Interview with 2009 Award Recipient Professor Kevin J. McKenna
- By Luis Vivanco
Professor McKenna is Professor of Russian in the Department of German and Russian, and served as Director of the Area and International Studies Program between 1989 and 2007. Professor McKenna received his B.A. from Oklahoma State University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Colorado. He joined the UVM faculty in 1984. In addition to being an internationally-recognized specialist of eighteenth century Russian literature, Russian proverbs, and Soviet-era newspapers and propaganda, Professor McKenna is a highly regarded teacher who has won the Kroepsch-Maurice Award for Teaching Excellence (1992).
In April, I sat down with Kevin to learn about his career, scholarship, and involvement in international studies at UVM. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
On his entry in the field of Russian language and literature:
In the 1960s, when I was in college, Russian and Soviet studies was very hot - Sputnik got all that going, and the National Defense Education Act made it possible for people like me to go to college. I had a Russian literature and two Russian history professors who were enormously inspiring mentors with whom I have remained friends after all these years. As I would watch particularly good professors, they always seemed to really enjoy what they were doing in the classroom. I would think, this is not a bad career is it? I knew probably by the early part of my sophomore year that this was something I wanted to do. I was deliriously happy when I got a fellowship to graduate school.
On serving as a Foreign Service officer in the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s, while conducting his Ph.D. research:
My dissertation topic was Catherine the Great as a writer of literature. I had applied for an IREX grant and had the misfortune of being granted the fellowship but turned down by the Russians. Clearly it was not research that I was going to be able to do in the United States. I had to go into the archives in Leningrad. That was quite a curve. I was a little bit more devious then than I am now. I did the next logical thing: I applied for the Foreign Service.
I applied to work on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union. They came out of the Nixon Kitchen Debates from 1959. We showed aspects of typical American life. I worked on one called "Technology and the American Home." I did it for a year and three quarters, and it was the second best job I had in my life. The exhibits were so impossibly popular that it would be 30 degrees below zero and people would start to get into line at 5:30 and 6 in the morning, and we didn't open until 10 on weekdays. On the weekends they were lining up at midnight! I would spend all my vacation time from the exhibits in the archives in Leningrad. We would spend four or five months per city, then the exhibit finally got to Leningrad. Starting 7 to midnight I'd be in the archives, and then on my days off too. I was burning the candle at both ends because I also had an active social life.
On his career at UVM:
When I got here I managed several publications on Catherine the Great. In this department it's not at all surprising, but I noticed that Catherine peppered her writings with an awful lot of Russian proverbs. So I undertook a study of her use of proverbs, which essentially got me interested in the larger question of proverbs in Russian literature. I have the number one authority on proverbs just down the hall from me (Wolfgang Meider). He's been an incredible resource and to a very large degree responsible for this line of research, which I still have not tired of. In fact, the book I'm working on right now is the role of the Russian proverb in Solzhenitzyn's fiction.
Another research track is something that began with my work in the Foreign Service, observations I made about propaganda. I had long noticed that the Soviet visitors always seemed to be posing the very same questions to me, about life in the United States, crime, education, blacks, American Indians, etc. It finally dawned on me, or I developed a thesis, that the lead editorial on the front page of Pravda had anti-Western, more specifically anti-American content, and that there was a direct correlation between these lead editorials and the political cartoon that accompanied them and the views and information that Soviet citizens held about the quality and status of everyday American life in the United States. And so I began what became an incredibly long period of research. I read every single issue of Pravda from 1917 to 1991, most of them twice. It became my book All the Views Fit to Print.
During my career at UVM, I've primarily taught language, literature, and culture and civilization courses. I taught a lot of Soviet press courses, survey courses on 19th and 20th century Russian literature, and courses on single authors or single works. I also developed an innovative course called "Comparative Russian and American Civilizations." In those times (1980s), when there was so much of the Hertz-Avis complex between the United States and the Soviet Union, the audience for that class was considerably larger than it would be today. In the 1990s, I developed a course on business Russian and a team-taught course in the business school on the culture of doing business in Russia today.
On the ups and downs of directing the Area and International Studies Program:
Easily the richest aspect of the job would be the people I've worked with. People like Peter Seybolt, Bill Daniels, Bill Metcalfe, Ted Miles. Working closely for ten years with Nancy Poulin. And then I could not have been more fortunate to have closed my years as A&ISP Director with Mary Lou Shea.
Other high points include watching various area groups grow. Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, European Studies, the African studies minor, all took off in the mid-to-late '90s. It was enjoyable to be working with a director who was a go-getter, who really in just a few years could transform a program. One of our bigger moments was the change surrounding our name as the Center for Area Studies. The ethos of the times was indicating more international. We spent a year to a year and a half to get it renamed Area and International Studies.
Occasionally a high point, but occasionally a low point, was to coalesce with international groups in other UVM colleges and schools, such as Business, Agriculture, and Education. As a continuation of working effectively with these programs, the International Advisory Council was formed. The IAC was an attempt--largely successful for a while--to better coordinate disparate international activities on campus. The peak of our success in the IAC was when we developed proposals for the capital fund campaign to support international education on campus. I was the chair of IAC and director of AIS at the same time, so I could bring a lot of common synergy. I would say that would also count for the lowest of the lows. An unnamed functionary who sat in an administrative office basically closed down the IAC, closed it down the very year we were up for donors contributing money to the capital campaign. It's been frustrating to watch how little we've progressed from that point. Sadly. But by no means would I want to end my comments on that low note, because the overall experience of working with so many fine colleagues dedicated to international research and education has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had over the years at UVM.