Interview with Ken Koltun-Fromm

Colin Battis ’21 sits down with Professor of Religion and Hurford Center Director Ken Koltun-Fromm to discuss his time at Haverford and adjusting into a new position.

 

 

You’ve been a religion professor for most of your time at Haverford—what drew you to Haverford specifically, or to teaching more generally?

I’m also actually a Haverford graduate, so my vision of what it would mean to be an academic was cultivated in a place like this. The idea was always to teach at a liberal arts school, and it just so happened that this job became available when I was finishing my doctorate. So to me, Haverford is like coming home, but it’s also a new kind of place—I’ve been here for 21 years, and it’s changed over those years.

The Hurford Center has always supported my work as a professor of religion, helping with a lot of the symposiums I’ve done that have led to some edited books, or my own work, or bringing in artists and things like that. In VCAM, before it was VCAM, Theresa Tensuan and I taught a course together on comics. We brought in an artist and we used the panels on the windows as the frames of comics. We knew something was going to happen to the building and it didn’t really matter what we did to the windows. That was something that Hurford supported.

But to my mind, the kinds of questions I pursue in my research are kinds of questions that I have for myself, in thinking about my own religious identity or identity as a human being. I remember when I was in grad school and I told a fellow grad student what I wanted to study, and she said: “It sounds like you’re studying yourself.” She said it as a criticism, but it’s true. And I think for most of us, there’s some version of that, where we’re trying to figure out certain kinds of questions. What’s exciting about a place like this is you get to figure out those questions with students who are also engaged in the thoughtful, reflective atmosphere we have. It’s sort of like therapy, but it’s also an exciting place to engage the questions I’ve pursued over my career.

Had you hoped to become the Hurford Center’s director, or did you decide to take the opportunity when it arose?

I think the word we use here is that I was “volunteered.” Provost Fran Blase approached me and asked if I would think about it—and that was hard to say no to because the Hurford Center’s been really supportive. It’s one of the best things we’ve got going here. All the centers are wonderful, and the Chesick Program I adore—so it’s kind of an opportunity to pay back what’s been given to me, and to hopefully cultivate some of the younger faculty to engage the Hurford Center the way I was cultivated to engage the Hurford Center. The folks that work at the Hurford Center are fantastic, and so it’s fun to be with them and to learn their day to day life while thinking about where we want the center and what we want the center to do over the next couple years. I remember what it was like to be here and get that support, and it’d be nice to pay forward that kind of thing and enable us to really support faculty and students.

In your first month, have you found that there are skills that transfer from “professor” to “director,” or has it been something entirely different?

It’s not entirely different- there are certain things that carry over and certain things that are quite new. There’s a kind of personal interaction we do as faculty that carries over. I like meeting faculty one on one, and the collegiality of meeting students and faculty, trying to figure out what can we do to help support them, what they want from us, and how we can talk about these things—I really like that.

Thinking about an office and how an office works is kind of new to me. And certain kinds of meetings that require more strategic thinking—that’s also relatively new. But not entirely; all faculty are on committees and have to make those decisions, but there’s a slightly different valence. I think I’m making small mistakes—I don’t think I’ve made big mistakes, but a lot of small mistakes. But I make those small mistakes, I think through them, and then hopefully I won’t reiterate them.

So there are temperaments and skills that carry over, but the fact that my schedule is no longer my schedule—that sort of terrifies me. I haven’t figured out what my schedule holds yet—for twenty years, I knew what my schedule was, I’d teach certain times and cordon off hours in the week to do my own work. I haven’t been able to do that yet. That’s what makes me feel a little bit uprooted.

Going in, did you have a vision of where you wanted the Center to go this year. And four weeks in, have you been going down that route, or has your vision changed at all?

We took these two retreats in July, and what we tried to do there is look at all our programs and all we do and to understand “Why do we do things this way? Is there a point to this? Is this effective?” We generated six goals out of that retreat, specific goals such as “We want to showcase what our students are doing with the Center,” and larger goals such as “We want to rethink our budget and make sure our budget looks like our vision,” so that we can show people the budget and say that our mission and who we are is reflected in how we spend our money. And there are relational goals—”How do we want to fit into the college? Into the academic centers? Into VCAM? The Visual Studies or Gender Studies departments?”

That’s not a vision for the Hurford Center so much as developing our existing vision over the course of this year. Come May of next year, we can look at those six goals and ask: “Where are we now?” One of those goals is to rewrite our mission statement, to have a clear sense of what that mission is and what we want to pursue. Another is to think about how we would want to expand our programming—if we had more money, what would we want to achieve?

I have no vision—the vision is to work with the steering committee to think through what we want the Hurford Center to be. It’s not something that I’m imposing from the top down. It’s a lot of listening, a lot of one on one conversations.

In that sense, it’s very much like teaching. I walk into the classroom and I usually don’t have an agenda except for what I have on the syllabus. It’s about finding out where the students are, and then saying okay, let’s cultivate what really works and bring that to the fore.

Have there been any challenges, day to day or on a larger scale, which you’ve run into as you move ahead?

I think one of the challenges we face is how to open ourselves to a wider Haverford community. In ways that are supportive of the college and that attract those students and faculty who wouldn’t have thought that the Hurford Center could actually do certain things that they wanted to pursue. There are the usual suspects who will come to the Hurford Center and who know we have the support and programming for the things they want to do. But we want to use some of the statistics and data we’re collecting now to say: “This professor, or this department, or these students, we’re not getting to them, so how can we bring them in?” I have a particular interest in motivating Chesick Scholars to make use of the center, and how best we can work with them.

(Ken helps teach for the summer Chesick Scholars program at Haverford and continues to advise them throughout the school year.)

The challenge is putting forth a kind of smorgasbord of programs, while also listening to faculty and what they want to do so that we can support that without being so strongly tied to the particular things we’ve been doing. We want to take our programs and think more broadly about the rubrics within which these programs fit, so if we get a great idea from someone, we can just say “let’s do it” and not have to worry about which program we can use to support it. There’s a nimbleness in balancing a structure that will enable people who want to fit within it, but also motivation for creative thinking that isn’t in that structure. James Weissinger, our associate director, likes to think of it as a jazz piece—though I prefer to think in blues—that has a bassline to keep the piece moving, along with riffs in those creative moments. We want to be able to do both those things.

What’s something fun that your students or your coworkers might not know about you?

I make beer at home. Sometimes I do it with Rob Fairman in the Biology Department! Rob’s doing this incredible experiment with wild yeast, so he came over to the house and we trapped some wild yeast outside to use. We’re actually thinking of teaching a unit, maybe within the Hurford Center, about homebrewing, including some of the biology of how it works.

 

Written by Colin Battis ’21, Environmental Studies major.

Edited by Andrew Nguyen ’19.

Photo by Lev Greenstein ’20.