Andrew Lass

Citation for 2005 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

In 1942-1944, eminent European and American intellectuals gathered at Mount Holyoke College, at the “Pontigny” colloquia, to converse about the future of human civilization in a time of war. In an essay written for the commemorative Pontigny Symposium held at Mount Holyoke in 2003, Andrew Lass, Professor of Anthropology, illuminates for us the “elective affinities” (Goethe’s phrase) he discerns in the thought of the literary theorist Roman Jakobson and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The contribution of these two great European intellectuals, Andy argues, is their triumphant rejection of the division between “poetry and reality,” that is, between creativity and critical thinking, between the artist’s life and her work. What makes Andy Lass an outstanding teacher is his consummate skill in transmitting to his students, both through personal example and through the ways in which he approaches the field of anthropology, the “critical creativity” that he speaks of in his essay.

Andy is an authority on Czech culture, European ethnography, contemporary anthropological theory, the cultural dimensions of language and technology, and the anthropology of history. The course catalogue reveals how effortlessly he integrates these wide-ranging scholarly interests into his courses. What the catalogue cannot tell us, but what any student who takes a course with Andy quickly learns how closely his teaching draws on the poetry and the realities of his life as an intellectual and scholar. A native of New York, Andy grew up in Prague at a tumultuous time in the history of Eastern Europe. He participated in the Prague Spring of 1968, experienced the Soviet take-over of Czechoslovakia, and was exiled to the United States in 1973. The young Andy was a member of the European surrealist movement, wrote and published poetry in Czech, won acclaim as a photographer, befriended and filmed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and studied not only ethnology, linguistics and poetics, but also Sanskrit at Prague’s Charles University. As intellectual and artist, Andy Lass had become a creative anthropologist well before he earned his Ph.D in anthropology at UMass. On returning to Prague at the end of the Cold War, he trained his anthropologist’s eye on the sad state of libraries in Eastern Europe. His commitment to the preservation of knowledge and memory inspired him to initiate and then see through the monumental project of library automation in the Czech and Slovak republics. From this vibrant personal history, Andy brings to the classroom deeply felt yet critically framed approaches to the politics and aesthetics of culture.

Students describe Andy Lass as an “inspiring teacher,” and his courses as exciting expeditions of discovery. In these journeys they learn, among other things, that from Gutenberg to the Internet, knowledge is always manufactured, that language, technology and culture coexist in complex and uneasy relationships, and that the engagement with modernity is inevitably an engagement with history. But Andy’s students know that his greatest gift to them is their initiation into the practice of critical inquiry. They celebrate his ability to help them learn how anthropology “works” as a discipline, and how to uncover the “elective affinities” among diverse ideas. “This is a course anthropology majors dream of” and “It is because of this course that I am able to define myself as an anthropologist.” are typical comments.

What is it like to take a course with Andy Lass? Here is a composite scenario. At the very first class meeting, you note that the professor is a brilliant thinker and lecturer. He is passionate about anthropology, and about knowledge. His passion is infectious, the readings, challenging, each reading in dialogue with the others: “This class made my brain hurt, but in a good way” “I was scared to come to class, but when I left at the end of the day I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to return.” You are awed by Andy’s intellect and erudition, but he wins you over with his warmth, always encouraging you “to question him and the authors [you] have read. “ You love the “laid back yet challenging atmosphere of this class, in which humor and debate are fostered.” Soon, you find yourself participating in class discussion with a surprising intensity. Andy makes you feel “greater confidence in your ideas, and in your ability to express them.” He nurtures your development as a critical thinker, an intellectual engaged in dialogue with your peers. You realize that you have created your own Pontigny symposium, in the distinguished company of Jakobson, Levi-Strauss, and Andrew Lass. It is an exhilarating experience, and one whose impact will last a lifetime.