Benjamin Rifkin received his BA and MA in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Yale University, and his AM and PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. Rifkin, who excelled in French during his high school years, shared a humorous story about how he came to the study of Russian in college.
“I wanted to study a more challenging language, and I specifically wanted to study the language of a culture that was perceived as our ‘national enemy’…[or] opponent on geopolitical terms,” Rifkin said. “For me the choice was between Russian and Chinese at that time.”
“I made a decision the summer before my sophomore year [of college] that on the first day of classes I would go to Russian class, and on the second day I would go to Chinese. I don’t know how I came up with that idea—first Russian, then Chinese—but I never made it to Chinese. That first day of Russian class was so absolutely wonderful that I just fell in love with the language, culture, and people. And by the end of that first semester, I had decided to change my major and to go on to get a PhD. It was that enormous of an experience for me.”
Rifkin briefly lived in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, working both as a translator for a Soviet publishing company and for NBC news. “I lived in Moscow from 1983–1985, and it was the dying gasp of the Soviet State,” Rifkin said. “It was a strange situation in that on the one hand, everybody knew that things couldn’t continue the way they were, because things were falling apart. On the other hand, no one could imagine that there could ever be change. Change was impossible to imagine, because there were too many inertial forces sustaining the status quo. All the people who might have any kind of power to make change were too invested in sustaining the status quo.”
At the time he lived there, he explained, the Soviet economy was “in shambles,” which lead to an interesting experience when he needed to procure a new bed. After searching all of the stores and finding no beds for sale, Rifkin asked a local friend where he might be able to get one. “One night at two or three in the morning I got a phone call from that friend saying that there would be six beds put out for sale at the furniture store on Lenin-Prospect the next day,” Rifkin recalled. “I said to him, ‘Great, what time does the store open?’ And my friend said, ‘I don’t know what time the store opens, but you have to go now.’” Rifkin immediately went to the store and discovered there was already a long line of people waiting outside. Luckily for him, not everyone was shopping for a new bed and he was able to buy one. The experience made quite an impact on him.
“It was fascinating to discover that people had been there all night,” Rifkin said. “They were there with guitars, with thermoses of tea, they were exchanging phone numbers, singing songs, making friends. So it was a fascinating experience in terms of the way people accommodate an economy in which money is worthless. Money didn’t buy you goods in the Soviet Union. Your connections made the goods available, and then you exchanged money. But you had to have the connection first. So that was a great learning experience.”
“It was a life-changing experience for me, first to study abroad in Leningrad for a semester, and then to live in Moscow for two years,” he said.
Rifkin comes to TCNJ from Temple University, where he served most recently as head of the Russian section in the Department of French, German, Italian and Slavic Languages. Prior to that he served as vice dean for undergraduate affairs at Temple, and has held chair and director positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Middlebury College. He has extensive experience in curricular development including both courses and programs, and designing new majors, as well as designing assessment programs.
TCNJ’s emphasis on the undergraduate experience is one of the things that attracted Rifkin to the College, he said. “Undergraduate education is…very important to me…[yet something that is] not necessarily reflected in the actual institutional lives of many institutions of higher education.” Over the years, he said, he has read about initiatives and programs at TCNJ that eventually made him want to be a part of “an institution that is really thinking seriously about undergraduate education in a very cutting-edge way.”
“I see my priority in the coming year as listening and learning from students, faculty, and staff about how they see the School of Culture and Society…and how I can help [them] achieve what they would like to achieve,” Rifkin said.
Alumni outreach is another priority, he said. “I want to assess the degree to which our alumni are involved both on campus and off with our current students,” Rifkin explained. “Specifically, I want to look at to what degree we are bringing our alumni back to campus for presentations, or to participate in an on-campus event, or to visit a class and talk about a post-graduate experience in the field [thereby] helping to make that experience come alive for the students.”
At the same, he also wants to examine “to what degree we are connecting with our alumni to bring our students off campus to alumni, to have students hold internships in places where our alumni are working,” he said.
One of the most important things a college can do is instill in its students a lifelong love of learning, Rifkin said. “Bringing our alumni and current students together means they can…learn from one another, and that’s really beautiful.”
“For all alumni readers, who are alumni of the School of Culture and Society, I say, ‘If there is a way you would like to get involved, I would like to hear from you.’”
Rifkin, who was recognized with a Distinguished Teaching Award and a faculty advising award while at the University of Wisconsin, said he would eventually welcome the opportunity to perhaps teach one course per semester at the College. But this first year will be one of “intensive learning,” he said, and it will be at least a year before he dons his professor’s cap again.
“I hope that after this first year I can get back in the classroom, partly because…I find it extremely fulfilling, and partly because I feel having classroom contact with TCNJ students will make me a better dean,” Rifkin said.