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Transcending research

An interview with Ellen Rutten

Ellen Rutten
Ellen Rutten

(The following is a shortened version of an interview that appeared in the October 2012 issue of the Faculty of Humanities Newsletter)  

Straddling disciplines

For most of us intellectual curiosity is one of life’s most elusive skills to master. For Ellen Rutten, the ability to peer further than one’s immediate intellectual field of vision is little more than a habit, something as natural as dressing, eating and sleeping. Recently appointed as Professor of Slavonic Literature at the University of Amsterdam, Rutten is no stranger to stepping out of her academic comfort zone and taking in an interest in other disciplines. ‘I refuse to restrict myself solely to the role of literature, but rather focus on the many relevant and exciting developments occurring in other humanities disciplines.’ With a mindset that can only be labelled as pioneering, it’s therefore little wonder that Rutten’s research finds itself on the boundary of literature, art, digital humanities, media and cultural studies.

A transcending approach to research

Rutten’s academic career bears witness to her broad and transcending approach to research.  After returning from a Russia still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Rutten studied Slavonic languages and cultures at the University of Groningen, where she would later end up doing her PhD project. Titled Unattainable Bride Russia: Engendering  Nation, State and Intelligentsia in Russian Intellectual Culture  (Northwestern UP 2010), her dissertation examines the use of gender metaphors for Russia in literary and cultural circles.

Said Rutten: ‘While the metaphor ‘Mother Russia’ is well-known, I discovered the use of another, more popular allegory amongst the Russian intelligentsia: Russia as a beautiful young woman held captive by the state. In this allegory the intellectual elite is portrayed as Russia’s one true love. By taking an unorthodox approach and making use of different sources, such as the internet, fine arts, music and even tattoos, my research highlights the alternative way in which Russian artists view their own country and government.’

The bigger picture 

The encompassing use of different sources is once again a hallmark of Rutten’s current research project, which explores the ways creative professionals respond to the process of digitisation. While new media allow for a rigorous perfectionism of everyday life, creative professionals are actively rebelling against this aesthetic onrush and seeking imperfection.  According to Rutten this craving for the imperfect is a worldwide occurrence that extends across various academic disciplines and subject areas, and requires a collaborative approach. The research project itself also fits in a larger trend currently taking place within language and literature specifically, and the humanities in general. ‘As a discipline, language and literature is systematically crossing over into the field of cultural studies. This means that literary practitioners cannot and must not restrict themselves solely to the role of literature. For me literature remains the starting point for research, but I also survey other cultural expressions and disciplines.'

Rutten’s belief in the advantages of interdisciplinary research was forged in her capacity as journalist for the architecture and design journals MARK Magazine and FRAME. ‘Although I didn’t immediately realise it at the time, the position was fundamentally remoulding my own research area. In my conversations with designers and students, I came to understand that design was just as much an intellectual discipline as linguistics, which is why I want to expand my research terrain. There’s still so many exciting, yet underexplored developments outside the field of literature!’

At the forefront

An archetype of the well-travelled, cosmopolitan academic, Rutten has come to feel naturally at home at the University of Amsterdam; a university where interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers is fostered and actively encouraged. ‘Many universities try to exude an air of dynamism and progress. However, from all of the universities I’ve worked at, the UvA probably comes the closest to actually living out its ideals.’

It is exactly this vibrant, progressive and collaborative atmosphere that Rutten finds most endearing, and seeks to incorporate in role as professor of Slavonic literature. ‘We (Slavonic Studies – ed.) already work together with East European Studies, whereby guest lectures are jointly given.’

In her own lectures Rutten frequently uses new media, such as Skype, thereby enabling foreign researchers and lecturers to give guest lectures or provide input. As for her own teaching role, Rutten hopes to convey and stimulate the interdisciplinary shift currently taking place to her students. ‘My subject field is in perpetual flux. The introduction of a course about cultural history in all of the language and literature studies is the first step towards making cultural studies more visible. I’m excited about inducting students into this new method of thinking. New students need to know that they won’t only be learning facts, but will actively need to think and contribute to the accumulation of knowledge and research.’