Meet the New Faculty: Jason Cieply, Russian Studies
This year Hamilton welcomed eight new tenure-track faculty members. Student writers from the Communications Office recently interviewed these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think after their first semester on the Hill. Here’s Libby Militello’s ’22 interview with Jason Cieply, assistant professor of Russian (some answers edited for brevity).
Why did you start teaching?
[In high school] I thought I was going to be a philosopher, and then I went to undergrad at an analogous liberal arts college, Kenyon, and had a charismatic Russian professor who said “Jason, what is this philosophy business? You should be a Russian major.” Like Hamilton, Kenyon has the opportunity for language students to teach as TAs with extra sessions. We had a very intensive language model that involved five classes with the “master professor” and four with an older undergrad student. So I got quite a lot of experience teaching; not necessarily enough to become a really good teacher, but enough to realize that I really liked it.
B.A., Kenyon College
M.A. and Ph.D., Stanford University
Spent time in Russia at Tomsk Polytechnic, Higher School of Economics, and European University at St. Petersburg
Teaching a language is really exciting in that you get these raw, unmolded people who don’t understand any of the language, and within a few months they’re already understanding quite a lot. Within one day they learn the past tense, and their expressive capacities are doubled, and that experience is very rewarding. It’s a very tangible and obvious and rewarding thing, teaching a language. That payoff confirmed for me that I really liked doing it.
Why did you choose Hamilton?
As a grad student I taught at a big research institution, Stanford, and there are very smart students there as well, but they weren’t the ideal I had in mind, which was the engaged, enthusiastic liberal arts student who’s in it for the ideas, for the love of knowledge … Following Stanford, I went to Wellesley for a year and then Williams for a year, and I felt like I had returned to my element. When I saw the ad for nearby Hamilton College, I thought maybe this, being a long-term, tenure-track job, this could be it. I also found that there are different varieties of liberal arts students; there are the ones who are more academically inclined, the ones who are more athletically inclined, the ones who are more counterculture, and the ones who are more mainstream. So far, I’ve found Hamilton students to be a similar variety and disposition to the ones at my undergrad school, so I think I was lucky in that respect.
When you’re looking for a job, it’s really a matter of some inexplicable compatibility with the people who are involved in picking. I was lucky to really hit it off with the people here.
I think there’s a lot of interesting things happening in Russian culture today, and so I’m excited to play a role in thinking about what studying 21st-century Russian culture could be like for a new sort of epoch at Hamilton.
How has your time at Hamilton been so far?
So far, so good! I’m fairly acclimatized having lived in Western Massachusetts. I didn’t have snow where I went to graduate school in California, but I’ve been dealing with snow in the Northeast, and I’ve done time in Siberia, in Russia. [This] feels like a more appropriate place to be teaching and reading a lot of Russian literature than under palm trees in California.
Has anything surprised you so far about Hamilton?
At this particular moment, I think a lot of older faculty are retiring, and there’s lots of new faculty. This means a lot of things: younger faculty are being encouraged to join committees, to design new courses, to rethink the curriculum, and to bring new ideas to the classroom. But it’s still this transitional place where all of these people who have legacies and have been with the department for a long time are still around. It’s at an interesting place of transition … but I think it’s a very exciting time to be joining the community and the College. I certainly think there’s a lot of interesting things happening in Russian culture today, and so I’m excited to play a role in thinking about what studying 21st-century Russian culture could be like for a new sort of epoch at Hamilton.
What have you liked most about your students so far?
We just played this Russian video game as a way to stoke enthusiasm, and I had a meme contest, since it was a very frustrating game. I think students were curious, but then they quickly found themselves against this wall of “Wow, this is really hard and complicated.” So I tried to lighten the mood by encouraging them to make these memes. There were some amazing responses, some really genuinely funny ones that I shared with the Russian gamer who gave me the game. One student in particular made five in a row that were really funny, and so having that creative spark and that sense of humor is exciting to me.
Teaching a language is really exciting in that you get these raw, unmolded people who don’t understand any of the language, and within a few months they’re already understanding quite a lot.
There have been so many moments like that over the course of the semester. I’m teaching a somewhat large class for Russian language, about 12 students in the first year, and the group dynamic is great. There’s a great sense of camaraderie, which is exactly what you need to teach a language. In a way, you kind of recede into childhood as you learn to talk about your hands, your food, your relatives’ names, and your age, and so it’s really helpful to have a good, sort of joyous community atmosphere to do that.
What about your faculty colleagues?
When you come through grad school, you’re usually in a bigger city with tons of people focusing on the same thing. When you come to a smaller community, you think “Oh no, will I find that community here?” but it seems like the faculty I’ve met are much more closely drawn together.
I was invited to a brunch at my next-door neighbor’s house with some younger faculty, some older faculty, and some recently retired faculty, and it seems like they do this kind of thing regularly. I got invited by Phil, a librarian, who took me on a food tour of Utica. He showed me his favorite restaurants and the different ethnic grocery stores and all sorts of cool things. It was a really nice roadmap to how to invest myself in the community and see what’s out there, and literally what I can get my hands on and make of it.
Do you have any experiences or anecdotes from Hamilton that stick out to you?
There’ve been a lot of opportunities for spontaneous meetings. [Another] new faculty member and I were walking her dog behind this old, manor-like house where students used to live, but they decided it was too far away —
Yeah, that’s it. There’s a great forest back there. She said, “The last time we were here, my dog ran away, because he was off the leash. I hope he doesn’t do that again.” He did it again. And then we got lost, and the dog was lost, but then we got this phone call — “I found this very nice dog, gave him a Milk-Bone and put him in a cage. Where are you?” And we said, “We’re lost in the woods.” So this guy comes, spends about 30 or 45 minutes looking for us, saves us, saves the dog, and tells us that he’s been living bordering the campus for decades and what a beautiful relationship it has been. He said he invites the students to walk on his property, except during hunting season when it’s dangerous, and then welcomed us to the community. It was that kind of a gesture from a total stranger after our irresponsibility, and also what he had to say about the community was just so great.
What are your favorite places on campus?
I happen to teach right next to [Café] Opus 2 … it’s been so nice to just fall out of the classroom after teaching and find freshly cooked, non-standardized, and sort of made-with-love new things. Also, my students work there, so it’s really fun and there’s a great personal touch.
I really liked, and this is another example of being incredibly warmly welcomed, the Special Collections [in Burke Library]. Our recently retired professor Frank Sciacca had a huge collection of Russian and Soviet propaganda posters that he collected over decades, so I decided to use them in my course, this one on nonwritten media. I went to Special Collections, and it turned out that the director has this interest in different planned communities from the region.
In fact, their collection is very much oriented toward materials documenting the lives of these different religious and political communes, organizations, and planned communities. So it turned out that his interests corresponded with mine in an amazing way. We made all kinds of plans to collaborate on materials in the collection. It was great to invite the students in there; in their mid-semester reviews, they said that looking at those artifacts was by far their favorite part of the semester.