Best Professors: Sergei Kan

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you gained an interest in academia?

Sergei Kan: Professor of Anthropology, NAS, JWST, and Russian - an impressive scope! (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Sergei Kan: Professor of Anthropology, NAS, JWST, and Russian – an impressive scope! (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Sergei Kan (SK): I was born in the Soviet Union in 1953, just a few weeks after Joseph Stalin died. My father had a PhD in history and so did his father, and my mother obtained a PhD in history later on. My father specialized in European History and my mother in South Asian history. When I was born, it was the tail end of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign. The primary victims of that were actually Jewish academics, Jewish intelligentsia, artists, doctors. So at the time, both my father and my grandfather were out of work. It was a pretty difficult situation for my family, but luckily Stalin died and gradually things improved. But discrimination against Jews in general, particularly in terms of jobs for educated Jews, continued throughout the Soviet era. I know, for example, when I finished high school in 1970 and applied to take my entrance exams to get into the History Department of Moscow University I was going to have to overcome some obstacles. –Even though my mother was part Russian, which allowed me to registered as Russian (in my passport), my last name is “Kan” so they knew I was Jewish. I knew that I would have a higher bar to jump over to get in. I got past four exams and got 18 points out of 20. If I had gotten all As, I would have had 20 points, but with 18s non-Jewish students passed but Jewish students didn’t. Luckily my father knew some of the people in the department (which he had graduated from himself), so he had to use his personal ties to them, and he pleaded, and they admitted me. Even that was unpleasant because you knew someone had to plead on your behalf; it wasn’t just on your merit. A number of other Jewish applicants were rejected and never made it.

I also knew that doing history in a system that was so politicized that we were obligated to study Marxism for the five years of our university education  – that was the only theory you could apply to the study of history; so studying history was still pretty interesting but there were major restrictions on what you could read and research. You couldn’t really say everything you wanted. Sometimes you had to distort your representations, even distort facts; like one colleague of my father who was studying medieval history in the 70s and actually working in the direction of the interesting French structural historians; he was severely criticized for that because clearly he wasn’t a Marxist anymore. One of his critics, a senior Soviet historian, said, ‘What kind of history are you doing? All we Soviet historians need are a couple of facts and a deep Marxist analysis. That’s all we need.’ So the book he wrote was trashed. My father studied Scandinavian history, but he started with Medieval history, because with earlier periods in history, ancient and medieval, you had a little more freedom. But once you moved into modern times it became more and more politicized. My father had two PhDs: his first was agricultural history in the Middle Ages and early Modern Era. There he had a little more freedom, but he did have to quote Marx, whether it was necessary or not. His second PhD was actually very modern diplomatic history: diplomatic policies of Scandinavian countries during World War II. He did a good job researching for both of his dissertations (did a lot of archival research mostly in the USSR and a little bit abroad too). He knew a number of foreign languages and I think it was a good piece of work but certainly there were limitations to what he could say; he certainly could not say anything critical about Soviet policies (like the Soviet war with Finland in 1939).

I was raised by my mother’s family, my parents were divorced when I was a kid, and my mother was very anti-establishment. She was a dissident, a very brave women, did things to help political prisoners in Russia. She studied ancient Sri Lanka, Buddhism in ancient Sri Lanka, and when she wrote her dissertation her boss said, ‘Elena, very nice dissertation but you don’t have a single quote in it from the guy with the big beard’ (he meant Marx), and so even her boss was cynical about it. He didn’t believe in Marx, but he said that you needed the guy with the beard, our “classical scholar, and precursor of Lenin.” So the ideological and political system was already rotten, but most of them were still pretending just to survive; only a few diehards still believed in the Soviet-style dogmatic Marxism. It’s like saying you need a few biblical quotes in your work. My mother said to the guy, ‘Marx never said anything about Sri Lanka, so I’m not going to quote him,’ and surprising they let her defend her Ph. D. thesis. In some places people were a bit more flexible than in others plus it was the more liberal Khrushchev era then. So I’ve kind of looked up to my mom – I loved my dad dearly, but when it came to taking a stand, my mother was my hero. (My father passed way just a few months ago at the age 91 and I miss his very much. My mom is alive and well and living in Boston).

I decided to do archaeology because in USSR at that time, ethnography/anthropology and archaeology were considered part of history as far as the educational system. And archaeologists seemed to be the least political, and so for two years I just studied general history. In the third year, we had to specialize. The less politically oriented students went into ancient history, medieval history, archaeology, while the more ambitious ones went into modern history. American history was in high demand because students were hoping to travel to the United States or work in the Soviet embassy there, and the real goofballs who did not want to study English and just wanted a career in the Soviet establishment studied the history of the Soviet Communist Party. Much of Soviet archaeology was kind of boring – they all focused on objects and not big concepts or theory. There were some good faculty there, but studying objects just didn’t appeal to me. Now I’m not against archaeology; I have colleagues here at Dartmouth who are wonderful scholars. But Soviet archaeology circa 1972 was a bit dull. And their ethnography (anthropology) department was also kind of dull. That was one of reasons, I think, why I was so excited then when the doors opened and Russian Jews started leaving in the early 70s, although the main reason for me was just to leave the country where there was no political freedom, no intellectual freedom, and where Jews were second class citizens. So my family, my mom, my stepfather, later my grandmother as well, we were among the first who left the country in early ’74. The pioneers of immigration were Jews from the Baltics, from Western Ukraine, but then Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian Jews began leaving as well. Some went to Israel – I had pro-Israel sentiments but I wasn’t a passionate Zionist then the way I am now. We had friends who had left even earlier and settled to Boston so we followed them. Since I didn’t finish university in Russia – only the first three years out of five, I wanted to continue my education, so I came to Boston in the summer of ‘74 and, with the help of some American Jews who were very active in the “Save Soviet Jewry” movement, I was very fortunate that even though admission to the fall of ‘74 academic year was definitely over, they helped me get into Boston University. So I became a junior – I had two more years of college at BU. It was a wonderful time; I remember opening the catalogue and realizing that I could take any course I want. In Russia if you were a history major you only took history, which was ok in that you’d learn more in your discipline but you couldn’t even take literature or philosophy. Here I could take religion, I could take Judaism, I could take philosophy, or German literature, and anything I wanted.

TDR: What was it like socially going from a communist Russian university to an American university in the 1970s?

SK: We weren’t totally restricted in Moscow; we were really restricted in our public life, but in private we were somewhat rebellious and we had Beatles records we could listen to. By American standards we were probably pretty repressed, but we drank and we had our own love lives, and some of us read forbidden literature published in the West or available in Russia only via typewritten texts (samizdat). Boston in  ’74 was at the tail end of the Age of Aquarius. It was both interesting and I was curious, but it seemed a bit childish (“what do these young people really want”?) and there were still lots of hippies hanging around Harvard Square. The Vietnam War was coming to a close, so the anti-war movement was pretty much over. We arrived when Nixon was about to resign, and I actually thought that was a wonderful example of a basically healthy country. You could have a president step down, but nothing really happened. Everything went on and the vice president stepped in – it was a serious political issue, but nobody was buying up all the food in the stores or crying. The sky wasn’t falling. America was very attractive, a beautiful country. Sort of like moving from a black and white movie to a colored movie – that was definitely the case. The affluence, the beauty, and America was not all just skyscrapers as we thought. The green grass everywhere, the little houses in Boston, people were just friendly. We had good expectations, but what we saw was even better. It may sound naive but when you escape from prison, you appreciate things like that.

I just enjoyed studying; I focused on cultural anthropology, which I was already beginning to think about a lot back in Russia. I started reading about different peoples and exploring their cultures – a lot more interesting than just looking at artifacts. But I also took courses in Judaism and that’s where I began my journey. Right before I left Russia I also met a wonderful young woman who later became my wife. Her parents, especially her father, were much more committed to Zionism and Judaism than my family. Her father grew up in the 1910s-1920s in Ukraine and he had a bar mitzvah. He partook in Jewish religion and public culture before the Soviets crushed it. My father-in-law (who eventually became my hero), passed his values on to my future wife. We got married in Boston in ’76 with a religious wedding. I also had a wonderful professor of Judaica who is still one of my best friends. I plunged into Jewish life and studies. After two years I graduated and my professors in Anthropology encouraged me to pursue graduate school, I had good grades and a senior thesis, and a letter of recommendation from none other than the great Russian-American linguist Roman Jacobson, who was a friend of our family and was interested in helping me, so I was admitted into all the schools I applied to except for one. The best anthropology department for symbolic anthropology, which is what I wanted to do, was at the University of Chicago, so that’s where I went. It had some great anthropologists at the time. I was there from ’76 until ’79 just taking classes. Then I did fieldwork in Alaska with the Tlingit people. I came back to Boston in ’80 and wrote my dissertation, I tried to find a job in Boston, which was hard; I just took part time there at several schools. I got my PhD in ’82, got my first job in ’83 at the University of Michigan, which was a very big school and had a major anthropology department. There were pluses and minuses; it was very high-powered, very ambitious, but there were also factions within the department which made working there difficult. Everyone talked about teaching, but it was really research that they were focused on. I taught there for six years and then a job at Dartmouth materialized. A joint-appointment in anthropology and Native American studies opened up and that seemed ideal. So I came here in ’89 and I’ve been here ever since.

TDR: What initially drew you to Native American Studies in general, and the Tlingit people in particular?

SK: I had a professor at Boston University by the name of Dennis Tedlock, who worked with the Zuni Indians in the southwest, and taught courses on their culture, southwestern cultures, and other Native American cultures. He was very charismatic and had an influence on me and I wrote papers for him about Siberian native people because most of the accounts of Siberian native cultures were in Russian, and that was my first language. We talked about it and he said “You’re not going to Siberia, it’s closed for immigrants like you; but you could go to Alaska, and there’s similarities there: northern cultures, their religion, their shamanism, ceremonies, and so on.” The part of Alaska where I did my research was formerly part of “Russia America”, so there had been some Russian influence (e.g., many of the Tlingit people still belong to the Russian Orthodox Church). More specifically the Pacific Northwest, the Alaska panhandle, is an area where there are very interesting “potlatch” feasts, a very elaborate social structure, intricate and beautiful totem poles, fascinating art; it’s an area that has always attracted anthropologists, from American to French. The great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss worked there, as did Franz Boas, the “father” of US anthropology. So I developed an interest in it, and then when I got to U of Chicago, one of my other BU professors, a woman named Eva Hunt, knew someone in the anthro. department there, who she said I should study with: Prof. Ray Fogelson, who also worked with Native Americans. He studied the culture of the Eastern Cherokees, but he had this encyclopedic knowledge of many other Native American cultures, so I went to work with him, among other people. Ray took me under his wing; he was not only a great scholar, but also a good man, very gregarious and friendly. So that’s how I became a Native American Studies scholar. Unlike other Chicago professors who were also terrific, but often kind of reserved and a bit snobbish, his home was always where the party was, and so his students were all kind of a family. We all shared interests in Native American cultures and were all devoted to our mentor. We met some prominent Native American scholars and intellectuals at his house on the north side of Chicago…That’s a very important thing because as a graduate student you’re older and you’re all future scholars; it’s a different level of interaction than most undergraduates have.

TDR: Do you think there’s anything unique about being a faculty member at Dartmouth compared to some of the other schools you’ve taught or studied at?

SK: I think relations with students here are tend to be closer. I do miss not having graduate students a little because, with really good graduate students, you do have a relationship as with colleagues. With undergraduates, you occasionally do if they’re really superb and/or are planning to be working in your discipline, but most of them will go into fields that are not your field. I kind of miss that. Although I do have some graduate students outside of Dartmouth, mainly I deal with undergraduates, and the quality of undergraduates here is by-and-large great. Undergraduates have open minds; they’re not as preoccupied with things that graduate students are, they’re not competing against each other in terms of future jobs in anthropology. I’ve forgotten most of my undergraduates from Michigan; there are maybe a few I still remember. Whereas I’ve been here almost thirty years and I still remember many of my undergraduate students, their names, and what they worked on; some of them have remain very good friends. So that close relationship is really unique, and it’s the size of the school, it’s the quality of the students, and I think the school does reward that to some degree. And I hope we don’t lose that while we “move Dartmouth forward.”

TDR: Given your unique background that we’ve discussed, do you have any insights as to trends you’re seeing today – not only at Dartmouth, but also in academia in general, or in the student body?

SK: Yeah, a few things. I am obviously somewhat skeptical of some of the things that the more left-wing colleagues of mine are so enthusiastic about. Although I’m not the only one. I’m very much opposed to any mandatory courses. Not mandatory athletics, though I think mandatory athletics is also kind of outmoded. Mandatory courses, for example on race and ethnicity. If you make anything mandatory, A) students are not going to like it, unless they’re ideologically committed to this subject, and B) you’re only going to have certain professors who want to teach it. It basically becomes indoctrination. There have been attempts; we have some faculty members who really want to institute those courses. And no matter what they say – that it’s going to be an open intellectual field, anyone can teach it – there’s definitely an agenda there. It’s going to be about all the awful things about American society, and there are lots of things that are wrong with our society, but if you teach it with an open mind, where students are not afraid to challenge the professor, then it’s okay. But if you tell students from day one that “It’s either my way or the highway,” which is what I think would happen, maybe with a few exceptions – we have some people on the left who are open-minded – by and large, it’s going to be “How can you not agree that everything’s stacked against certain people in our society? How can you not see that white privilege is everywhere, and if you’re white, you’re benefitting from this system big time (even if your family is poor and you’ve been working your butt off while being a college student), and you are also implicitly biased no matter how many minority friends you have and how progressive you are” (As a matter of fact, there is now plenty of social science research, which shows that the psychological theories of “implicit bias” are based on rather questionable research and weak data, yet they are now presented to and by university administrators as “facts” that cannot be questioned). Then those students who belong to the majority group taking such courses will usually feel guilty or will be made to feel guilty. Students will just say and write what they would think they need to say to pass that course, and I don’t think it would be a great educational experience. And we’ve had enough mandatory courses in the Soviet Union, and they were the worst ones, and we hated them, and we just wanted to get them out of the way. I was pleased to see, in the recent debate about mandatory courses, that a number of my colleagues, including colleagues in my department were against such courses on pedagogical grounds. I am against such courses both on pedagogical grounds and also based on my own experience of studying in a restrictive (“ideologically and politically correct”) system in 1970-73; I know what happens when you have those kinds of courses. I was actually part of a large group of faculty at the U of Michigan which fought against such mandatory courses in the late 1980s…

TDR: Does it ever trouble you when you hear students or colleagues expressing opinions on communism, or socialism in general, that, from your experience, you know where those lead?

SK: Of course these colleagues usually say, “Oh, our version of socialism, it’s going to be different here.” I realize that yeah, the Swedish-style social democratic system is not what we lived through in the USSR, and I can imagine that maybe within certain safeguards you could have a liberal social democratic system, as long as you have freedom of speech and real democracy. But I also think that the US is not Sweden, it has a very different history and culture and a much larger society. And I also have family in Sweden, so I know that even there the state really interferes in so many spheres in your life. There are good things and there are bad things; I admire that education is free, medicine is free, but the kind of bureaucracy they have to deal with blows your mind and many of them are not happy with it, believe me…, and they can no longer afford the kinds of things they used to be able to 20-30 years ago. There’s a downside even in that system that people like Bernie Sanders want to institute here. But that’s the moderate version. Then there are people here who want a much more restrictive system. What really frightens me is when you hear students and some faculty (not so much at Dartmouth but at other American schools) say that they don’t want freedom of speech, that they don’t need it anymore. What they are saying is, “If freedom of speech allows people we don’t like and don’t agree with to express their opinions, we do not want or need that kind of freedom of speech.” That really frightens me. When we came here in the seventies, there were a lot of people on the left that we disagreed with, but they didn’t question the idea that we can all express our opinions. I look at the Free Speech movement in the sixties; those people were fighting for being able to say anything you want. Now a significant segment of the left is fighting for restricting those freedoms. 

TDR: Students and faculty admire you for being outspoken on issues you care about, especially when some of your colleagues don’t feel comfortable taking a stand on issues like that. What drives you to speak out about whatever you choose to speak out about, and what do you think the role of professors should be in campus issues?

SK: I think that you don’t have to speak out all the time. If you don’t feel like saying what’s on your mind, you don’t have to. But I think that one has to have the courage to express unpopular opinions. What I notice is that there are a lot of faculty who don’t say anything; either they don’t care or they’re just afraid to say something that’s unpopular. And since the predominant trend by and large at Dartmouth – though Dartmouth’s is somewhat more moderate than other schools – is a liberal-left-wing ideology (the loudest voices tend to be on the far left), if you want to express those opinions, you don’t risk anything. Now some faculty members think that if you want to express a counter-opinion, it is risky. But is it? I don’t think so, especially if you have tenure – I can understand why junior faculty are afraid, which is a sad story because nobody should be penalized for their opinions, but there have been cases of such penalties. But I’ve had encounters where even full professors here have told me that they totally agree with some of my “unpopular” positions, but just don’t want to stand out – on Israel or on other issues – they’d just rather do their research or work with students. But why did I leave the Soviet Union? What was the point if I can’t say what’s on my mind? We’re still a (more or less) free society, certainly compared to many others. If I can’t say what I believe, then I cant take advantage of the freedom we still enjoy. The other thing is that those students who espouse views that may not be popular or not mainstream need my support. Some students also share views that are not dominant or are not the loudest, and they’re afraid and don’t want to get in trouble. They feel like they’re powerless because they might get a bad grade or be unpopular or receive a nasty email. But if they see that there are a few professors who think like them, that’s good. So I do it for the students, or I get someone outside Dartmouth who says they’re please that there’s someone there who has the guts to say something, like in the case of Professor Jasbir Puar last year, who came here and said such obnoxious things about Israel. I just received an email from the Hillel Director at the school where she’s a tenured professor, and he said he couldn’t get any of her colleagues to criticize her; nobody wants to do that even though many abhor her views. Or when she spoke at Vassar before coming here, and said the same things she said here; nobody would challenge her. But we — myself and a number of Jewish students – did! And so eventually several Jewish students from Vassar wrote to me and thanked me for speaking publicly against her maligning Israel with her lies. It felt good to read their messages. It makes speaking out worth it for me!