Photo by Bill Arsenault
If you want to keep up with Professor Andrew Wachtel, get ready to move — fast. The man has a schedule that would make the most enthusiastic undergrad collapse with exhaustion. As the recently appointed dean of Northwestern's Graduate School, he is re-evaluating the school from top to bottom — a more-than-full-time job in itself. He's also a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies. He's been chair of the Slavic department and director of the Program in Comparative Literary Studies, and he edits one of the most important book series at Northwestern University Press. Oh, yeah — he also finds time to coach his kids' soccer teams.
What's even more impressive, Wachtel has developed an international reputation in his chosen subject matter.
"I admire Andrew's energy, his originality and his breadth in our field," says Donna Orwin, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto and editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal. "Not many scholars are experts in two different Slavic areas, but Andrew has been active in both the South Slavic area [Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian] and Russian. I have reviewed two of his books — one on Tolstoy's book Childhood and its influence, the other on the relation of Russian authors to their past — and both were pathbreaking. Full as they were of Andrew's own ideas, they raised even more questions for subsequent scholars to address."
Wachtel talks fast, moves fast, thinks fast. Leading a graduate seminar in Russian theater, he's got the professorial dress code down pat (red sweater, olive-green corduroy trousers, semi-scuffed suede shoes), but his manner is that of an organized businessman rather than the head-in-the-clouds academic stereotype. Seated at the head of a conference table, he discusses the work of various literary critics with insightful, let's-get-down-to-business focus. Sure, he throws out a few academic buzzwords ("intertextuality" or "Derridist"), but he is clearly someone who lives in the real world, not an ivory tower.
"This one is written in English — real English," he says admiringly of one article. "You can actually read it!" After one student finishes a presentation, Wachtel announces, "The question is. do you care?" The challenge hangs in the air, unanswered. Wachtel continues, telling his students that discussing these ideas is important, but it's not an end in itself. What's important is what they do with that knowledge.
"Here's the danger for people in our field," he says. "You know so much about the theories that you can't read any more. The more familiar the text, the harder it is to find the 'Wow!' factor. But that's your job. We have to add value to texts — and that's not trivial."
Wachtel's fascination with the Slavic world was sparked by his grandmother, whom he calls an "inspirational woman." Born in Russia, she went to medical school in Zurich, Switzerland, then moved to the United States to practice medicine. Wachtel grew up in New Jersey, the son of a cardiologist father and a mother who worked as an editor (she still looks over his manuscripts). As a student at Harvard University he studied Russian and eventually decided to delve deeper into Slavic culture.
"In English literature departments one person doesn't study both Dickens and Shakespeare," he says. "But with Slavic literature there are relatively few specialists, so you have more flexibility. I've been able to do a variety of things that would have been impossible if I were in English literature." Wachtel received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught at Stanford University for a few years before coming to Northwestern in 1991. (His brother Michael is a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University.)
Professor Irwin Weil, the Slavic languages and literatures professor who is something of a Northwestern institution, says of Wachtel, "He's a remarkable man. He came in with enormous energy and helped solidify the position and quality of the department. Whenever there's a problem or a glitch, he's got both common sense and a helpful realistic solution."
Weil laughs. "If I have one criticism, it's that he thinks too fast. You have to run like crazy to keep up with him!"
"The good thing about the Slavic department is that we don't need a Slavic department," says Wachtel. "We don't have to provide X, Y or Z. We have to provide what someone wants, otherwise we'll be closed. We've recognized that students don't have to show up.
So we think about why we're providing our courses."
To promote Slavic literature beyond the University, Wachtel edits the series "Writings from an Unbound Europe" for Northwestern University Press. The series, which publishes English translations of contemporary Eastern European works, has become one of NU Press' best-known projects since it was conceived in 1991.
Caryl Emerson, chair of the Slavic languages and literature department at Princeton, says that of all Wachtel's pioneering work, these books have been his biggest contribution. "The series has put many dozens of important literary texts from Eastern and Central Europe into English translation and paperback — one of the greatest services, and tributes, that can be paid to small peoples surviving communism and struggling for a voice," she says.
"I like to have the give and take with writers," Wachtel says of the translations. "It's also a way of paying a debt. I've always felt it's immoral to only write about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. If no one is willing to read and write about contemporary literature, there will be no more literature."
Wachtel has impressive intellectual credentials (according to his résumé, he's not only fluent in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian [formerly Serbo-Croatian], French, Russian and Slovene, but has "reading knowledge" of German, Polish, Old Church Slavic and Biblical Hebrew). He has also developed a reputation as a man who gets things accomplished, which no doubt helped land him the position at the head of the Graduate School. "If you complain all the time about how things get done, you have a responsibility to do something about it," he says. "If you're organized and able to get things done, you get asked to do more and more work."
He notes that most University administrators come from a science background, rather than the humanities. "Why is that?" he asks. "Scientists tend to work in teams. They've had the experience of working with other people. If you don't know how to play in the sandbox, you won't be successful. Whereas people in the humanities sit in a library for seven years writing their dissertation, not talking to anybody. If they ever had those social skills, they atrophied."
Wachtel seems to have left that library-centered life far behind; he admits he relishes taking on a new challenge. "Do I want to write 10 more books in my field? No," he says. "I've done that. It would be more fun to run a university — and running a graduate school is a good start."
His plans include examining the very foundation of the Graduate School. "First, we have to convince people that there should be one," he says. "The Graduate School needs to show how it adds value to the University." He also hopes to create new, more complex academic programs that cross school lines — including conferences to bring in leading scholars from other universities — and do more to prepare graduate students for professional life. He'd also like to streamline administrative procedures.
Wachtel's new duties mean taking a break from teaching, but he plans to keep up with his research. And his work doesn't stop when he gets home. The husband of a practicing psychiatrist and father of three children (ages 10, 6 and 2), he also cooks dinner for the family most nights.
What's the secret to his success? "I'm very easily bored!" he says.
Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer based in Skokie, Ill.
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