Many Kenyon students recognize Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff from his presence in Wiggin Street Coffee, where he can be found most weekday mornings chatting with Gambier residents in a cluster of leather chairs. What students may not know, however, is that Rutkoff — who worked to establish project-based learning as a Kenyon staple and has helped shape the professor-student dynamic that makes the College unique — will retire this May after 50 years at Kenyon.
Rutkoff was first exposed to projectbased learning in his early years at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, a philosophy he uses to this day. “I came to realize as I got older actually teaching here, that the things I liked to do … are interdisciplinary, that you learn from experience, and you learn by creating things collaboratively and creatively,” he said.
Rutkoff went on to receive his B.A. at St. Lawrence University before studying at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked as a teaching assistant for a Russian history course. He also helped found the West Philadelphia Project, where he and his peers worked with inner-city public school students to prepare them for college. Later, this interest would take hold as he became involved in the School College Articulation Program (SCAP, now known as KAP), a program that exposes Ohio high school students to Kenyon-accredited college-level courses and steers them towards the HIll. “I was always interested in taking education into public education and working with African American populations and cities,” Rutkoff said.
Assistant Professor of American Studies and History Francis V. Gourrier praised Rutkoff’s commitment to activism. “Peter’s been an outstanding role model,” Gourrier wrote in an email to the Collegian. “He embraces the political nature of education, and this has made a profound impact on my own identity as an educator.”
Shortly after his arrival on the Hill in 1971, Rutkoff befriended then-Professor of History William B. Scott, who specialized in American history. The duo went on to write three books together, starting with New School: A History of the New School for Social Research in 1986. In working with Scott, Rutkoff began to examine American history more deeply.
“I taught myself the subject by teaching it and reading it,” he said. This has become a mantra of sorts for Rutkoff, and is at the heart of what has become his signature teaching philosophy at Kenyon: Students learn best when they are actively engaging with the material and teaching each other the subjects they are passionate about. This was in large part what Rutkoff hoped to accomplish when he founded the College’s American Studies program in 1990.
“There were a bunch of us [professors] who discovered that we really were interested in [an] interdisciplinary understanding of America,” he explained. “We spent the summer together reading and discussing, and I came up with a kind of central idea that became the central idea of American studies at Kenyon, which is … this method of artifactual analysis.”
This style of thinking bled into some of Rutkoff’s signature courses, such as North by South: The Great African-American Migration (HIST 402), which he co-taught with Scott. In the course, students studied the travel patterns of the Great Migration by taking these journeys themselves: They visited a Southern city and then the corresponding Northern city where migrants from the Southern city commonly relocated. During these trips, Rutkoff fostered close relationships with students that would last for decades.
“My home has always been open to my students,” Rutkoff said. “Over the years, to me, the students got more and more interesting. And it became easier to be their friend because not only were they smart, but they were caring and open and accessible as human beings, and allowed the door to open both ways.”
Additionally, Rutkoff’s involvement in both SCAP and the Black Student Union (the latter of which he once advised) allowed him to forge strong relationships with many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students and create support systems for them at Kenyon, many of which have lasted to this day.
Levon Sutton ’97 first met Rutkoff at SCAP in the summer of 1991. “I would have never imagined the impact this encounter would have on my entire life,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Not only has Peter been a trusted advisor and confidant, he continues to be a wonderful influence in my life. Very few people have touched so many lives in a positive way.”
Hope Harrod ’98, Rutkoff’s former student, who is now a fourth grade teacher in Washington, D.C. and a member of the College’s Board of Trustees, agreed.
“Our expectations for ourselves were high because his expectations of us were higher,” Harrod wrote in an email to the Collegian. “All along, he had this way of making each of us (there are so many of us) believe that we were THE most special, THE most gifted student that he had worked with.”
Even as he retires, Rutkoff emphasized that his bonds with his students will remain strong. “[Kenyon] will stay with me because the relationships will stay,” he said.