Great Professors: Victoria Somoff

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): I know a bit about your background, that you grew up in the Soviet Union. Could you tell us a bit about that background, and how you became a professor?

Victoria Somoff (VS): I belong to what historians define as the Last Soviet Generation in that I grew up in the Soviet Union and then witnessed the moment when the Soviet regime collapsed. I was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and it is now Ukraine, an independent country. In the 1990s, which was a very difficult time for all post-Soviet states, my family were granted refugee status by the United States and we came to San Francisco, California.

In Ukraine I was a university graduate student in the city of Donetsk, which is in eastern Ukraine. I studied at the department of Russian language and literature and I also taught Russian literature in high school. In San Francisco I tried to find a job teaching Russian but it was unsuccessful. At some point I picked up Yellow Pages and called every place that had anything Russian in its name including the Russian Hill School, which is a school in a neighborhood in San Francisco called Russian Hill. It has nothing to do with Russia so when I called them and offered to teach Russian, they were very surprised.

I couldn’t find any job teaching Russian and spent about a year working as a waitress and as a clerk at an office supply store. In the evenings, I was taking English classes at the City College of San Francisco. I began to seriously think about going back to Ukraine. It was a moment of distress, not personal distress since I had met good friends in San Francisco, but I wanted to continue with graduate school and studies of literature and just couldn’t see how it could happen in America. Most likely, I would have gone back to Ukraine but at some point an American friend told me that there was this great school nearby, UC Berkeley, and I should go and check it out.

So I went to UC Berkeley and it was there that I met a remarkable man named Alan Dundes – all students in my folklore courses learn this name on the first day of class. He was a world-known scholar but also an exceptionally generous man, both intellectually and personally. He was the head of the M.A. Folklore Program and a very popular professor. He was so popular that there was folklore on UC Berkeley campus about Professor Dundes teaching folklore.

I just came in from the street to his office, without any appointment, and he asked me who I am, and I explained to him what I did back in Ukraine in graduate school, and I was so surprised that with my very limited English I was able to perfectly explain to him what kind of research I was doing and what my interests were. And then he suggested that I apply to the Folklore Program at Berkeley, and I did – although I had to defer my admission for one year because my twin sons were born in September of the year when I was supposed to start the program. Professor Dundes supported me financially for two years and I received my Master’s degree in folklore and then was accepted to a doctoral program in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, which is a unique, one of a kind Slavic program. I met some wonderful teachers there as well. This is how I decided to start graduate studies in the US eventually becoming a professor, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the course of my life was changed because of that one meeting with Professor Dundes.

TDR: Could you tell us a bit more about your scholarship, and what specifically your academic interests are, and what you’ve published?

VS: I began studying literature and literary theory in Donetsk, Ukraine and my teachers there taught me the approach to literature to which I have tried to stay faithful since then: that even though literary works are certainly influenced, in complex and subtle ways, by a variety of external factors — social, economic, political, psychological, etc., — in every work there is also some surplus, or excess in relation to all these factors, and it is important to recognize this excess and to find precise terms to describe it.

That has been my approach to both literature and folklore. My first book was on the rise of the novel in 19th century Russia and now I focus on folklore probably because folklore is very conducive material for thinking about that excess. As students in my folklore courses know, every folk tale, legend or song is found in many different cultures. This characteristic of folklore, called multiple existence and variation, compels us, I believe, to ask the following question: what is in this or that folk story (or legend, or song), in the story itself, that appeals to very different societies across time and space? With folklore, an artistic work’s excess in relation to contextual circumstances really comes into analytical view.

TDR: What types of current projects are you working on?

VS: My current project has to do with both folklore and literature. I am looking at literary works in the Russian tradition which were in some way inspired or based on folklore and think about the interactions between literature and folklore. One of my questions is about the tenacity of folk genres and the continuous appeal of folkloric characters, plots, and conflicts for the writers of literature. To give you an example outside of the Russian tradition: Shakespeare’s King Lear is based on the folktale Love Like Salt where the king asks his three daughters which of them loves him most and then he thinks that the youngest daughter gives him the “wrong” answer. She says she loves him like salt, and he chases her away, but eventually the king, betrayed by the older two daughters, understands the youngest daughter’s answer and realizes that she really loved him the most. King Lear is a very different work, of course, but you can also easily recognize the similarities with the folktale. And my second question addresses the differences between folklore and literature: can we discover any consistent, systematic patterns behind the variety of transformations that folkloric genres undergo when folklore enters literature? I think that we can identify these patterns and reflect on their meaning. The Book will be titled Short of a Miracle: Russian Literature and Folklore.

TDR: You teach many well-regarded courses. What prompted you to teach this large variety of different courses, and what do you particularly enjoy teaching?

VS: One reason perhaps, is that I enjoy excitement and unpredictability which come with a new course, and that feeling that you don’t quite know where you’re going and how it’s going to turn out. It feels like you’re in the same boat as your students and I like that feeling because it creates an environment that’s very favorable to genuine collaborative work.

I remember well the first course on folklore that I taught at Dartmouth and I am still in touch with some of its students. They write to me to report new folklore that they encounter: an urban legend, a superstition, or a joke. Sometimes I teach the same course, but I have a major part of the course that is renewable. For instance, in my Russian theater course, students produce a different Russian play each time. This winter, I taught an advanced seminar in Russian which was a new course. The students in that class collaboratively wrote an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) entirely in Russian. The action takes place in Ukraine and Russia during the recent Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014. The characters are fictional and they have different views on the historical events and debate their positions in a series of email letters. Beginning next year, I will be offering a permanent course called “Creative writing in Russian” where there will be a different creative writing project every time.

TDR: What is your approach to classroom instruction?

VS: My approach is to have a discussion in every class, even if that class is a lecture. No matter whether we formally have a seminar and everybody is speaking, or it is a large class, where I have to speak at length, I try to make it a discussion, in that we are moving from question to question. The challenge is to formulate questions themselves clearly so we don’t get into some muddy area where nothing is clear. The direction should be from one question to a more difficult question. The evidence of analytical work well done is that it’s not finished. If we talk about one short story for two hours and we’re not done yet, that means we did well.

TDR: What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching at Dartmouth?

VS: There are many words that can be said about Dartmouth students: hard working, thoughtful, intelligent. What’s most important for me, and what I was somewhat surprised and grateful to see, is that my students are willing to take risk and then, which is very important, take responsibility for taking that risk. For instance, I would offer to stage a play to a group of students most of whom had no experience with acting or theater and they would say yes. Or this winter I suggested to a group of students to write a novel, no less – and most of these students have never done any creative writing, but they also said yes, we will try that.

And then there would always be moments, often mid-term, where I myself felt that we can’t complete the project, that it was too big of a commitment but students would just continue doing the work and every time, somehow, we would get it done. We would stage that play or write that book.

TDR: Has your teaching influenced your scholarship and vice versa?

VS: There is a very tight connection. I teach a lot of topics that I research. I offer folklore courses, for instance, and courses on 19th and 20th Russian literature. But also, there is an obvious inverse relationship, that goes from teaching to research. It’s very often that an idea for research or a project would come from class. For instance, I teach a course called Russian Fairy Tales where we discuss adaptations of fairy tales in Russian literature and film. The book about which I already talked, Short of a Miracle,  grew out of this course and it was the richness of the conversations that we had in class that convinced me that there was a book-scope idea here. The course was first, and the book second.

TDR: What do you think are the institutional challenges facing Dartmouth?

VS: Dartmouth is a research institution with a focus on undergraduate teaching. That’s a structural challenge and the key, I believe, is to work with that challenge and see it not as a weakness but as a strength. Perhaps one way to do that is to increase the intensity of undergraduate research.

We have very intelligent students who can handle graduate level research. For instance, we have a visiting scholar at the Russian department this year, Victoria Juharyan, who is teaching a course on Tolstoy, and she’s implementing a terrific initiative: at the end of the course, when students usually submit papers, there will be a conference where students will present their research. There will be small panels, professors will serve as discussants, and there even be an invited keynote speaker. This is a format of an actual professional conference and usually only graduate students participate in such events. This is just one example of how we could offer more opportunities for undergraduate research in the humanities bringing it to a graduate level. Another idea would be to establish a publication in the humanities which would be run by students and professors and publish research papers written by students.

TDR: Grade inflation and academic rigor have been hotly debated topics in recent years. I saw that you were on the ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation. What are your thoughts on the topic?

VS: I’m afraid that the thoughts that are important to me on this issue might not be very constructive. In an ideal world, I think that grades should be abandoned altogether, at least in the humanities. The process of being assigned a mark, a number, interferes with the process of genuine inquiry. There is a contradiction here. It creates this dual motivation for the student: on the one hand, to do good work, to do good research – and, on the other, to get a good grade.

I could easily imagine a situation for instance, where a student was not able to finish a paper because of the complexity of the questions that she asked or where a paper deconstructed itself because a student realized in the process of writing that it was based on a false premise. I think those would be very valuable analytical experiences, but the need to get a good grade requires producing a neat paper by a certain deadline. It affects the way students do research, maybe more for one student and less for others. I see this as a conflict. Inflating grades is definitely not a solution to this conflict and measures should be taken to slow down or stop grade inflation. At the same time, it is important, I believe, to keep in mind the issues that have to do with grading itself and seek the ways to address these issues, creating more learning environments where students can “un-plug” from thinking about grades.

TDR: Given that you recently got tenure, do you have any thoughts on the tenure process, or the promotion process for full professors? This has also been a hotly debated topic recently. Do you think it’s open and honest?

VS: I think that tenure is a conflicted institution, even though I understand its origins and necessity, and the conflict is somewhat analogous to the one I just described in relation to grading. This is a conflict between depth, complexity, and unpredictability of research — and the need to demonstrate speed and productivity that the tenure process requires. It is always a compromise, and I am not sure that this compromise is beneficial for academia. A scholar might do research for ten years and produce an article that will become a real contribution to the field and will be quoted for years to come; however, that scholar would not get tenure or promotion, because to get tenure, you have to write a book, six articles, and then more. I know many, many people who do not have tenure, who do not have tenure track jobs, and it says absolutely nothing about the quality of their research. They are by no means lesser scholars. However, the hierarchical structure enabled by the institution of tenure takes over and creates reputations and its own forms of prestige, and this hierarchy contradicts the very essence of what we do in academia and why we do it.

I think that we should work on making the tenure process as fair and transparent as it can be but, at the same time, keep in mind this larger issue and search for the resources and opportunities to resist, or alt least better balance, this hierarchical structure.

TDR: How do you like the experience of living in the Upper Valley? How do you like the weather up here?

VS: I grew up in Ukraine, and we do have winter there, but it’s much milder winter and a lot shorter. I could have never imagined snow in April. My children do all kinds of winter sports and love winter but I am always longing for warmer days, which are finally coming, I hope!

TDR: Do you have any general comments on the increasing salience of Russia in the recent years, what’s going on in Russia and the Ukraine, and the refugee issue?

VS: It is an issue that is very important to me. The Ukrainian revolution, the Euromaidan revolution, was an extraordinary historical and political event. Thousands of people took to the streets and didn’t leave until they achieved their goals. But then Russia interfered and currently there’s a grave, serious conflict between Ukraine and Russia: a political, ideological, and  military conflict. Russia annexed a part of Ukraine’s’ territory, something that hasn’t happened since World War II, and it is also leading a so-called “hybrid” war in eastern Ukraine, in that very region where I was born and grew up. The conflict is ongoing and it is not clear at this point how it will be solved. I cannot go back to Donetsk, my hometown, because it is no longer controlled by Ukraine.

What is most relevant to our conversation here at Dartmouth is that even though I am unambiguously on the side of Ukraine in this socio-political conflict, I work in the Russian Department and teach Russian literature and language. I am also a native Russian speaker even though I also speak Ukrainian. So for me this external conflict has become an internal one, and I am searching for ways to solve it.

I now make sure that all my students know that I am from Ukraine, because many people tend to identify that whole region with Russia, but, no, I come from Ukraine, and it’s a different country, with its own language, history and culture. And I am also thinking of ways to introduce Ukrainian material into our curriculum. That advanced Russian class I told you about, where students wrote a novel based on the current political events in Ukraine, was one of these attempts. The three parts of the novel were named after the major action-sites in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict: Maidan, Crimea, and Donbass, and the students conducted research on situation in Ukraine using various Russian and Ukrainian sources. My next creative writing class will also have a Ukrainian theme. I hope that at some point the Russian Department will be offering courses in Ukrainian language and literature.

As far as the refugee issue, I myself came to the U.S. as a refugee so there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that people who seek refuge should be welcome here.

Associate Professor of Russian Victoria Somoff (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Associate Professor of Russian Victoria Somoff (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)