Malynne Sternstein

Professor Malynne Sternstein weighs in on her winding path to UChicago.
Photo by: 
Alice Xiao, Illustrator, Class of 2017
The classroom is a safe and civil space for really, really passionate debate—I will make it clear from the very beginning that that’s what the classroom is for.

The image above depicts Professor Sternstein as a unicorn galloping cheerfully across some of the places she’s lived in, all of which have landmarks and aspects which forever hold special places in her heart. In addition to literature, film, and her students, Professor Sternstein loves mythical creatures and the unicorn is one of her and her daughter’s mutual favorites.

Malynne Sternstein, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, has always had trouble answering the question “Where are you from?”

Although she has now spent over half of her life in Chicago, she was born in Thailand, moved to Australia when she was four, and grew up in Philadelphia from the age of 13. She set foot in Chicago for the first time a day before she started her freshman year in the College.

When she arrived at her alumni interview as a prospective student, she and her interviewer were wearing matching sweater vests. “Immediately I knew that this was where I needed to go.” However, she ended up at the University of Chicago largely at the behest of her father, a professor himself, who wanted her to attend a major, international research institution. Sternstein knew from a young age that she wanted to earn a PhD, or as she understood it at the time, a “fud,” and thus her path through UChicago was almost inevitable.

As a child, Sternstein read literature and philosophy. She wasn’t allowed to have toys, so instead she had books. After finishing her homework she was expected to go to the library and just read. Occasionally she was allowed to do a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword, but otherwise her upbringing was brimming with books.

By age 13 Sternstein had read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whom she found to be very philosophical. But when she started in the College she initially set aside literature in favor of philosophy. “I thought I was graduating from literary prose to the philosophy that I found to be more challenging.” That soon changed once Sternstein was immersed in her humanities core courses during her first year. “I found myself enjoying the literature more than the philosophy, and finding that the literature could do things with philosophy that were more what I had conceived philosophy was, like epistemology or ontology. That’s when I drifted over, in my second year, to becoming a Russian literature major.”

Sternstein’s path to Russian literature and language will be familiar to many UChicago undergraduates. After being placed in a low-level math class, she felt the need to challenge herself and chose to take the most difficult language class she could find in order to “somehow rehabilitate myself after this awful experience with math.” In addition to her established love of Russian literature, she was drawn to the language largely by “the allure of the alphabet.”

Later, as a graduate student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UChicago, Sternstein studied abroad in Prague, learned Czech, and wrote a comparative dissertation on Russian and Czech avant garde literary movements. It was also during her graduate studies that Sternstein taught her first class – a course in Russian language – the prospect of which thoroughly terrified her.  “Prior to teaching I was incredibly shy. I would not speak up in class, I wouldn’t talk to people around me, I kept my head down when I walked (which kept me from falling so much). I remember one professor calling me ‘pathologically shy.’”

This changed once she started teaching. “I had a lot of freedom in the way that I taught; my methodology was really up to me, so I started bringing a lot of humor into the class. Not consciously, but just finding that it helped me to feel less nervous...and it surprised me as much as anyone else but it also helped students to retain things.” It was, “The dawn of that lunatic teaching persona,” that draws so many students to her classes today.

Sternstein works to ensure that the “classroom is a safe and civil space for really, really passionate debate—I will make it clear from the very beginning that that’s what the classroom is for.” She notes that “it’s ironic because I didn’t speak at all as a first-year, but humanities are so much about being able to express yourself and your opinion about a text and then opinions that the text would create in you that go beyond the text—super textual ideas and opinions.” Her goal is to foster “an environment where you do not feel that you will be attacked for that opinion, or stupidly attacked. You may be critiqued, but the critique needs to follow your logic.”

Although Sternstein teaches many seminar classes in the Slavic Languages and Literatures department as well as humanities core classes, she has also become a highly sought-after professor for her Fundamentals courses on Nabokov’s classic texts. These classes can creep above 50 students, a number that lends itself to a lecture style that does not appeal to her. She takes care to note that while a class is an audience in front of a professor, her students “are not a passive audience, they are not your audience.” She uses notes and slides to structure these large classes, but finds that discussion is crucial, especially because it allows her to gauge whether students are absorbing the material.

In her Fundamentals classes Sternstein often chooses undergraduate students as her Teaching Assistants. These students have taken courses with Sternstein in the past, and they work closely with her to develop that quarter’s curriculum. “It is actually the best possible combination—to have an undergraduate teaching assistant with their peers. I’m kind of unorthodox in my teaching and they get it. ”

Sternstein finds that every time she reads Nabokov’s novels she finds something new, and every time she teaches one of his books she is “taught something new by students or by my TAs or by Nabokov himself.” Every class is different, and she actively pursues new teaching styles and techniques by attending the classes of her fellow professors.

As an undergraduate, Sternstein was hugely grateful for the accessibility of her professors and as a professor herself she has made an effort to be available to her students in the same way. She gave her cell phone number out as the “24-hour hotline” for her course on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and received several calls at 3 a.m. from students who didn’t realize that she would be on the other end. Sternstein’s intense devotion to her students speaks to her faith in UChicago undergraduates. “I learn most from talking to undergraduates and I think [they] are for the most part much brighter, more curious, and have more analytical acumen than graduate students."

Outside of teaching, Sternstein is in the midst of work on independent horror films, especially films that come from countries without big studios to fund them, particularly nations in Eastern Europe. The long-term goal is a book on the topic, but meanwhile Sternstein has created a course on East European horror, which she hopes will help her work through her theories and ideas.

It seems fitting that Sternstein has come to find a home at a place like UChicago, given her enduring love of theory and analysis. Her passion for theory extends beyond her job and into her everyday life, whether she is watching Survivor or making short stop-motion animation films with her daughter—it “does things to my brain that are sort of ecstatic.”

Tagged: malynne sternstein, uniquely chicago, Faculty