Thursday, December 11, 2014

End of a Semester, End of a Year

No travel in 2014. It was so nice. For a while I was expecting invitations to travel owing to the fact 2014 is the anniversary of sorts concerning my last book, but it turned out not to be so.

Early this year I finished an article on the Nazi invasion of the Caucasus, and am waiting for it to be published. That will probably be the last in the flurry of publications I put out about the Caucasus; my policy now is to only write articles about the Caucasus on demand. I have no idea when the next request will be.

The real work I've accomplished this year is the near-completion of my translation of Tolstoy's final book, Na Kazhdyi Den' (For Every Day). I'll have the first draft finished by year's end, and then I can edit and refine it as I put together a brief introduction and a somewhat longer afterword. As I make my way through the translation, as well as all the stuff that's been written about Tolstoy's philosophy, I've gotten a good handle on his ideas and their application to life while at the same time finding that almost no one has written about them in the way I'm planning to.

So the next step is to actually put together the study I have envisioned. I've made up my mind that this will not be an academic book. Why should it be? I have no need of any more academic publications, and what I plan to say in this book will not be directed at academia, it will be directed at people in general, with the hope someone will benefit from it. While it's interesting reading how this idea of his came from Kant and that one is a reworking of an Eastern Orthodox concept, it seems to me that the most important aspect of analyzing Tolstoy's work is revealing what it has to say to us about how to improve the human condition: how can we use his tremendous search for meaning in our own lives. And that is well outside the range of academic concerns.

So that's probably the biggest development this year. This was definitely aided by my promotion, which has freed me up to do what I really want to do, with no considerations of how it will be perceived by my peers.

As for classes, they've been great, students are great, couldn't ask for a better job there, everything's cool, fine, looking forward to my new classes already . . .

Peace out till next year,
Walt


Friday, November 28, 2014

Andrew Kaufman's "Give War and Peace a Chance"

While I was in the first stages of preparing my course for next semester, "Russia's War Epics," I somehow learned about a new book called Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, written by Andrew Kaufman. I was literally overjoyed to see this book for a variety of reasons, not least of which is my firm belief that Tolstoy’s wisdom, much of which has been neglected for ages, is exactly what is needed today, especially among the youth who are trying to find their way in a world of dwindling resources and skyrocketing demands for consumption. The title alone sounded like Kaufman was trying to do with War and Peace what I’ve long felt should be done with all of Tolstoy’s work: examine his ideas and their relevance, rather than his style of narration, character development, etc. (as great as those aspects might be).

I wrote a note to Professor Kaufman saying how glad I was to see such as book as his, and he most graciously sent me a copy. So I decided, after looking it over quickly, that it would make a great companion to the novel, and made my “Russia’s War Epics” course exclusively about Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Now that I’ve been able to read Give War and Peace a Chance closely, I can see that I made the right choice.

The book is arranged thematically: success, happiness, courage are just a few of the universal issues that Kaufman discusses, tying together different scenes from the novel and more or less progressing through the text rather than jumping from the early sections to the later ones. Each chapter is more or less focused on one or two of the main characters and examines the theme of the chapter from different perspectives. In addition to relating the theme to the overall ideology of War and Peace, Kaufman also connects the themes of the novel both to current events and to incidents in his own life. Using current events is really significant; I remember one of the most influential professors in my life, Donald Higgins, once said that “if you can’t show students how what you’re teaching is significant to their lives, you haven’t taught them anything.” This is something I’ve always carried with me, and which Give War and Peace a Chance succeeds in doing with Tolstoy’s masterpiece. As for the stories from his own life, this gives the book a personal feel that makes it unique: you get the feeling you’re sitting at a cafĂ© with Kaufman chatting about life, not reading a book about a 150 year-old novel.

Kaufman does a couple things I particularly like. One is that he focuses significant attention on Nikolai Rostov, the patriotic kid who ends up the model for Tolstoy’s perfect landowner (except for his continuing propensity to beat the crap out of people who tick him off). The other is his defense of Karataev, a character who appears toward the end of the novel and has been criticized for many different reasons. It’s good to know I’m not alone in thinking Karataev is pivotal, essential, and not just a bumpkin spouting folk proverbs (I almost said “contradictory folk proverbs,” but that would be, well, redundant). Having studied the proverbs Tolstoy used in other works—some of which I can’t make heads or tails out of—I understand why he had Karataev communicate through these obscure sayings.

There are very few spoilers in Kaufman’s book; I had to jumble the chapters around only a bit to make sure I don’t give away anything in the novel before it comes along in the syllabus. However, there are two places where he reveals the spectacular ending of Anna Karenina. Yes, I know it’s famous, but I found out the hard way that there are students who haven’t read it but want to! So if you’re one of those types and want to read Give War and Peace a Chance, skip the paragraph at the bottom of page 138 that continues onto 139 and the middle paragraph on page 185 and you’ll be fine.

Overall, this a great book for anyone who loves Tolstoy’s masterpiece and wants to read more about the author’s ideas and motivations,

Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Major Clears its First Hurdle

Our effort to preserve and expand language and literature offerings at Oxy was dealt a major victory yesterday when the Academic Planning Committee approved our proposal for a new major: Literature, Language and Culture. Two more steps await: the chairs of all departments have to sign off on it, and then the faculty at large vote on it.

I have a feeling both of those steps are pretty perfunctory, so hopefully our new major will be in place in Fall 2015.

What we're doing is redefining how the lesser-studied languages are taught at a small college. The normal model is to do what major universities do, only less of it: introductory and intermediate language study and a couple of literature/culture courses. In Oxy's case, we've been able to offer minors in Russian and German, and offer a group language major--which is essentially combining two minors and adding some final work on in senior year. The new approach is to focus on reading texts in the original language to underscore the role of language itself in culture. So the first two years of language study will be focused on getting the students' reading ability as advanced as possible, and then incorporating reading of original texts in literature and culture courses. We also plan to add some courses on theory: I plan to teach a course on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, for example.

This language-intensive feature is something we were afraid would hold up the entire proposal or even derail it. We propose to add special "language intensive" sections to our literature and culture courses for majors. So two days a week the class would meet for ninety minutes and examine texts in English, and on the third day the majors would meet to examine texts in the original language. For that, they would receive five units of credit instead of the usual four. This could still be a sticking point, because it would require us to take teaching overloads one semester a year, and that's something the college is trying to avoid. So I submitted a plan where I would only do the overload for two years, and if the program brought in more students we would request an adjunct to teach the language intensive sections along with second-year Russian as a prelude to doing a tenure-track search for a Russian linguist who would teach all the language courses, freeing me up to teach all the culture courses and some theory.

None of this helps me personally. I can't be promoted any further unless I was willing to move into administration, and you couldn't print enough money between now and the end of time to get me to do that. What it does do is allow the possibility of expanding Oxy's Russian program to two tenure-track faculty, and I can return to my beloved Arizona in peace, knowing that I completely saved the program Gilman Alkire created back in the '60s and which was nearly dead when I took over in 1999.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sometimes the Russian News Can Teach Something

I was able to download an app so that I can get Russian TV through by Blue Ray system, and so I've been watching "Vesti" every evening for the last couple of weeks. I really just did it to improve my listening comprehension--not having visited Russia for almost a decade has definitely affected it--and initially found it amusing to listen to all the propaganda, but more recently I've begun to see how it points out the depth of propaganda in the American media.

Yesterday's broadcast was about Ukraine's bombardment of Donetsk using tactical missile launchers. The strikes were devastating. I saw interviews with ordinary residents who have to sleep in the floor in corridors, the safest spot in their little apartments. I don't know whether they support the rebels or the Ukrainian government--my guess is the rebels, at least after these attacks--but they're the same sort of poverty-stricken victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent endemic corruption as the people I know in Moscow. Their homes are crumbling, their yards are war zones, and God knows how many have been killed in what it obviously a civil war in eastern Ukraine

So this morning I opened up Google news to see what I could see. And I saw nothing. So I checked the “world” option, and the first story on Ukraine was about the negotiations between the EU, Russia and Ukraine. Next on the list in big print, “Amnesty deplores abuses on both sides.” However, the little links under the first story said “Ukraine used cluster bombs, evidence indicates.” The story was from the New York Times, so I went to that site to see where the story was. And of course, it wasn’t on the front page. No, the top stories were about Japanese air bags and some athlete named Oscar Pistorius, whose name I see all the time in news feeds but don’t have valuable seconds to figure out who he is. If you check the “World” section it is in fact the first story, where you can read, “Human Rights Watch says in its report that cluster weapons have been used against population centers in eastern Ukraine at least 12 times, including the strikes on Donetsk, during the conflict, and possibly many more.” However, it quickly goes on to state, “The report said that both sides were probably culpable,” thereby somewhat defusing the damning evidence against Ukraine. As for the Washington Post, there’s no story at all.

Ever since my first encounters with the American media, I’ve become more and more aware of how they create stories: they decide on the narrative (mythology) they want to promote, and then report the facts that support that narrative while either suppressing or qualifying facts that don’t support it. It seems to me that civilian populations being shelled by their own government would be something that should be highlighted, but the American press has chosen to ignore it entirely or downplay it.

The other story that struck me was a propagandistic piece on how America’s intervention in Libya was what created terrorist uprisings in Mali and Syria. Well, I take that with a few grains of salt, but the interesting thing was a video of the capture and murder of Muammar Gaddafi. He was beaten, bloody, and obviously terrified. Why did I never see that video before, I wondered? You would think that the media could make a pretty penny showing it, and yet I can’t remember it appearing anywhere. Is it perhaps because it undermined the narrative that the US was liberating Libya? Well, from my perspective it wouldn’t; it would just show a very unpleasant reality about such “liberations.” But mythology is more important that reality for the US government, and the media seems to be nothing more than an extension of that myth-making.

In 1900, Leo Tolstoy wrote that “The army, the money, the school, the religion, and the press are in the hands of the ruling classes.  In the schools they fan patriotism in the children by means of history, by describing their nation as the best of all the nations and always in the right.  In the adults, the same sentiment is roused by means of spectacles, celebrations, monuments, and a patriotic, lying press.”

This final phrase has really stuck with me. It seems very little has changed since Tolstoy’s time: the press continues to lie to support the government’s agenda, no matter how they claim to be its watchdogs.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

. . . And the symposium's out the window

So, I kept going back and forth on the symposium. Really, it boiled down to the comment "selected papers will be published." Either publish them or don't, but don't entice me with a hope of publication.

Maybe it has to do with my continued disappointment with the promise of the organizer of the conference in Tbilisi in 2013 to publish "all" the papers and his subsequent email silence. Even when I wrote him inquiring about the publication.

However, the real out was an invitation from a friend to contribute to a panel at the Association for the Study of Nationalities at Columbia University in April 2015. There's no chance of my paper being published as a direct result of the conference, and the honesty of that situation appeals to me. Also, he is a good friend and I would like to contribute to his panel. Finally, it's Manhattan. Where would I rather spend a few days in April: Waco, Texas or Manhattan?

So I'm working on something about efforts at ethnic reconciliation in the northwest Caucasus. It's a pretty rich field but it will take some catching up, since I've been pretty inattentive to recent developments while I work on my budding Tolstoy project. Shouldn't take much though.

As for publishing the paper, well if someone approaches me and asks about it, sure. But at this point in my career I don't need to go chasing publishers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back to the Symposium Racket

For the second time, I told myself I would never go to any sort of conference or travel by air, ever again. And it looks like, to paraphrase an ancient Indo-European myth, three will hopefully be the charm.

Alright, when I got promoted to full professor I assumed that my naturally lazy and exploitative nature would kick in and I would just stop writing and travelling to academic events. My work on Tolstoy has been plodding along, although I doubt I'll get anything published that will be considered "Slavic studies." Eventually I could get a book out, but it would be way beyond the realm of what slavists normally do, incorporating eastern mysticism and European pacifist movements. And that's if I ever figure out how to tie all that together.

So, I was fooling around with that stuff when a listserv which I no longer belong to (in hindsight I should have never joined it) put up an announcement over the summer about a symposium, "Georgia at the Crossroads." I don't know much about Georgia, but I was involved in a bunch of events that were started by the Saakashvili government; in fact, I participated in a couple of them, and one of the Georgian government's decisions allowed me to write my second book.

Out of boredom, I put together a proposal to analyze those events. However, since the announcement clearly says, "selected papers will be published," and since my last experience with a conference that promised all papers would be published, where the organizer hasn't even replied to my inquiries about said publication, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and because I'm pretty much sick of writing on the Caucasus, and because the conference is in Waco, yes you heard that right, Waco, and because I really didn't plan on getting on a plane ever again, I shelved it but kept the proposal.

So first I felt a bit guilty since my promotion was based to a large degree on my contribution to Caucasus studies. The college clearly hopes I'll continue to work in the field. Then they reminded me that I now have a larger fund for "academic development" than I ever had before, so I decided I should go ahead and attend this symposium, even though my paper is unlikely to get published since it's really a sort of peripheral issue. It will at least give me something to write in my annual report, though.

And after that, no more travel, no more conferences, really.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Russian Enrollments Up

Last year I was beginning to get worried. My first year Russian class was only eleven, the smallest it had been in many years. And of that eleven, only six were good candidates for second year. Of the six, four continued. Since one is studying in St. Petersburg this semester, I would only have had three if it weren't for two exchange students and one student who had to skip second year Russian last year and is taking it now.

But this year I have eighteen in first year, the highest it's been since Oxy added Arabic into the program. Of that eighteen around twelve are good candidates for second year.

I asked the class if Putin's shenanigans had anything to do with their decision to study Russian, and no one raised their hand. Still, I think Russia's behavior recently has brought Russia back into the consciousness of young people after more than two long decades of neglect.

We haven't finalized our approval for the new department, either. Once that's done and the new major is on the books I'm hoping enrollments will go up a little more.