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Rough and tumble: Sociology prof and derby girl Natalie Peluso

Photo by Rachel Webster
Natalie Peluso is a vegan Derby Girl with tattoos and piercings. She loves disaster movies, and her musical taste—she loves Johnny Cash and AC/DC—is as eclectic as her wardrobe; she is also the newest professor in the sociology department at Concordia.

While her appearance and extracurricular activities may raise some eyebrows, her abilities as a scholar and professor continue to impress members of the Concordia community.

Sociology professor and department chair Nick Ellig has known Peluso since the fall of 2009 when she was interviewing for her current job. She made a positive impression on him.

“When I think of building faculty in our program, I think of variety,” Ellig said. “I also look for others to bring interests that fit our needs.”

When Peluso was unloading her books and items into her new office at Concordia, Ellig said there was an excitement about her that seemed infectious. Peluso has energy and enthusiasm, and she’s younger that most professors, so she connects well with students, he said. Peluso is willing to do her share of work in the department, and she’s not afraid to ask questions.

“She’s interested in becoming a good professor,” he said. “She’s a very genuine person who I believe is responsible, trustworthy and a very, very positive person.”

Peluso grew up in the small town of Cromwell, Conn. While Concordia is her first official assistant professorship, prior to earning her doctorate in August, she taught at the University of Connecticut and the University of New Haven.

She interviewed for a variety of teaching positions with a focus on gender and sociology studies, her areas of focus. Her journey took her miles away from home to Moorhead. She came to the Fargo-Moorhead area on Aug. 5 on a typical humid northern Minnesota summer day.

The fierce Fargo-Moorhead winter soon challenged her staying power. One day of her interview for the Concordia teaching position, there was a snowstorm.

“She was trucking around campus with a smile on her face,” Ellig said. “She wouldn’t let the weather noticeably deter her. She was pulling her luggage through the snow, which spoke volumes with me. She carried through.”

Earlier in her schooling, Peluso had the opportunity to study abroad in Florence, Italy, so living far from home is not new to her. The Midwest, however, was new to her, as well as hotdish.

“We might have hotdish, but we secretly refer to it as casserole,” she said. “We don’t call it pop; we call it soda. Those differences are just kind of enjoyable in the sense that it’s new. It’s neat to discover new things about an area of the country.”

New experiences aside, Peluso found ways to spend her time in the F-M area that reminded her of home. When Peluso was a graduate student in Connecticut, she was contemplating a topic for her dissertation when a friend started playing in a roller derby program. Peluso thought it seemed interesting and went to one of the practices. Soon Peluso was doing more than studying the sport; she was participating.

Peluso primarily conducts qualitative research, focusing participant observation and ethnography. She generally gets involved with the groups she is studying, as she did with the roller derby research. She was a skater for the Connecticut Roller Girls for four seasons. She is continuing her fifth season with the F-M Derby Girls, the roller derby group out of the Fargo Moorhead area. Peluso is currently one of the co-captains for one of the travel teams. At one bout, which is derby lingo for game, her team won by over 150 points.

The game of roller derby can be confusing to new spectators, but when the F-M Derby Girls play, there are two bouts, back to back, to watch. By the time the second bout begins, any coherent audience member understands how Derby Girls gain points. The skaters play offense and defense simultaneously. During a bout, five players from each team are on the flat, oval track at any given time. Each player is either a jammer or a blocker. Jammers are the only players who can score points, and blockers can either help their own jammer along or stop the opposing jammer.

The jammers’ goal is to lap blockers of the opposing team, as the blockers of the opposing team do anything in their power—which may include pushing, elbowing or tripping—to stop the jammer. Any move deemed illegal by a referee can earn a skater time in the penalty—or “naughty”—chair on the sidelines. With each opposing player the jammer passes legally, her team gets one point.

Peluso’s team is called the Northern Pains, a play on words of Northern Plains, and like all Derby Girls, she has a one-of-a-kind skater name: Violet Riot.

“Purple’s my favorite color,” she said. “I feel like I might’ve been listening to Quiet Riot, “Come On Feel the Noize,” and said to myself, ‘Hey, Violet Riot sounds good.’”

To watch Peluso on the derby track is to witness her raw strength. She pushes past opponents who may only see a flash of her bright green roller skates as they tumble to the floor amidst the roar of screaming fans. When Peluso plays jammer, she scores her share of points for her team, but even more impressive is her leadership as she instructs team members during the game, using hand signals and other nonverbal communication to control the speed of skating and the technique her team employs to play well.

Senior Brandon Jones first met Peluso when she taught one class period of Sociology 111—as part of her interview process—last year, and now Jones has had her for two other classes this school year.

“I was really excited about her, mainly because when she was teaching Sociology 111, she had mentioned Beyoncé,” he said. “I liked her more than the other candidate because of that, and I think that she’s cooler now that I know her better.”

Peluso’s classes are discussion-based with a bit of lecture here and there, according to Jones, which he finds engaging and fun.

“She has this great ability to just be real,” he said, “but at the same time dig into some really interesting, intellectual topics that are somewhat possibly controversial, but does it in such an interesting way that we’re all willing to go there and have those conversations.”

Jones has ventured out to see Peluso and her F-M Roller Derby team skate in a bout, and that made him even more appreciative of her presence at the college.

“She’s definitely not what you would consider the typical Concordia prof,” he said.

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