The secret lives of our profs

Andy Olson

Peter-John Thomas, Assistant Professor of Russian, is no stranger to Wisconsin. Originally from the Sheboygan area, he is pleased to have ended up at Lawrence, an institution that has been has on his radar for some time.
“Lawrence’s Russian department has had an excellent reputation for a long time,” he remarked, “Plus, I’ve always loved small liberal arts colleges.”
Prior to coming to Lawrence in the fall of 2006, Thomas taught Russian at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Thomas received his bachelor’s degree in comparative literature with an emphasis in Russian literature, and his master’s degree and doctorate in Russian literature, all from Northwestern University.
When asked how he got interested in things Russian, Thomas remarked, “It was a series of happy accidents. But I didn’t study anything Russian until I got to college.”
Thomas is already making waves by revitalizing the Russian language program here at Lawrence through his teaching of the first year of the Russian sequence. Already, enrollment in first-year Russian has doubled, and second-year courses have seen almost as much increase.
Many students have cited his “high-energy” and “casual” teaching approaches as important to his success, and, they remarked, “no one else could make an 8:30 class every day of the week for an entire year tolerable, much less fun.”
In addition to teaching Russian language, Thomas also enriches the Russian curriculum with courses in his specialty, 20th-century Russian literature and more specifically, the works of Vladimir Nabokov.
Thomas is especially excited to be offering a team-taught course in the spring with history professor Peter Blitstein. The course will be titled “Power and Culture in the Russian Revolution.”
He is also optimistic about offering a course in Russian film soon.
Thomas is in the process of converting his dissertation, on Nabokov, into a book, and he is also working with Lynn Hejinian on translating a work by Russian poet Ilya Kutik. Students may remember both Kutik and Hejinean from a joint seminar they did on campus last spring.
When he is not teaching Russian or reading Russian literature, Thomas spends much of his time being an enthusiastic father of three young children, including a new daughter born last spring. With his family, he enjoys cooking — Russian food, of course! — as well as gardening. An avid amateur musician, he has recently been teaching himself to play the piano.
When it comes to listening to music, he cites many contemporary Russian composers, such as Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, as musicians he finds especially intriguing.
He is also a big fan of The Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland and Primus. When it comes to reading, Thomas enjoys the Russian symbolist poets such as Pasternak and Akhmatova. Kafka is another favorite. But his favorite book of all time is “Anna Karenina,” which he says includes one of the best opening lines in all of literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.