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  • Reflexivity and the Russian Professoriate
  • Michael D. Gordin (bio)
Rustem Vakhitov, Sud’by universiteta v Rossii: Imperskii, sovetskii i postsovetskii razdatochnyi mul’tinstitut (The Fates of the University in Russia: The Imperial, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Disbursive Multinstitute). Moscow: Strana Oz, 2014. ISBN-13 978-5906139030.
E. A. Vishlenkova, R. Kh. Galiullina, and K. A. Il’ina, Russkie professora: Universitetskaia korporativnost’ ili professional’naia solidarnost’ (Russian Professors: University Corporateness or Professional Solidarity). 648 pp. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2012. ISBN-13 978-5867939458.
E. A. Vishlenkova and I. M. Savel’eva, eds., Soslovie russkikh professorov: Sozdateli statusov i smyslov (The Estate of Russian Professors: Creators of Statuses and Meanings). 385 pp. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Dom Vysshei shkoly ekonomiki, 2013. ISBN-13 978-5759810469.

Among the genres and subgenres of the perpetually specializing discipline of history, the history of universities is one of the most eternally renewable.1 This is not hard to understand. Universities are, by definition, institutions full [End Page 433] of literate people, the kind of individuals who produce conveniently located sources that historians might use. The compulsion of the genre grows stronger as you probe into subtopics. Consider, for example, the history of university professors. Most people interested in the history of university professors are members of that very sociological category, and just about without exception every last person who writes about the topic is.

The ensuing autohistoricization brings two conditions in its wake, conditions that can manifest into quagmires or opportunities depending on the historian’s point of view. The first is reflexivity. If you are a university professor writing about the history of university professors (some of whom also wrote histories of university professors), then it behooves you to recognize your participation in a centuries-old tradition with its own tropes. To the extent that you concede the point and then exploit it to crack open the self-satisfaction that encrusts “official” university histories, the very proximity of the historian to the life-world under study is an invaluable asset. Failure to wield the double-edged battleaxe responsibly immeasurably complicates the second condition.

One might call it presentism, or Whiggism, or teleology, but none of these is quite right. The problem is rooted in the definition of the field itself: what precisely is the history of “university professors” the history of? There is no way to answer this question without stipulating a definition of the “university,” the shopfloor on which these workers on the assembly line of knowledge and pedagogy ply their trade. All the lazy solutions to this problem are, predictably, intellectually disastrous. You could cite Justice Potter Stewart and just know universities when you see them—but the lack of rigor quickly results in incoherence. You could rely on actors’ categories and deem universities only those that historical agents considered as such—but then you are at the mercy of marketing campaigns and end up flattening distinctions that might be useful. In what sense are Moscow State University, Oral Roberts University, and the University of Phoenix the same kind of place?2 The third option, the most tempting and the one that total historians of the university resort to in a pinch, is functionalism: draw up a (historically and sociologically informed) list of functions fulfilled by a university of the ideal type, and then measure your real-world, historicized universities and [End Page 434] their professors with respect to that ideal. It is a common solution, but not a satisfying one.

Functionalism in university history has produced enormous obfuscation in the history of the Russian university. The problem is neither new nor original, but I would be remiss to leave it out. We are back at the Sonderweg, a problem so Russian that only German historians could name it. Of course, the original question that the Sonderweg was supposed to address was how it was possible for a modern, educated, industrialized society, such as inhabited the German states in 1848, to “diverge” from the British/French pattern so badly as to end up at Nazism. A particular corner of this literature focused on universities, worrying the twin dilemmas of illiberalism and quietism in the Wilhelmine and Weimar universities in the face of Nazi...


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