Doug Rogers on Russia, writing, and ruminating in the garden

Professor Doug Rogers in his office in the Department of Anthropology building. Photograph by Leah Salovey for the FAS Dean’s Office.
Monday, April 30, 2018

In his 10 years at Yale, Doug Rogers—associate professor of anthropology—has published two award-winning books, a dozen journal articles, and eight book chapters, including several Russian-language publications. He has co-authored an encyclopedia entry and produced two book review essays. In short, he knows a thing or two about writing. More importantly: he knows how crucial writing—and writing well—is to the development of a successful career in academia.

This is why Rogers, who specializes in the political and economic anthropology of natural resources, devotes a fair share of his time to working with younger scholars on writing and publishing. In conference panels, workshops, and presentations, on campus and beyond, he offers his insights on getting a first book published, the difference between a dissertation and a book, and how to write for a wider audience. Within the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (of which he is a member), he led the charge to create a prize that awards $10,000 in funding annually to defray the costs of publishing scholars’ first books.

How did this interest take root? To begin with, “It might go back to the fact that my mother is a writer, and was an editor at a magazine for a long time. I take a great deal of care in writing books—in the whole craft of putting a book together.” Moreover, as Rogers explained in an interview in the Department of Anthropology building at 10 Sachem Street, “it’s a particular kind of academic production that’s under a lot of market pressure these days. There are other ways we publish, of course, but there are things about the book form that should stay.”

It also is an essential craft in shoring up the pipeline—in helping the future leaders of the field to complete their dissertations, ready themselves for the job market, and prepare to seek tenure. Thus, addressing this “particularly vulnerable spot in the chain” has become a significant focus of Rogers’s energy.

Rogers explains that Yale, where he began as an assistant professor three years after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2004, provided a combination of expectations and resources that propelled his career forward quickly. “Being a junior faculty member at Yale really pushed me—and gave me opportunities—to work harder and faster than I otherwise might have,” he recalled. “I got to my second book project sooner; I had the resources and time to do more. It was enormously challenging. I don’t mind admitting that I’m still recovering from the intensity and uncertainty of those years.” Now he is a decade into his exploration of how to understand Russia as an oil-dependent economy, “not from the perspective of the Kremlin and oligarchs, but from the actual perspective of people on the ground.” His research asks fundamental questions about the impact of oil booms: How do they transform people’s lives? How do corporations and state agencies work together or against each other? What are the social changes that come with an oil economy? What does it mean when suddenly the salaries in a region double? How do people deal with those changes? As an ethnographer, he explores the topic “from the ground up, rather than from the top down,” conducting fieldwork, talking to people in oil boom towns across Russia and the former Soviet Union.

As described in his 2015 book, The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture After Socialism, one outcome of Rogers’s work has been to debunk the myth that all of oil’s influence in Russia originates in the central halls of power. During the interview in his office, Rogers spoke about the role of corporations in driving many of the most salient changes: “In Russia, for a while in the first part of this century, Russian companies—especially the oil companies—were putting more into social development than the Russian government was. They were the ones helping to build hospitals and schools, to run educational programs and sponsor cultural festivals.” This shift is not just Russian, but “a global phenomenon,” with energy corporations affecting myriad aspects of daily life for citizens around the world. In some of his more recent research, Rogers is extending this work into a “sprawling and kind of ambitious” study of Cold War and post-Cold War energy tentatively called Eating Oil.

Rogers has translated some of this research into a new undergraduate course—“the first designed-to-be-big introductory lecture course I’ve ever done here”—initially offered this past fall semester. Entitled “The Corporation,” the class is “a history and anthropology of corporations from the early modern period up to the present day,” designed to expand the way students encounter and think about corporations.

That expanded perspective works in both directions: in “Culture, Power, Oil,” a seminar about oil and state politics around the world that Rogers has been teaching for several years, the students often help him to understand and process the complexities of the subject from new angles. “I’ve had people from all over the world in that class, people who are familiar with Ecuador, Brazil, or Nigeria; they come from all different disciplines; there are some who come from the history of protesting oil companies, and some who come from having done internships in oil companies over the summer. It’s been great just to have everyone sitting there talking from these different orientations.”

Rogers’s own undergraduate career, at Middlebury College, was profoundly interdisciplinary. His bachelor’s degree as an independent scholar was the result of a “design-your-own major” blending Russian, anthropology, and religious studies—“the outcome of not being able to decide.” He brings a similar emphasis on cross-disciplinary exploration to the courses he teaches and to his current work. It is, he said, “an embodiment of what a liberal arts education can be.”

Away from campus, Rogers recharges in his garden. “We have a fairly intensive fruit and vegetable operation going at home in North Haven,” he said, “though it’s nothing in comparison to my friends in Russia!” He added, “Searching for hornworms among the tomatoes is a great meditative task—it puts some things in perspective. There’s always one crop, or two crops that completely fail. But then there’s another that has a great year. I guess it’s not so different from what a very senior scholar once told me about writing—not everything I am writing will turn out well, but it’s important to keep working on multiple projects and some of them will succeed.”

Reported and written by Alison Coleman for the FAS Dean’s Office