The IU Summer Language Workshop Alumni Newsletter | Winter 2015


Alumni Spotlights


Thinking Across Languages: Interview with Sibelan Forrester

by Matthew Mangold


Sibelan Forrester in Gradska biblioteka in Novi Sad

The dexterity of Sibelan Forrester as a scholar and translator reflects itself in the variety of her recent translations and publications. Over the past few years she has published translations of the Baba Yaga tales (Baba Yaga: the Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales [Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013]), the gorgeous poetry of contemporary Russian poet Maria Stepanova (in Relocations: Three Contemporary Russian Women Poets [Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2013]), and Vladimir Propp’s lectures on the Russian folktale (The Russian Folktale [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012]), which won the 2014 AATSEEL Award for Best Scholarly Translation into English. Along with translating, Sibelan introduces several of these works to popular and academic audiences with the tact of a committed researcher and in the compelling prose of a committed writer. This all in addition to publishing important articles and introductions to volumes on gender, class, and science fiction in the context of Slavic literatures, and creating an innovative course about Russian literature and the environment.

I was lucky enough to interview Sibelan about some of her recent work and the arts of translating and teaching foreign languages. Her responses bring into perspective both her deep knowledge of the topics she studies and the joy she takes in thinking across languages – they are sure to inspire students and scholars of foreign languages in a range of disciplines.

Matthew Mangold: What have you found most rewarding in your work as a translator and speaker of foreign languages?

Sibelan Forrester: Besides all the pleasures of translation, what’s best about knowing a foreign language is the access to people, and to beautiful works of literature, which also, I suppose, give you access to people. Making face-to-face connections with authors I’ve translated has had all kinds of positive results, from lovely home-cooked meals or visits to the dacha, to learning precious things about the background and pre-texts of the texts I’ve worked on. Knowing even some of a language that not everybody knows gives you a kind of “in,” it makes you “свой/своя.”

Propp cover

Dr. Forrester received the AATSEEL Book award in Best Translation into English for her translation of The Russian Folktale, by Vladimir Propp, (Wayne State University Press).

MM: Yes, I agree, being included, even as a foreign speaker, is a really wonderful feeling, and conversing with native speakers and translating can offer the feeling in different ways. How do you think translation and speaking represent distinctive parts of learning a foreign language?

SF: Translating as part of language learning certainly goes back a long way—and some of the best students in my undergraduate translation workshop come from Classics, where many traditions of translation get their start. Translating a work is also great preparation for teaching it: you have to pursue every question and try to look at the work from every angle. Translating really forces you to engage with every single word and thought. But translation is a written exercise, and in learning to speak a foreign language you really do need to learn to think differently, to detach from the way you’d say something in English, and to take advantage of things you simply can’t say in English. As if you get a new room in your brain, which you then furnish and expand, and in which you can happily spend time. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of realizing that you can speak with some fluency, have a conversation in which the interest of the topic crowds out your concern with how to say things. It’s like pushing off from the wall of the pool and sensing that the water will hold you up.

MM: I love this comparison of speaking a foreign language to floating in water! It’s like realizing the depths of a language, but also that you can start to swim across them with a little practice. And what a wonderful architectural image for how a new language can have its own space in the mind. It seems like getting nervous about sinking might be part of translating from a new style of writing too. How have you managed to think across the genres you’ve recently translated?

SF: Certainly every genre demands a different approach. Translating poetry is very much like translating a novel, for instance, only more so; you have to find ways to (re)create a particular voice for the poet in the new language. I think it’s very important to keep in mind theories of translation, so you’re more conscious of the implications of what you’re doing, and the ethics of translation: the translator has to strive in all kinds of ways to be accurate, or at least adequate. Although, some elements in a poetic translation always remain mysterious, even for a creative writer working in her or his native language.

Vladimir Propp’s The Russian Folktale was a change for me because it’s based on lectures from a course on Russian folktales that Propp was teaching late in his career. I found I had to trim out the bits where he’s essentially letting the students know “Grab your pens, I’m about to say something important.” Most of my other recent experience has been with authors I would never think to trim down!     

baba yaga

Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Folklore (UP of Mississippi). Introduction and translations by Sibelan Forrester.

MM: That must have been a fun project, given Propp’s intellectual legacy and biography. Any anecdotes to share about your research on him?

SF: Just that everyone who worked with Propp seemed to love him: they’d sigh and say “Милый Пропп!” [Dear Propp], one told me. I was also surprised at how complicated his biography was, though I shouldn’t have been, given the times he lived in.

MM: And the Baba Yaga tales…the edition is so beautiful, with full color artwork on almost every page. It must have been thrilling to work on that project too. What is your favorite Baba Yaga tale? And what does it teach us?

SF: My favorite Baba Yaga tale is Vasilisa the Beautiful (sometimes also called Vasilisa the Wise). The Baba Yaga in that one is grouchy and a bit menacing, but fair, and I love the three horsemen she commands (dawn, bright day, and night), and the three pairs of hands that assist her inside her house—as well as the fence of bones and skulls. Even though Vasilisa is beautiful, what saves her is her patience, her special magic helper (the doll her late mother gave her), and her sense of when it’s best to keep quiet.

MM: Patience and knowing when to be quiet certainly help in the classroom too, for both teachers and students. And no one would ever turn down the help of a little magic! Of course, learning a foreign language also means a lot of hard work and dedication. What advice would you give to students who are trying to keep up a second language beyond their university studies?


Sibelan Forrester in Moscow, 2014

SF: To keep up your foreign language, of course it’s always a huge help to spend a summer at SWSEEL, where you can really immerse in the language and move to a new level of proficiency! Another way of keeping it up is to spend time in the country or countries where the language is spoken, since if you don’t use it you lose it.

MM: Over the past few years you’ve published work on gender, science fiction, folk tales, and theories of them, and you’ve taught a course on Russian literature and environmental studies. How do you see these diverse research interests as connected?

SF: The variety of topics may illustrate one upside of teaching at a small liberal arts college, where we all have to be generalists and it’s easy to add a new course topic—which gradually leads to new questions about the topic. I’ve always been interested in these topics, and they overlap and connect with one another in very productive ways: translation of folklore, translation of (and in) science fiction, the importance of folklore in Russian understandings of the natural environment and its relationship to human culture and to industry. I think they might be connected as reflections on the limitations and problems of ideology, intersected by reflections on changes in ways of life.

A complete list of Sibelan’s recent translations and scholarly publications, along with her poetry, prose, and reflections on pedagogy can be found on her wonderfully curated website: Sibelan wishes to extend special thanks to Jack Zipes and Louis Wagner for the encouragement and suggestions they provided during her work on Vladimir Propp’s The Russian Folktale. A truly dedicated teacher of Russian and translation, Sibelan remembers fondly the time she spent in Indiana as both student and instructor in the Summer Workshop. She received her PhD in Russian Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington and is Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.



Matthew Mangold is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University and attended SWSEEL in 2010 to study Russian. His research interests include Russian literature, literary theory, the environmental humanities, and narrative medicine. He is currently working on his dissertation, Chekhov’s Medical Aesthetics: Environments, Psychology, and Literature.


The Collective Responsibility of Care: Interview with Thomas Nicholson

by Olga Bueva


Thomas Nicholson

After seven years managing public health programs in the former Soviet Union and East Africa with Boston-based NGO Partners in Health, Mr. Nicolson is now directing a new global health innovation partnership focusing on infectious diseases between Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine. He holds an appointment as Associate in Research at the Duke Center for International Development, where he was also a Fellow of International Development Policy from 2012 to 2014. 

Olga Bueva : Mr. Nicholson, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally?

Thomas Nicholson: I lived in Indiana for much of my childhood, but we moved fairly frequently when I was young—by far the most interesting of those stops was Florence, Italy, where we lived for 3 years in the early 90s.  

OB: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path from a Political Science and REEI student at IU to director of a global health innovation partnership between Duke and Harvard? What interested you in the former Soviet Union and, later, global healthcare policy?

TN: I started studying Russian language at IU-Bloomington my freshman year, and was able to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg through the DIS-Copenhagen study abroad program in 2002. While I enjoyed Russian language and culture on its own, I saw some value in combining the political science degree with a more focused study on regional political history and language.

Before long I found myself pulled toward the quality of the faculty and the depth of resources available at both REEI and Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS).   After completing my B.A. at IU, I was fairly quick about the next step; I moved to Moscow within weeks and worked there with a language instruction firm until 2005. I drew on that experience living and working in Moscow to join the US-based NGO Partners In Health (PIH) in 2005, whose work is closely aligned with my passion and interests. I worked mostly on PIH projects in the former Soviet Union, but also spent years working on population health projects in Rwanda. 

After almost 8 years at PIH, I spent two years at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy as an International Development Policy Fellow, where I am now an Associate in Research at the Duke Center for International Development since 2014. I’m primarily interested in the intersection of social and economic forces that drive disparities in health not only in very poor countries, but among poor populations in wealthier states as well. In partnership with Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, I’m currently working on tuberculosis policy analysis and innovation among the so-called “BRICS” nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Specifically, we’re exploring how they may be able to use new multilateral tools like the BRICS development bank to make gains against the disease in the near future. 

OB: Can you comment on your work with Boston-based Partners In Health (PIH) and their collaborative projects in former Soviet countries? Which agencies were involved in the partnership? What was it like, working with local authorities, policymakers, doctors, etc.?

TN: Partners In Health (PIH) is a global health and social justice organization closely affiliated with Harvard Medical School that has worked in Russia since 1999, when it began a multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) project alongside the Tomsk Oblast health services.  Of course at the time, the former Soviet Union was still undergoing massive social and economic transformation, with high unemployment and incarceration rates, and the reemergence of infectious diseases that had been largely controlled under the Soviet health system.  TB was one of these—it is often considered the quintessential “social disease”, given its close relationship to precarious economic status and marginalization.  And in Russia, this relationship between the economic crisis in 1998 and social diseases was playing out in a nightmarish way in state hospitals and clinics.  In the case of TB, overcrowded and poorly funded state and federal prisons also provided an epidemiological “pump” into wider Russian society, which was now poorly funded and not well equipped to battle either drug-sensitive TB or resistant forms of the disease.

As an airborne infectious disease that affects vulnerable groups, TB is handled exclusively by the public sector in Russia. While we at PIH facilitated funding from many different public and private sources for this project, the local state health services in both the prison and civilian sector truly drove the work in Tomsk and continue to do so.  PIH provides clinical expertise on MDR-TB and offers guidance and resources where needed, for example in terms of actively finding the disease, controlling its spread in hospitals and prisons, and securing quality-assured drugs. I worked on the funding and design of some of these projects, and our most innovative work involved new models to support adherence to treatment, given the thousands of pills, years of treatment, and significant side-effects that come with an MDR-TB diagnosis. We tried to transform the concept of patient “failures” (an actual clinical designation for TB patients who stop treatment) into programmatic failures; by taking collective responsibility for delivery of care to the patient, regardless of their often-difficult social situation or far-flung location hours from the city.

Today, after ten years of a comprehensive TB program, Tomsk Oblast’s situation has gone from one of the worst epidemiological situations in TB-laden Siberia to one of the best in Russia, with prevalence at roughly 1/3 of what it was in 2000. In one particular TB prison, by applying the fully comprehensive treatment package and quality drugs, the mortality rate among MDR-TB patients went from about 80% to zero in one year of treatment. In addition to Partners In Health, agencies such at the Global Fund against AIDS, TB, and Malaria (GFATM) provided funding for drugs and essential program needs, the Eli Lilly Foundation provided funds for training and research, and the World Health Organization (WHO) ultimately recognized Tomsk as a training site for the management of TB and MDR-TB, particularly in post-Soviet Health systems which share so many features.

OB: What were the major challenges in the post-socialist healthcare system at the time? How was the post-Soviet public health system impacted by transition to capitalism?

TN: One of my colleagues, Dr. Salmaan Keshavjee, who is an anthropologist, historian and physician at Harvard, recently published a book on the effect of neoliberal and structural adjustment policies in the 1990s on public health in post-Soviet Central Asia called Blind Spot. He points out in the book that despite the efforts of zemstvo community medicine in the 19th century and the industrialization of medicine under the Bolsheviks particularly after WWII, the Soviet system was still highly centralized around cities, key industries, and was dominated by hospitals, with which would ultimately end up as one of the major barriers to patient-centered care in post-Soviet Russia: a pervasive incentive to hospitalize patients for budgetary, administrative and institutional reasons rather than clinical ones. Indeed, by 1958 only 11% of Soviet physicians were in the rural areas and only limited care could be provided by feldshers and midwives.  This changed in small ways over time and the Soviet model achieved some real successes against infectious diseases by expanding rural care and screening, but not without significant effort against institutional headwinds.

The traumatic transition to more laissez-faire capitalism coincided, of course, with the neoliberal structural adjustment paradigm that was so popular among Western development agencies and their academic advisors, which included privatizing health services when possible, or allowing private NGOs to “crowd out” much of what had been the State’s responsibility in health care. PIH does its best to support the public sector but this is a constant struggle—to provide intensive accompaniment to the public health services in a way that strengthens it rather than undercuts it. I hope this is the direction that development agencies will also continue to embrace, but it’s too soon to tell if we’re really moving in that direction.

The early 1990s neoliberal transition is now generally accepted as misguided in the public health sphere and guilty of employing a political, one-size-fits-all approach, and even its staunchest supporters admit that the “shock therapy” was rushed in the former Soviet context. So there are many areas of health care where private clinics and pharmacies now play a major role. With TB however, Russia has maintained the exclusively public provision of TB treatment with thousands of TB doctors and nurses employed full-time, though they are very poorly paid. 

A decrease in resources after the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not change the fact that the Soviet public health system had significant success against disease and many lessons to share, despite its flaws. At least in the area of TB, many of the pillars of the Soviet health system remain intact to various degrees, including a system of dedicated TB dispensaries and hospitals, a rural health polyclinic model, and some home-based programs. The prison population has dropped fairly dramatically in the last decade, which has helped with transmission in those settings. In fact the Soviet legal framework has persisted that allows for intensive, patient-focused community health programs in far flung rural areas, something that is now more en vogue among global development agencies. Russia is generally utilizing its older, successful institutions against TB while integrating more developments in evidence-based medicine. But there are still regular points of contention with global and foreign counterparts on the regimen of drugs used, the quality of Russian-made drugs, and other topics.

Looking back, the interaction in the 2000s between the Russian academic medical establishment and Harvard Medical School faculty was very instructive for me. Russian academicians and clinicians were ready to engage not only on the way forward in terms of policy and project design, but also to critique what they saw as flaws in HMS priorities or WHO guidelines. This posture by the experts in the former Soviet Union as peers, rather than recipients of conditional aid, led to a collegial if at times competitive atmosphere.  With this in mind, it is unsurprising that USAID is no longer working in Russia as of a couple years ago.

OB: Did your study of Russian language and post-socialist history prove useful during your time working with Partners in Health? Was your SWSEEL experience helpful?

TN: I am very much in debt to my Russian language study at IU, and specifically SWSEEL’s summer program. The many hours spent at SWSEEL gave me the confidence to live alone in a nastoyashi (“real”) north Moscow neighborhood, where speaking English was simply not an option. It helped me get my foot in the door with PIH, and of course once there, was invaluable in working with physicians, accountants, drivers, nurses, prisoners, and advocates. Willingness to speak Russian, even if some of my colleagues spoke English, was also a welcome gesture in many situations. There is far too often an assumption that English will be spoken in global health circles, for the sake of convenience.

OB: Have you had the opportunity to travel back to the former Soviet Union? How has the public health system in the former Soviet Union changed? Are there similar international projects and initiatives that continue PIH’s mission in Russia?

TN: Yes, I’ve been over dozen times since 2005, mostly to Russia and Kazakhstan, and am always surprised by the changes we see in terms of policy and programs. The Ministry of Health and Social Development in Russia has passed several Prikazes (Executive Orders of sorts) that have integrated some key components of the Tomsk Oblast adherence and social support programs. Also, the ever changing legal framework for care provision seems to be taking the data seriously on comprehensive treatment for diseases of poverty, though of course there are always setbacks.

The overall situation for regular TB in Russia has improved with the economy since 2000, though levels of drug resistance are increasing at a worrying rate. This, and the increase in HIV/TB co-infection will present huge challenges going forward.

Even during this tense political atmosphere for foreign civil society in Russia, PIH continues its programs in Moscow and Tomsk. In fact, it has expanded its activities to several other Oblasts, and has helped launch a city-wide program in Voronesh with the local authorities there.

OB: You are currently working on a project in India. Can you tell us more about that?

TN: The new partnership I’m working on is launching a campaign for comprehensive TB treatment in large urban settings in the resource-rich BRICS countries (where 60% of TB can be found) and other high burden settings. By partnering with local governments and other NGOs, we’re trying to create a model that brings a single city’s TB program to an exceptional level, by including actively searching for cases, using new diagnostics, treatment of latent forms of the disease, and new attention to the largely invisible pediatric TB epidemic.

Basically, by pushing for the standards we expect in the “Global North” to apply to the rest of the world too, we think we can help our partners show large drops in mortality, while revealing true burden of disease. We hope to apply this model in multiple settings as soon as we can. It’s a deliberately provocative program that refuses to accept there are finite resources to tackle TB in these settings—it’s a challenge to the BRICS and to the global health community to bring TB deaths to zero immediately. Today, we’re working with partners in Chennai, India, to formulate a comprehensive plan to make this a reality in 2015 and 2016. We’re calling this initiative Advance Access & Delivery (AA&D), and hope to pair it with a TB innovation fund to support similar projects in other settings.

OB: There are multiple factors that shape medical knowledge and understanding of wellbeing across societies. Having participated in multiple international projects, could you comment on the importance of cultural context in developing and implementing global health policy? How do various understandings of wellbeing across cultures as well as perceptions of the social contact influence the process?

TN: I agree that we have to be cognizant of whether or not a foreign “development” agent is truly facilitating what the community considers to be progress, or well-being. Cultural context is key when considering a new treatment project with partners in a particular setting. That is why the choice of strong, established local partners, and the simple act of listening as much as possible to the providers, patients and communities is so important.  I’m not a physician or anthropologist, but my work in program design is very dependent on this. Some tools employed for global health are received totally differently across cultures-- for example, a national health ID card can elicit a shrug in one community, and a strong protest in another, with good reason based on the political and cultural reality.

In terms of the social contract, outside the US, there are very few patients I’ve met who don’t see health care as something that they are quite reasonably provided as part of participation in a society; if not from a central state, then from a local health worker or traditional healer. I think most people see it as in the government’s practical interest to keep their population healthy. As an illustration, the requirement of “user fees” for health services has been hotly debated in global health circles for decades among planning agencies, but its supporters seem to be dwindling. Jim Kim, the President of the World Bank (and PIH co-founder) is publicly against user fees as a barrier to health care for the poor, which is an encouraging sign from my view, working as I do with mostly very poor patients.

In my experience with TB patients and their families, despite stigma against the disease, I haven’t yet met a person who looks down on a patient specifically for availing themselves of these public services. Among high-burden countries, only India has a private sector that can rival the public services in utilization for TB. And in those sorts of settings, public clinics and their long lines may be undesirable to patients, but it’s typically for reasons of convenience and avoiding possible infections at the facility, rather than the proper role of the state. Concerns about institution-based transmission are well founded—we’ve seen poor infection control at hospitals as a driver of new cases of drug-resistant TB in many settings.

Overall, cultural context is important for delivery of treatment, but there is agreement that no one should have to endure the awful symptoms of TB, and that dying from such a preventable and treatable disease in today’s world is a scandal. Fortunately, we have known how to defeat regular TB for decades. MDR-TB is a more complex story, with lower cure rates and more side effects, so many patients simply discontinue treatment when it becomes too painful or disruptive, and the cycle of drug resistance continues. A full, flexible social support package can help address patient concerns, make treatment available at a convenient time, manage side effects more carefully, or provide food or psychological support when needed. Most MDR-TB patients who are unable to complete treatment will die within a few years in Russia, so a programmatic solution is crucial to save lives, as well as to keep further drug resistance from developing.

That said, with all these differences, the stigma against people with active TB is sadly universal. There is often a view that outcasts, prisoners, or the homeless get TB—this discourages or delays those who might come to clinics with symptoms. Therefore some of our program aims involved trying to get rid of the notion of “otherness” for TB patients, or giving a platform to those in the TB patient community to lead social change their own way. Activists around HIV/AIDS have led the way on this, but with TB, the challenges are quite different.

OB: What are the major goals for global healthcare policy? What do you see as the major challenges?

TN: I know I risk sounding simplistic here, but the first aim is an ethical one. We should eradicate global diseases for which we’ve had effective tools and medicines for decades, like what has almost been achieved with polio. TB has a latent phase, which can activate much later in life, so it will be difficult to fully eradicate quickly. But there is no excuse for 1.7 million deaths per year from TB in the 21st century.  

The second, simultaneous goal should be accelerated development of new therapies for this and other neglected diseases, with an eye toward equitable distribution and access. This is a much more complex goal that will need to involve significant private and public investments in therapies for diseases that affect the most people, not just the most lucrative market. This is a political question, the handling of which will shape global health for decades to come.

The major challenges remain: limited funding from states and multilaterals for health programs and personnel, our growing but limited understanding of how disease and socio-economic forces interact, a dysfunctional global supply chain for many disease therapies, and a public/private drug development system that is not well-tailored to address global health challenges among the poor. Similar challenges have been overcome for other diseases, so I’m very hopeful that it will happen soon for TB.

OB: Should healthcare be a global effort? Why is it important to educate and involve US institutions as well as the American public in global healthcare initiatives?

TN: Infectious diseases are totally uninterested in national boundaries, of course. As national economies and populations become increasingly intertwined, it seems almost quaint to design a disease response that is uninterested in the response of neighbors or partners. Recent scares with Ebola, drug-resistant TB, and other extremely transmissible diseases are seemingly waking more people up in the US to the fact that strong health systems in other countries are important for us all, regardless of our own comfort level. That doesn’t mean that the accountability for disease programs should be handed off to career bureaucrats in Geneva, either. Every local response should be sensitive to local conditions, but on a macro level, in the area of global health there is a unique opportunity for mutual aid and cooperation through many different mechanisms.

In the US, the threat is not even theoretical, as there have been several significant outbreaks of TB in the United States – for example in Harlem in 1991, the incidence among black men aged 35-44 of TB was just under 500 per 100,000, with rates of MDR as high as a typical Russian prison population. That one outbreak in Harlem cost public health agencies over $1b to control. So it’s very much a problem for US institutions to consider too.

 On a human level, I think people are just inclined to help one another. The university system is such a huge resource in the United States and it’s clear from my limited time working in global health that there is tremendous interest in helping address global health challenges from all sorts of faculty, staff, and students. The interests lie not only in getting medications to patients, but understanding why disparities in health care equity exist, the social forces behind wellness and disease, and the economic impact of catastrophic illness.

OB: To end on an optimistic note, can you tell us of some global or domestic public health initiatives or policies you are especially excited about?

TN: The huge gains in maternal and child mortality in a place like Rwanda over the last 10 years are very encouraging, to give one example. It focused on three levels of care available to all Rwandans—community health workers at the local level, strong health centers within walking distance, and reference district hospitals for complex cases. Though they experimented with various fee and insurance schemes, the policy was generally that a medical emergency was not allowed to be an economically catastrophic event. It shows that a successful comprehensive public health package is deliverable in a resource –constrained setting with infectious disease challenges, via a sustained effort.

I must say I’m optimistic about the global effort against TB, given the excellent treatment available for most cases. The WHO estimates 3m missed cases of TB per year, but it could go the way of polio with a global effort. Additionally, the social support programs needed for TB treatment success are much more comprehensive, that society may get additional benefit from the program that eradicates TB, as it could provide a platform for tackling other infectious and chronic diseases.

Thomas Nicholson participated in SWSEEL in 2003. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with concentrations in Russian and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and his master's in International Development Policy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.


The email interview was conducted by The Polyglot editor Olga Bueva on January 5, 2015.


Bridging Cultural Differences: Interview with Christine Von Der Haar

by Olga Bueva

Von der Haar

Christine Von der Haar

Christine Von Der Haar’s engagement with Indiana University goes back to the early 70s when she stepped on the Bloomington campus as an undergraduate. Over the years, she returned to IU several times both as a student and faculty member, completing graduate degrees in Sociology, Education, and Journalism and teaching at the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses.   A SWSEEL and IU alumna, Dr. Von Der Haar is currently faculty at the Indiana University Department of Sociology, teaching classes on media and society. With the support of REEI Associate Director Mark Trotter, she initiated a collaboration between the Sociology department and REEI, developing a class on Sociology of the media that is currently cross-listed with REEI.  Her publications include Social Psychology: A Sociological Perspective, Basic Business Statistics, and chapters on religion and women in journalism. Dr. Von Der Haar has also edited and contributed to textbooks for Pearson Education that include topics on Russian culture and socialization.

Dr. Von Der Haar’s interest in mass-media took root at CBS News where she served as the Manager of Surveys for the CBS/New York Times poll. In this position, she worked with reporters and producers covering political campaigns and elections. This experience allowed her to observe how two major media organizations operate on a daily basis and provided insight into how the media cover elections and wars. Today, she shares her first-hand knowledge of US media with her students.

On December 5th, 2015 I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Von Der Haar about her career in Sociology, her engagement with Russian language and culture, and her experience at SWSEEL and IU. Braving the rainy weather, we met at the Polish Studies Center, a building that, as Dr. Von Der Haar notes, is not much different from the house she stayed in when she attended SWSEEL.

Olga Bueva: Thank you for meeting with me today! You have a long history with IU: in addition to being a SWSEEL alumna, you are also an IU alumna. What did you study at IU?

Christine Von Der Haar: I have multiple degrees from IU. I did my undergraduate work here, I also did a Master’s degree in Education, a Master's in the Sociology and then later a Ph.D. in the in the Sociology department. I also have a Master's degree in Journalism from the IU School of Journalism.

OB: Why did you decide to come to IU?

CVDH: I'm from Indianapolis so IU was the perfect choice for me. It has a reputation for language programs but I came down here as an undergraduate and, like most freshmen, not really knowing which direction to take.

OB: What was your major when you were an undergraduate at IU?

CVDH My undergraduate was in Biology and Psychology but I also took language. I took French and Latin in high school and I even studied abroad in the summer of my junior high school year – I learned French in Switzerland. That was such a wonderful experience. It was very broad so that made it especially fun because I had the opportunity to learn a lot about culture. That summer was my first experience in a program like SWSEEL. When I came to IU, I tested out of all my French except one semester and I even got extra credit because I did so well in that class. I didn’t end up taking any more French but that one semester at IU but I loved it.

OB: Why did you choose biology and psychology for your undergraduate?

CVDH: My father was a doctor so medicine was always a possibility for me. My mother was a nurse. But both my parents had a huge interest in the world. They had both served in WWII: my mom served in Europe and my dad was in the Pacific. My parents always encouraged me to learn languages and engage with different cultures. I went to Switzerland for the summer because my parents thought it would be a wonderful experience for me, and it was.  They traveled everywhere and that had a huge influence on me.

OB: When did you become interested in Russian language and culture?

CVDH: This goes back to my experience at CBS News where I was the Manager of Surveys for the CBS/New York Times poll. A group of Soviet Sociologists and one journalist made contact with The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times because they wanted to do a joint survey with the United States. This was the end of the Cold War but, at this point in history, there was not any idea the Soviet Union was coming to an end.  It was a pleasure to meet them and we connected immediately because they were also sociologists.

Shortly after that meeting I came back to the Midwest with the idea that I would do a couple of years of Russian and then I would pick up a Master's degree in Journalism so that I could go back and do work focused on media. I was teaching at IUPUI [Indiana University—Purdue University-Indianapolis] when I met Schott Seregny, a professor of Russian history at from the IUPUI History department, who knew about REEI and recommended that I talk to Owen Johnson, the REEI director at the time.  I met Dr. Johnson and soon I was accepted into the summer workshop. This ended up being a wonderful experience. The instructors were outstanding. After that I took another year of Russian through the Slavic department during the academic year.

How did you get the job at CBS?

CVDH: That's a very strange story. Before I finished my PhD in Sociology, I was offered a job in survey research in New York City. I went to New York and I loved it but I was not finished with my dissertation so I ended up coming back to IU. I wanted to come back to New York but I did not want to return to my old position because it just did not pay enough so I decided to get a job in business. I did an intensive program at NYU for people who had Ph.D. degrees and who were interested in going into business. Through that program I got a job working at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a commercial bank, and I moved back to New York. Unfortunately, it was 1986 when we were heading into the big stock market crash of 1987 and I could feel that there was not enough work. I was finished with my work at noon and I was bored. I contacted Baruch College which was the Business School for the City University of New York about teaching a night course and, instead, I got a job teaching Statistics full time there.

I was working at Baruch, which was one of the best and most diverse colleges in the country, but it was just a two-year position so I was looking for other jobs. Around that time, a letter came to our department and they had posted it right outside my office door. So, one day, walking into my office, I saw this letter addressed to undergraduates offering work in the election survey unit at CBS News.

I thought: “Darn! Undergraduates?! This is a position for me!” So I decided to write to them and ask if they had a position at a higher level. They called me up at the end of the week and asked me in for an interview and that's how I got the job!  It was perfect because all my experience at IU was in computer-assisted surveys and CBS wanted to computerize their surveys. And that's how I ended up at CBS News, which was a tremendous experience in my life. And then to have this chance meeting with the Soviet sociologists! This sparked my interest in Russian language and culture. It was historical – nobody expected the Soviet Union to fall. 

OB: That’s a great story. How did this encounter impact your career?

CVDH: My interest in Russia lasted for years but I really could not to break into the field. When I started working in the Sociology department, not many sociologists were doing cross-cultural research. The History department was: the faculty there had a long history of involvement with the Soviet Union and they knew the language. I did well in this field because I loved Russian but many sociologists stumbled. You just cannot do cross-cultural work without the language. You have to be able to make a major good faith effort take a couple of years of Russian to do this work.

For a long period of time I was interested in media and anything that would involve Russian culture. I knew it was the key to understanding Russian values, lifestyles, educational system, and how these were different from the United States.

I became interested in advertising so I decided to teach a course in global advertising. I went to the Liberal Arts Management Program and spoke with Jim Madison about my idea for the Global Advertisement class and they liked it. I was able to focus on 60 countries with this small class of honor students. The student loved the class but I think I got more out preparing for the class than they ever did.

OB: Going back to your work in CBS, can you tell us more about your responsibilities as Manager of Surveys and you collaboration with the Soviet Sociologists?

CVDH: Unfortunately we ended up not doing the Russian project. I was very disappointed about that but the executive director did continue this project after I left. 

As for my job at CBS, we met with the reporters from the New York Times and listened to the questions on different political issues on which we wanted to hear Americans’ point of view.  We designed questionnaires with these questions and do national tests to make sure the wording is right and then go out into the field and interview people across the United States. My responsibility in that was to make sure that we had a representative sample which draws about 1,500 people. It was statistically designed to be a random sample of people across the United States.  We would tabulate the results and write the reports. I then briefed the reporters based on the results. It was a lot of fun: it was A to Z on a survey!

OB: It seems that your meeting with the Soviet Sociologists might have been prompted not just your interest in Russian, but also your return to IU.

CVDH: Working on surveys made me realize the importance of language. We had done surveys with Japan and Germany.  The people in my new unit knew that language was a barrier, especially with Japan. For instance, in the United States people can go a full extreme in their answers to survey questions: all the way from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Japanese respondents will typically stay closer to the middle.  One might analyze the results and think that this is a huge difference between Japan and the United States, while this is just a cultural difference that one needs to be aware of. Same goes for issues with literal translation. And when we were approached by Russian sociologists, I knew that I could not do these surveys if I did not know Russian. And I also knew that I could not learn Russian working full time in New York so I decided to go back to IU.

OB: Can you tell us a bit more about the Media Class that has Russian content and is cross-listed with REEI? Do you follow Russian media for that class?

CVDH: I had to follow Russian media for this class, and to be honest, the timing was perfect because of the Sochi Olympics. I was really disappointed in the US networks’ coverage of the event – it was so negative. These Olympics were no different from any other Olympics: when you get down to crunch time and everyone is worried that they will not be ready, the Olympic committee steps in and pulls everything together. This is a huge undertaking. The Olympics are not about politics but they made them about politics.

Also there were the events in Ukraine and Crimea – I was able to incorporate some great interviews with Stephen Cohen in the syllabus.  I had all this relevant material that was easy for the students to read they loved it!

We also had readings on Siberian punk rock. The students especially liked those: they want to learn more about people their age and Russia, they want to know what life is like over there and they want to know the truth.  Rather, they want to be able to sort out the truth. We will see how successful the class was when I get back my evaluations but we have high enrollment for next semester so I think it went well. 

It's hard to do these sorts of classes because you do have to keep up with the media. It's not like I can easily pick up and read Russian newspapers -- I just don't have that expertise. But at least we made an effort to get some glimpses of the Russian side of the story and see a different perspective. I think you have to have a critical eye when working with the media: the truth is not one version of it.  You have to compare all these different sources to get closer to what the truth is. Basically, what I'm teaching in the class is to ask questions: do not accept what the media says and do not accept what I say. Open yourself up to all different points of view and learn how to be a critical thinker. Be the final judge on the information you absorb and be comfortable with your decision based on your own worldview.

OB: Do you think it’s important for sociologists to have some global expertise?

CVDH: Yes, absolutely! My expertise in Sociology was survey research, which is very technical but I had personal interest in culture. When I started out, I thought that there are other sociologists who were doing cross-cultural research but I was shocked to find out that not very many were. But I am glad that now the Sociology department and the new chair are very interested in cross-cultural research. As I mentioned before, Mark Trotter from the Russian and East European Institute approached me and asked me to be part of the program so I designed my media class to incorporate 25% of Russian material, which my students loved! And the Sociology chair supports this and agrees that this relationship with REEI needs to continue.

OB: As an IU alumna and faculty, what would you tell students today? What would you have done differently knowing what you know now?

CVDH: I wish I had more time to do this program as an undergraduate! Let’s face it: what is society telling students today? To take sciences! But I tell my students, especially my Business students: we live in a global world and, after you get your Business degree, you will be traveling and doing business abroad so you need to take classes that are global in scope. You need classes that help you understand the importance of cultural values and how these values translate into different aspects of life abroad. Also – travel! Get sold solid foundation from IU that will help you understand other cultures and travel. You won't get that chance again once you're out of college.

Christine Von Der Haar is faculty member at the Indiana University Sociology department. She participated in SWSEEL in 1992. She has also earned multuple degrees from Indiana University, including a Ph.D. and M.A in Sociology, M.S.Ed. in Secondary Education, and M.A. in Journalism.


The face-to-face interview was conducted by The Polyglot editor Olga Bueva on December 5, 2014.




SGIS Give Now

The IU Summer Language Workshop

Ariann Stern-Gottschalk, Ph.D.

Assistant Director/Editor
Olga Bueva