watching, and listening as an essential ingredient of the work’s effects on its audience: to analyze narrative in time and sequence, rather than abstracting them away.

Despite the clear thematic convergences across Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment, The Wire, and Serial (crime, justice, innocence, childhood, the city…), differences of medium, style, place, and time can make their affinities hard to see. What nevertheless strikes home is the idea of serial melodrama itself as a modern forum in which audiences come together around moral, social, political, and existential questions — what Peter Brooks calls “the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era.”[4] The course thus offers an impetus to talk about and compare serial watching, listening, and reading habits, and to think about how ongoing experiences of the dozens of made narratives that surround us are shaping individuals and communities alike. More than any other course in which I have taught Dostoevsky, this one brings Crime and Punishment into the present — not just as a particular text, but as an experience of reading. The spiraling paths of the novel’s installments make a new kind of sense when juxtaposed with twenty-first-century narratives whose serial unfolding — with representational, rhetorical, and commercial motivations — is an intimate part of students’ lives. The sometimes-alienating length and complexity of nineteenth-century realist novels becomes, in this context, entirely contemporary, because serial form itself emerges as part of what there is to grasp.

I don’t think of these two approaches to teaching Crime and Punishment as mutually exclusive. Both strategies are attempts to address a single challenge: without compromising on the attention that novels like Crime and Punishment demand on their own inimitable terms, how do we also translate these novels into the many native languages of present-day readers? Scholars of Dostoevsky have been answering this question for decades, but it’s exciting to think about the evolving tools and cultural resonances that make this such a rich moment to confront it again.

[1] Cf. R.L. Jackson, “Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment” in R.L Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes, 189-207. Princeton University Press, 1981.
[2] Cf. M. Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton University Press, 1977.
[3] I describe this project further in my forthcoming essay “Mapping the Networks of Crime and Punishment,Approaches to Teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, ed. M. Katz and A. Burry (MLA “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, est. publication 2020).
[4] P. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Columbia University Press, 1984 [1976], 15.

Chloë Kitzinger is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on the Russian and European novel, and she is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Mimetic Lives: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Character in the Novel. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board.

The Dostoevsky 3D Printing Project

by Michael Marsh-Soloway

The Dostoevsky 3D printing project grew out of a series of energetic conversations with Carol Apollonio and Brian Armstrong at the 2016 ASEEES Conference in Washington D.C. The bobble head that we devised would serve not only as a prize at the 2017 Duke-UNC Dostoevsky Games in Durham, but also as a prospective merchandise offering for the North American Dostoevsky Society. These items can be manufactured by anyone with access to a 3D printer.

15078598_10102091516471045_5261402057652427077_nCarol and I collaborated on the production of the Dostoevsky model. She printed the models using more than 30 Ultimaker printers at the Innovation Co-Lab Studio at Duke, and then I used a series of MakerBot printers in UVa MakerSpaces (which you can see to the right). Printing the model at two universities allowed us to divide the assembly and manufacture of the removable components.

Specialists in the humanities have only recently started utilizing 3D resources, and these tools hold great potential for enhancing the study of artifacts, symbols, and spaces. The objects that Carol and I produced were made with a biodegradable, corn-based PLA plastic, which we selected as the cheapest and most easily obtainable material. Eventually, however, we may experiment with a range of other material compositions, including sand, chocolate, and various metals.

It is not advisable to manufacture edible models in a printer that has been used primarily for plastic productions. Small pieces of plastic could contaminate the finished product. ChocEdge, and Cocojet are two companies exploring culinary applications of 3D printing technology for chocolate, but it seems likely that the cheese, butter, and caramel industries will soon follow suit. In the medical sciences, doctors have started loading 3D printers with cell tissue to manufacture bodily organs. Thomas Boland of Clemson University was one of the first researchers to replicate organ structures with cells via ‘bioprinting’ procedures.
3d printing gifDepending on the size of the model, each Dostoevsky bobble head takes between two to ten hours to print. Users can adjust the size of the associated bobble head parts as their given 3D printer will permit. The Ultimaker printers at Duke University are equipped with a small camera that records a short time-lapse video of the manufacturing process, and users can opt to receive this video as a GIF file via an automated email message when the object is completed (ours is to the right of this text). Despite the long duration of each job, once the printing has started, the Ultimakers and Makerbots are safe to leave running unattended. In total, we printed 17 Dostoevsky figures in different colors that were given to students, game organizers, and guest judges.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 1.02.13 PM

The most time-intensive process of 3D printing is the preparation of the associated component files. To print a 3D object, users need to develop their models as an STL file — Standard Tessellation Language. Although there are several 3D file types that can be processed by different printers, STL is the most common and universally recognizable format. The 3D printers construct the desired model layer by layer. The extruder melts the plastic into a molten noodle of sorts, and the final form appears as the material hardens after cooling. With irregular shapes, the plastic will sometimes drip over the sides of the model, but the resulting shards and columns can be easily removed with an awl or pliers. While users can download expensive programs to develop and modify STL files, Carol and I developed the Dostoevsky bobble head using only free and open-source tools. We used the following resources and steps to facilitate this process.

  1. There are several dozen reputable online repositories of 3D models. This blog post by Bulent Yusuf compiles the most popular sites, and rates their overarching functionality. Carol and I eventually used a Dostoevsky bust that we found on Thingiverse as the basis of the bobble-head. If we had not been able to find the open-source Dostoevsky model, we could have created our own file. Users can build 3D models from scratch using the free website, TinkerCad. Alternatively, while there are few memorials to Dostoevsky in the U.S., we could have generated a 3D model of our own by asking colleagues in Russia to photograph statues of the author with their cellphones. There are several apps, including 123D Catch, Trnio, and ItSeez3D, which employ the technique of photogrammetry to create a 3D model by photographing a given object from different angles. As yet another possibility, there are other digital tools like Smoothie 3D that allow users to approximate a 3D model from a 2D image.
  2. Using TinkerCad, I ‘remixed’ the open-source Dostoevsky bust, removing the head from the torso and pedestal, and placing a cylindrical hole in the base of the neck. Next, I found an open-source bobble-head torso on Thingiverse. Since we designed the Dostoevsky bobble head during the U.S. presidential elections, the most readily available bodies were those belonging to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The Hillary Clinton action figure came with a pearl necklace and high-heeled shoes, so we opted instead to use the Trump Though few people noticed or thought to inspect the files closely, it is not coincidental that the hands on the bobble head are disproportionally smaller compared to the rest of the body.
  3. Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 11.07.56 PMSpecial modifications were made to the largest bobble head model that would serve as the trophy for the Dostoevsky Games. We mounted the body on a rectangular pedestal bearing the inscription, ‘Champions The 2017 Dostoevsky Games’. Radislav Lapushin appears to the right holding the trophy. In retrospect, I should have tinkered more carefully with the fitting, because shortly after showing the audience the prize, the head of the model became detached, which provided a closing note of humor to the full day of intellectual discussion, performances, analysis, and debate. Printing the head and body as two separate pieces allowed the bobble head to move up and down, but the pieces can also be conjoined in a static model.

Since successfully producing the bust and bobble heads in various sizes, we have returned to our initial premise of the movable Dostoevsky action figure, as well as a range of other ‘remixed’ products. These more elaborate items could include mugs, showerheads, doorstops, coat hooks, vases, or even mock images of the author mounted on dinosaurs, animals, and cartoon characters. Here is a rough list of 3D objects that we’ve considered combining with the head of the author. Feel free to print one for yourself, and stay tuned for future product announcements!


Michael Marsh-Soloway earned his PhD in Russian literature at the University of Virginia in 2016 with a dissertation entitled “The Mathematical Genius of F.M. Dostoevsky: Imaginary Numbers, Non-Euclidean Geometry, and Infinity.” He is a specialist in Russian literature, history, and linguistics. Currently, he serves as the Coordinator of the UVA Arts & Sciences Language Lab, and he soon hopes to publish his dissertation as an academic monograph.