❍ Year of graduation: 1992
❍ Field of current or former occupation: Academia
Question: What is your current occupation and where do you live? Please briefly describe your duties and responsibilities. How long have you been at this position?
Bethany Moreton: I recently took up a new job as Professor of History at Dartmouth College, and I live up the river in Thetford, Vermont; prior to that, I had been an Assistant and then Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia. I teach mostly twentieth-century U.S. subjects, with some topical classes beginning in the colonial era and some that are heavily transnational; Russia and the USSR figure in many of these.
Question: Did studying Russian language and culture at Williams help you in your professional and personal development? If yes, then how were Russian Studies were useful to you? What opportunities and challenges did the Russian major open up for you both specific to your current occupation and more generally?
Bethany Moreton: Studying Russian and (then) Soviet Studies at Williams led directly, if somewhat slowly, to my ultimate profession: after graduation, to make more progress in the language, I worked for a year in Russia, in 1992-93, as an English teacher in a public school in Vladivostok and as a “stringer” for the American public radio show Marketplace–that is, I had the indescribable experience of consciously witnessing a world-historical event, the disassembling of the USSR and the jettisoning of an entire political economy. At the time, I was far too underinformed and naive to make much sense of what I was seeing, but all my subsequent scholarly interests are directly indebted to that experience. Watching people lose one set of ideals and assumptions and be faced instead with contrasting ones grounded my academic career researching the interplay of economic ideology and religious belief (and indeed I hope my next book will allow me to revisit some of that territory quite explicitly). More than anything, though, that destabilizing experience helped me grasp the dimensions of my own ignorance and partiality, and put me in a frame of mind to appreciate all subsequent opportunities to learn that have come my way. That alone would have been worth it even if I hadn’t eventually decided to go pro in the education biz.
Question: Please share your advice or recommendation about the Russian department at Williams to a prospective student who is considering taking courses or majoring in our program.
Bethany Moreton: I was very fortunate to take most of my classes with Professor Donald Singleton–“Tikhii Don”–and appreciated his approach so much that I also took all his offerings in linguistics; I was very sorry to see him go. It feels very presumptious to offer advice to people a quarter century my junior–their context is so utterly different, and I don’t presume to have anything directly relevant to tell them. But my own choice of major was based on the belief that while you can trust yourself to continue developing some forms of knowledge your whole life, college is one of your best opportunities to rely on the classroom structure and the faculty to provide the discipline necessary for acquiring a difficult language. In other words, I never took a course at Williams on the 19th-century novel, because I knew I would read Middlemarch and Madame Bovary without the spur of coursework or the guidance of a professor; I didn’t take one of the more obviously useful languages because I was fairly confident that I probably could (and subsequently did) learn Spanish, say, through other means. But without the high standards and constant discipline of imaginative, expertly taught courses five days a week at 8:30 a.m. at Williams, I would never have learned Russian (which I still use, very haltingly and inexpertly now, to my sorrow; see above re: need for intensive refresher courses at Williams for adult learners). I should add that I wasn’t a particularly good Russian student, and for me the challenge of dedicating myself to something I clearly could have failed at during any given semester was enormously formative: nothing I value in my work life has come easily, but this experience allowed me to accept the risks.
If you would like to write to Bethany Moreton, please contact Baktygul Aliev.