Pupil to Professor: Sergei’s Schooling Gave Perspective
Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, better known around campus as Sergei, found his way to Kenyon along a path that included many different perspectives on American academia.
"I feel like I have seen every version of what education looks like," Lobanov-Rostovsky said.
Lobanov-Rostovsky spent most of his childhood in Louisiana just outside of New Orleans and attended Louisiana State University for his undergraduate degree. For Lobanov-Rostovsky, the defining feature of his time as an undergraduate "is that it was completely different from [Kenyon]." He had separated financially from his parents by the time he went to college and was faced with paying his way through school.
"I had that classic, roach-infested apartment and worked two jobs for that and had a monthly tuition bill," Lobanov-Rostovsky said. "When the tuition bill came, there wasn't much food that week."
Lobanov-Rostovsky held various jobs throughout his time at LSU, working in an office and waiting tables.
"It wasn't glamorous," he said. "It was possible."
His favorite job, though, was teaching English to high school students from South America.
Going into college, Lobanov-Rostovsky had not planned to study English.
"Honestly, I did my best to resist [it]," Lobanov-Rostovsky said.
As he was paying for his own education, Lobanov-Rostovsky said he was, at first, "driven by an imperative to be practical," studying journalism and even considering a major in international relations.
Lobanov-Rostovsky soon found that he was taking more English and creative writing classes, however.
"[English] suddenly became all I wanted to do," he said. "Suddenly I was very focused, laser-like focused on the things that I just felt like I needed to do and to read and to learn."
Lobanov-Rostovsky also credits his decision to study English to some of the influential faculty members he met at LSU.
"[My professors were] changing my values, changing how I saw the world and changing how I saw these texts," Lobanov-Rostovsky said.
These faculty members, he said, allowed him to imagine teaching as a potential career.
In settling upon a major, Lobanov-Rostovsky believes that "you want to make sure that what you are picking you are picking because you sort of have to."
After graduating from LSU, Lobanov-Rostovsky lived in California for a few years and completed a masters program in creative writing at Stanford University. He then moved to San Francisco and taught English at a series of community colleges.
"[Teaching at community colleges] was fascinating," Lobanov-Rostovsky said, "because [it was a] totally different way of experiencing literature from what happens at a place like Kenyon, and yet … some of those people … just kind of lit up. It was the brightest moment of their week to be able to sit and talk about Hamlet."
Lobanov-Rostovsky went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he made his transition from poetry to fiction writing.
"I am the kind of person who writes every day," he said, "but I am not the kind of person who is particularly good at starting something new every day."
Lobanov-Rostovsky wrote fiction as a way to clear his head while he completed his dissertation on Shakespearean tragedy. As he looked for ways to support his family — he was married and had a daughter by this point — it became clear that an academic job might take some time to find, so he began working on a crime novel that he could publish.
In 1993, Lobanov-Rostovsky received an offer for a position at Kenyon and an offer for a contract on his book, all in the same week.
"It was a great week," he said.
Lobanov-Rostovsky moved to Gambier with his daughter and wife, who taught in the English department and now writes for the Admissions office. When Lobanov-Rostovsky came to Kenyon, he was under contract for two novels written under the pseudonym Kenneth Abel. "It was pretty hectic," he said. Lobanov-Rostovsky's cryptic pseudonym came from a series of bad puns concerning Cain and Abel and the cannibalism presented in some of Shakespeare's plays such as Titus Andronicus.
"[Kenyon] made me, when I came here, think, ‘Wow, this would be the way to do college,'" Lobanov-Rostovsky said. "It has been one of the things that has really made me feel privileged to teach here, because people can pay attention to what they are studying, pay attention to being in college, which I always felt was kind of alongside just kind of hanging on."
Despite the differences he has encountered in undergraduate education, Lobanov-Rostovsky has found that some things are universal.
"When I see that someone gets that click where what they're studying really suddenly brings them to life, and suddenly everything comes together for them," he said, "I remember that experience."
Lobanov-Rostovsky said that, out of all his experiences with education, he finds Kenyon to be the most ideal.
"Kenyon is sort of a pastoral ideal," he said. "This beautiful place where you don't really have to think about the real world. That is not a fantasy, or, if it is a fantasy, it is one that goes back as far as western civilization does — this idea that there ought to be a sacred grove of the intellect and spirit. I loved it when I came here and saw it."