To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the GRALL department

The chair of Brandeis University’s GRALL (German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literature) department, Professor Robin Miller, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the GRALL department, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


My choices were not exactly typical, because my husband was here first. He’s a biochemist. … He just retired recently … but he was the chair of biochemistry [at Brandeis] for a long time. So he was here and I was kind of here, there and everywhere. I taught at Harvard, I taught at Cornell … but finally, we both got offers at Duke. The result was that Brandeis coughed up an offer for me as a spousal hire. That was in the early days, “spousal hire” wasn’t even a phrase in those days.


What do you wish that students knew about the GRALL department?


We read each other’s work and we have frequent colloquia, but we are not a [single] discipline. Yet, we are perceived as a [singular] department. The problem is that our many outstanding courses, students don’t find them easily. It’s a tremendous problem for us, because … we have outstanding faculty, most of whom have national and international reputations. We’re sprinkled all over the map; we have a major in German, we have a major in European Cultural Studies, we have a major in Russian and a big chunk of our faculty is teaching in East Asian Studies. … It’s frustrating because the average student who comes to Brandeis who wants to study literature thinks “I should go to the English department.” But in fact, most of our upper level courses are taught in English. So that is something that we don’t know how to get the word out about, especially with the new Workday system, which has basically buried us underground. Students are telling us that they go to sign up for a Japanese course and they get a German course.


On GRALL’s website, German and Russian are both classified as “studies programs”. Korean, Japanese and Chinese are classified as “language programs”. Why is that?


It used to be a major in “Russian [or German] Language and Literature,” and we changed the name of those majors to broaden out the requirements for those majors for students so that they could take a history course or a music course and have it count for a core part of their major. … Chinese, Japanese and Korean are languages that are taught here, but there is no Chinese major, Japanese major or Korean major. But, there is an East Asian studies major where you can focus on one of those. The other thing I would say about Russian Studies and German Studies, is that the names of these majors are confusing, because they’re not interdepartmental majors. They are housed in the GRALL department and always have been.


What do you think that the GRALL department does right?


I think that all of our faculty, without exception, are devoted to the students. There’s no exception to that. There’s nobody for whom I would say, “you might want to steer clear of that course.” I think that each of us in the department are also really engaged in research. … We all wear many hats. We’re affiliated with different departments, we teach in different programs, we’re on important university-wide committees. One of our department members, Harleen Singh, heads the Women’s Studies Research Center. I’m on the Tenured Promotions Committee. Sabine Von Mering does all of this climate stuff. We’re out and about.


Is there anything that the GRALL department could do better?


Announce ourselves to the broader student population more effectively. I think that the faculty recognizes us, but I don’t think the students quite know that we’re here. We talk about ourselves as a global university and caring about global things, so what is more important than knowing the languages and cultures of other places? Many programs rely on English, and that becomes a kind of new imperialism in a sense. … So I feel that that’s something we need to do better at.


What is your favorite class to teach?


It’s hard to say which is my favorite. I think if I had to choose my two favorites, I would say the course I’m doing right now, which is called “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: Confronting the Novel” where we read War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, two huge novels. We look at their notebooks, the genesis of the novels and why both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky felt they were not really writing novels [but instead felt that] they were doing something different. The other course is one that I teach with my amazing colleague Susan Lichtman from the Fine Arts department. … She and I have a course called “Drawing Upon Literature,” and it’s very hard for us to be able to teach it, because … if she teaches it, we have to get a replacement for her drawing class [FA-3a Introduction to Drawing I/II]. … But in “Drawing Upon Literature,” we really try to create a new vocabulary for responding to and commenting upon works of literature. The course is half reading poems and short stories … and [half] a series of studio art assignments for each reading. … For me, it’s been one of those courses, and I think it’s been that for Susan as well, that has really expanded my own way of thinking about things. For example, Susan came up with one assignment where we read an amazing group of stories by Chekhov, … and then each student had to make a video based on one of the stories [without any words].


What did your time as Brandeis’ Dean of Arts and Sciences teach you about the university?


I left the position in absolute awe of our faculty and what they do. In those days, there was no Graduate Dean and the Dean of Arts and Sciences also oversaw the tenure cases for the business school and The Heller School. The result was that I had a sense of what people were working on and what courses they were offering. It was dizzying to see this community of people all doing so many interesting things. Of course, it’s not just the tenure track faculty, it’s the contract faculty as well. We have faculty in our department who are not on the tenure track, who are recognized for their innovative language teaching and for the programs that they have developed. So that was a great part of the job; reading the faculty activity reports and seeing what was happening here.


What frustrations did you face as Brandeis’ Dean of Arts and Sciences?


There were perennial problems, like how to fix academic advising, how to improve salaries, how to improve the relationship with the board and find a way for the board to really see who we are. … I didn’t always agree with the priorities that were set; I would’ve had a different list of priorities. But that’s the case in any administration, and people have to learn to be a team and work together.

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