Peter Scotto

Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

“You are not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was becoming addled by Korovyov.

“Well, but how do you know, how do you know?” replied the latter.

“Dostoevsky is dead,” said the citizeness, but not very confidently.

“I protest!” exclaimed Behemoth hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Behemoth obviously took a class with Peter Scotto.  Come to think of it, Behemoth was probably attracted by the subtitle of the course: “The Problem of Evil.”

To take a class with Peter is to see a whole world open up.  “I learned how to read Russian literature.  It was difficult, at some points frustrating, and definitely laborious.  But it was so worth it.” Sadly, though, taking a class with Peter can have a definite downside.  A sentiment often heard: “I sincerely regret that I only got to meet Professor Scotto in my last semester here.”

Recently, Peter won the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Language’s award for best literary translation into English for his book (with Anthony Anemone), “I am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary”: The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms.  Sometimes one wonders how a particular professor ends up working on a particular project.  In this case, there is no need to wonder.  Peter said of his translation, “It’s not simply a matter of knowing Russian and putting it into English; we had to imagine the situations he would have been in.  It’s as if Kharms took his mind and mapped it onto paper.” 

That is also a rather apt summary of Peter’s classes: it’s as if Peter took his mind and mapped it onto the classroom. As one student wrote, “The class tackles philosophy, sociology, anthropology, classical/gothic/contemporary/psychologically real/fantastically real literature, and political thought. I think the only classes that were not connected in the text were math and science, but an argument could be made even for the latter.”  Peter’s “tangents” are legendary; starting with an idea in the book, Peter suddenly rushes off onto another topic and another and another, often sharing with the class his excitement at this new idea he just realized the night before when he was reading the book for the 10th? 20th? 73rd? time.

It doesn’t matter which books are assigned or which class—long great Russian novels, the Bible, New York Times Op-Eds, even the Russian language itself—the reaction is always the same.  “Loved this course.  LOVED IT. It was the type of course colleges advertise in brochures—open reciprocal discussions of material with professors who take their students’ opinions into consideration—but that you never actually see when you get there.” 

“Tolstoy was on my mind non-stop throughout the semester, and I loved that.”  It is obvious that Peter shares with his classes that little bit of himself he also shares with his near namesake, Pierre:

Now he had learned to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything, and therefore, in order to see it, to enjoy contemplating it, he had naturally abandoned the spyglass he had been looking through until then over people’s heads, and joyfully contemplated the ever-changing, ever-great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked, the calmer and happier he became. The terrible question, "Why?" which formerly had destroyed all his mental constructions, did not exist for him now.  Now, to this question “Why?” a simple answer was always ready in his soul… 

Please join me in honoring Peter Scotto with the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching.