Catching Up with Kat Hill Reischl '01

After graduation, Kat Hill Reischl ‘01 headed to the University of Chicago and “stayed for what might look like forever on paper.” She completed her BA in 2005, MA in 2007 and PhD in 2013 in Slavic Languages and Literatures. Meanwhile, she married Jonathan Reischl; the couple moved to Moscow in 2010-11, while she researched in archives and libraries on a Fulbright grant. In 2012, their daughter, Margaret, was born. Their first post-doc move was to Albuquerque, N.M., where Kat was a visiting assistant professor at the University of New Mexico in 2013. In 2014, she became assistant professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton. There, Kat teaches interdisciplinary courses including Soviet Culture: Above and Below Ground; Photography and Literature; and Moscow and St. Petersburg: Russian in Two Capitals. She leads a digital humanities project called “Playing Soviet,” utilizing Princeton's collection of Soviet children's books. Her upcoming book, Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors, is based on nearly 10 years of archival research, and includes authors like Lev Tolstoy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vladimir Nabokov. An active amateur photographer, she occasionally displays her work in local shows.

How did you arrive at the intersection of photography and literature?

At Bishop's I enrolled in every art class I could, and aimed to double-major in fine arts and literature in college. The art class I hoped to take my freshman year at U of C was full, so I signed up for the exotic-sounding "Introduction to Modern Russian Literature." From that moment, I was drawn to those intersections of visual and textual realms. I also find that insights are made in the act of framing a picture—almost as often as when I am pondering over the work of an early twentieth century photographer in a dusty Russian archive.
 
How has technological evolution affected children’s literature?
 
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the introduction of quick-shooting, hand-held cameras, we see the rise of photographically illustrated children's books in the Soviet Union. The advent of better printing technologies, better paper, more color, etc., changed the presentation of visual material. What is exciting is what artists can do with limited materials and printing limitations. What happens when all you have at your disposal are pen and ink or a three-color palette?
 
Why Slavic languages and literature?
 
I dabbled in Russian literature in a senior humanities seminar with Mr. Kirk and Dr. Rapp. One summer, I read Anna Karenina, and was absolutely smitten. Loving the study of language, I was determined to try a new one in college, so the natural choice was Russian. The Slavic Department at the University of Chicago was small, supportive and super-challenging, set up to ensure students could read Russian poetry within their first few years. As a graduate student, I taught Russian through the works of 19th century poet Alexander Pushkin. Here, I have the rewarding experience of connecting with a new generation of students at the moment when they also discovered a passion for this new (to them) literary, cultural and linguistic tradition. 
 
Talk about the Soviet perspective in children’s literature. Are there universal themes?
 
There are absolutely universal themes and experiences which unite the illustrated children's book across national divides. This makes them fun to teach to my undergraduate students. Books about trains, animals, shapes, colors, the alphabet—we all share these basic primers. In the Soviet context, we also see the ways in which these themes are deployed to bolster ideological aims (and ideologically-shaped pedagogy). A Tale about Two Squares cannot help but be an allegory of the Revolution; books about the Red Army and the children's pioneer core are ubiquitous. One of my favorites, featured on our digital humanities site, "Playing Soviet," is a book about a dirigible that comes to visit the USSR from Germany. The illustrations and poetic text are light and playful, animating the experience of a real visit from this technological marvel. The book ends, however, with a proclamation on the inevitability of the USSR building its own, equally magnificent dirigible.
 
Describe the lifelong influence of Bishop’s?
 
Bishop's fostered my intellectual curiosity. All the teachers and the relationships developed in small classes and intense discussion impacted me in so many ways. Ms. Gietzen encouraged me to take intellectual risks, to think and to read outside the proverbial box. In fact, she served as the officiant at our wedding. For love of the "great books" and writing, credit Dr. Rapp. It's a hard job to transform high school students' writing into academic legibility, and he was a dedicated and devoted servant to the English word. Dr. Rapp instilled a fear of the dangling participle and a love of Shakespeare and Austen; I am equally grateful for both. In each seminar I teach, every lecture I give, I hope that I can recreate that warm, challenging tone that I felt was a hallmark of Bishop's, and of the best courses I took in college and beyond.

What do you most enjoy about working with college students?
 
Working with college students is invigorating. As someone who is actively writing and researching the majority of the year, college classes and undergraduate advising are the lifeblood of social and intellectual connection. My students are always surprising me with their great insights, their energy, and their enthusiasm—be the subject Soviet children's books, a dissident novel, or a socialist realist "classic." I am immensely lucky to work with such talented and driven students at Princeton.
 
What is most important idea you want your students to take away from your class(es)?
 
The main takeaway, I hope, is cultural literacy. Of course, I hope that my students will fall in love with Russian literature, become Russian majors, study abroad in Russia, and go on to change the world, but the most immediate and universal goal is that they become better readers of their immediate world. So much of what I do—engaging students with all variety of media, film, painting, photography, literature, and children's books—is to make them reflect on the frames of information and artistry which shape their worlds. I want students to ask—how is information structured? How does this impact my understanding? How can I be a better communicator? How can I be a better reader? When we are constantly asking these questions, we open boundaries which once seemed closed (linguistic, cultural, national) and open potentially new lines of communication. We forge new connections.
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