History of the Slavic Department

Instruction in Slavic languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison traces its roots back to 1935, when state legislators and leaders of the Polish-American community demanded that the University begin to offer Polish. They managed to get funds for a department added to the state budget as a separate item from the regular University budget, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature was born in 1936 as the Department of Polish. Instruction in Polish began in the fall of 1936 and continues to this day.

In its first three years, the Department of Polish was led successively by Witold Doroszewski and Jozef A. Birkenmajer, both of whom came from Poland to chair the one-teacher department. In 1939, chairmanship passed to Edmund Zawacki, the first person in America to have earned a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages (Harvard University, 1941), who served until 1960. He was followed briefly by Zbigniew Folejewski (1960-1961), then by J. Thomas Shaw, who led the department from 1962-1968. The chair then passed to Lawrence L. Thomas (1968-1974) and James Bailey (1974-1977); J. Thomas Shaw resumed chairmanship from 1977-1986. Since 1986 the chairmanship has been shared by a subsequent generation of Madison Slavists: Gary Rosenshield (1989, 1990-92, 1994-95, 1996-98), David Bethea (1986-89, 1991-94, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007-08), Alexander Dolinin (1999-2000, 2001-03, 2004), Benjamin Rifkin (2003, 2004-05) Judith Kornblatt (1995-96, 1998-1999, 2006, 2007, 2011-13), Tomislav Longinovic (2000, 2008-2011), and Karen Evans-Romaine (2013 to present).

Beginning in 1942, the department was renamed Department of Slavic Languages and made a regular part of the University budget. Since 1931, Russian had been taught in alternation with OCS through dept of Linguistics (then the Department of Comparative Philology). In 1942, the Department added instruction in Russian language to its offerings, and an undergraduate major in Russian was developed. Instruction in additional Slavic languages within the department includes: Serbo-Croatian, 1962-; Bulgarian, 1962-63, 1968-79; Czech, 1964-.

After WWII the department expanded and matured. The first M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures was earned in 1950 by George Deptula, and the department's first Ph.D. was granted in 1961 to Sigmund Birkenmayer, the son of its second chairman. In 1962 the department undertook a comprehensive revision of its undergraduate major and Master's program in Slavic Languages, and a regular Ph.D. curriculum was established. Additional revisions to both the undergraduate and graduate programs were instituted more recently, in the 1990's and early 2000's.