Intervew with Smith’s Oldest Professor

Miranda Catsambas ’19
Contributing Writer

This week, we interviewed Maria Banerjee, a professor of Russian and Comparative Literature. This school year marks her 50th year teaching at Smith.

How did you get your position?  

I was invited here to replace Helen Muchnic, the founder of the Department of Russian Language and Literature.

As soon as I heard that I would be able to teach literature – they offered me Dostoevsky and Tolstoy –I said, “I’m coming!” … These were the great courses, so I jumped at it … [In] ’65-’66, I was invited to [work in] a tenure track position because Helen Muchnic was projecting her retirement … When the offer came for me … to come permanently, that was wonderful. So I would be, actually, 50 years as full-time.

What was your schooling like?  

My family were political refugees from my native Czechoslovakia. My father was going to be arrested for political reasons. He had to flee and walk across the border from Bohemia … After several months, he sent a guide to take my family across the border … We came to Montreal; I went to an English school and completed my high school and started working and preparing for the baccalauréat all on my own … I [worked as] a messenger in a telephone company; I had [to deliver] messages from one building to the other … And then I had time to sit on the bench [and study for the baccalauréat in between deliveries], in parks and so on. I was admitted to take the exams; they allowed me [because] there was a petition [due to] my personal circumstances … I finished the baccalauréat, and then I took an evening program … at [the University of Montreal].

[A] lady came from New York, and [my parents] asked her, “What is a difficult school in the U.S.?” And the lady said, “I think Harvard is difficult.” So [my parents] said, “You have to apply to Harvard!” I … was admitted to [Harvard’s] graduate school for the PhD … That’s why I [was] very young when I came to Smith, because the four years of college were reduced.

When I came to Harvard [as a graduate student], I was 19 … and [there] I was very happy, because I had nothing else to do but study.

How was Smith’s political and social atmosphere in the past, and how has it changed?

Smith was always engaged in elections … I remember 1968 – the year when the opposition to the Vietnam War had climaxed. That year was so vivid: snow was falling, we were walking past the Davis Center towards the house, and we thought, “My God, the war will be over!”… [During] the politics of ’68, Smith women were deeply engaged … There were students protesting, marches, even connecting with the students from high schools … There was a lot of discussion and dialogue. [Smith students] believed in persuasion. They were disagreeing with each other, and they could sit and watch the election returns together.

[Students] are engaged [today], [but] there is fear of hurting somebody … Social justice is a great value. Political correctness is not, according to me. I think political correctness developed from some very harsh confrontations, undoubtedly … You can have a discussion about ideas if it is not ad hominem — kind of attacking the person. But people are afraid of hurting others. And the [definition of] what is considered attacking someone [has] expanded.

[And with] the computer … it is possible for a person to send into the world the most loathsome things without facing responsibility. The lack of a face [contributes to this]. In the old days, if you said such things, people … would be quite vehement in denouncing [you]! And now, I don’t like this spewing insulting things on the machine and then being quiet [in person].

People should have the right to disagree … Yes, we have to be respectful. I mean, who would throw insults? Throwing insults is not a debate. Not to be hurtful, but not to be afraid to speak because otherwise you keep it hidden.

When did you decide you wanted to be professor?

Well, it was because I was originally thinking I would be a hermit! [Chuckles.] But when I actually came to Harvard … they were all very nice, the professors. They treated me almost like a daughter. And when I started teaching, I really loved it. So teaching, I realized, I would want to [do].

What is one aspect of teaching that you find fulfilling?

To see the students catching fire. To see students produce an excellent paper. There are [certain] student [papers], [and] I say, “I wish I had written that paper!” To see them do well. And of course, if they respond to my classroom presentation and continue talking, that’s what I like most. I do like to see students discover the delight of reading and thinking. And it always moves me.

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