William & Mary

Face 2 Face, an Occasional Conversation about Arts and Humanities in the Liberal Arts

Face 2 Face baner“Humanities and arts faculty benefit from talking to each other about what we do,” said A&S Dean for Educational Policy Teresa Longo (Modern Languages and Literatures), opening the first "Face 2 Face" event pairing faculty across disciplines in the arts and humanities. The event continued the Blue Room conversation among various department chairs and was moderated by Longo.

A group of faculty members gathered to hear Professor Suzanne Raitt (English and Women’s Studies) and Professor Alexander Prokhorov (Russian Studies and Film Studies) discuss their current research and explore ideas about their place in the arts and humanities. The event was held in the Grammar School Room of the College's Wren Building.

What follows are some highlights from that conversation.

What they're working on now, and why they're excited about it.

Professor Prokhorov Professor Prokhorov is writing a chapter on crime films in Soviet Russia for a book on genres in Russian cinema. “When I looked at films and film criticism, I learned that the invention of crime is an invention of individual sovereignance. Even as a villain character, to have the right to commit a crime means that you have an individual desire. I am looking into the invention of crime as a way to invent, in Russian cinema, individual sovereignty – so crime is, thus, good for us.”

Prokhorov went on to describe how in a social system that doesn't acknowledge or allow room for the individual, when it is a crime to be a separate and thinking person, then daring to have and assert a sense of self is essentially a criminal act.

“Crime is also connected to the birth of consumerism and the desire to consume. Consumerism began from music. There was state-sponsored music which was produced on big, vinyl LPs. Then there was ‘music on the bones,’ music printed on old x-rays and sold on the black market. This one [Prokhorov holds up an example] has a song from Nat King Cole.”

Professor Raitt Professor Raitt is writing about waste and efficiency in British culture at the end of nineteenth and early twentieth century. “I noticed that Victorian novels are full of dirty things. I started to ask myself what happened to all that mess? Who cleaned up all that mess and where did they put it? And I started to think about how central efficiency is to the idea of what is modern.” She is also coediting and annotating Virginia Wolf’s novel Orlando. “Previously this book was mostly seen as a biography of Virginia Wolf, but now I see it as more of a historical novel that tries to engage in all kinds of different contexts of British life. I’m hoping that once our book comes out it will make people think differently about how we experience our emotional and sexual lives in relation to narrative, history, fantasy, and the imagination.”

Is it true that to work in the Humanities you have to experience moments of quiet contemplation?
ProkhorovProfessor Prokhorov agreed that he values moments of quiet contemplation. Reflecting on his childhood in Soviet Russia, he explored why these moments are important for him. “In high school, I had these moments by skipping school. In a culture where private space isn’t legitimate, to find these moments you need to trespass the law. I used these moments to think through my future career choices, and I am grateful that I had these moments.” Professor Raitt For Professor Raitt, the answer wasn’t an easy yes or no. “You have to read, although I think it would be sad to read and then never talk to anyone about what you read. I like quiet contemplations, but I also enjoy collaboration. Having a face-to-face conversation has enlivened my moments for quiet contemplation. I think a mixture is a good thing.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Do those of us who work in the academy ever imagine ourselves doing something else?

Raitt “The fantasy I always have is to train as a counselor or psychotherapist. I was interested in the way some people behave so differently and seem to be in different world than most of us. But for various reasons I left that dream behind. Partly because I realized that teaching and talking with students is one version of that. Every time you’re in a classroom with a group of students, there are things happening in that classroom that are sort of magical. I can encounter all that mystery and strange transformations that we’re not aware of in classrooms, and I don’t have to only do it with people who are unhappy, depressed, or violent. I can deal with people who are excited and part of the magic.”

ProkhorovProkhorov again reflected on his culture and his past. “My parents wanted me to become a mathematician; I kept redefining what I wanted to do. If I were to go to grad school today, I would like to focus on Women’s Studies.

Is the term “women writers” a valuable literary designation today?

Prokhorov The genre has value, Professor Prokhorov, believes, in offering a new perspective on existing, often hidden, stereotypes. He cited some of the student evaluations he received for a course he recently taught, Families and Woman’s Culture in Contemporary Russia: One male student wrote: ‘It was the first course I took that wasn’t about me.’ Another student wrote: 'Before taking the course, I assumed that feminists were selfish individuals making unreasonable demands. Throughout the course I found that my preconceptions about feminists were actually misconceptions.'”

Raitt“Far more books being reviewed these days are by men than by women, and that gives me pause. It is very easy for certain kinds of work to slide under people’s radar for all sorts of reasons, and it is occasionally useful to pause and conceptualize and think about gender as an organizing category just so that those works and those people don’t get forgotten. . . . Even though there is no obvious difference between the writing of men and the writing of women, if you read a text and you allow it to speak to you in a particular way, that is, if you’re listening for some particular kind of voice or some specific concern, then the text can transform as you read it. ”

Students sometime perceive all knowledge to be equal. How do you help them decide what is useful and important? What do you most want your students to know?

raitt“The first question I have to ask is, useful and important for what? Something that may be useful and important for the student may not be something that is useful and important for us, as we often notice when we are grading their papers. Part of our adventure with the students is to help them figure out why they are doing what they are doing and in what context they should be thinking about how this is important for me. So I would say that it’s not a decision that we make. Rather, we help students figure out how they might make those decisions as they move through college, through their reading, through conversations and as they move through the world.”

ProkhorovProfessor Prokhorov spoke about how a dialogic conversation is fundamental to the way he teaches and the way he wants students to think about things. “The intellectual process is always a dialogic process and open-ended. 'Dialogic' and 'process' are both key words. I don’t want students to memorize a certain number of facts but rather to develop a tool for dialogic analysis, which also requires a communal experience. You built communities for your research.”