Tag Archives: Homer

more than the syllabus

First Day of Classes

Today is the first day of the semester at my college. I have been anticipating it even more than I usually do because I have been on sabbatical and have not been in the classroom since May 2015—my longest stretch away from school since the mid-1980s. charlie-brownEveryone has stories, many of them of the horror variety, about the first day of school—mine were full of cognitive and emotional dissonance from my earliest years. On the one hand, I couldn’t wait for school to start—I’ve loved just about everything about the life of learning ever since I can remember. On the other hand, there was all that non-learning stuff that I was not good at. Meeting new people. Sports. Leaving my mother and my dogs at home every morning. Riding the bus for a half hour each way. Come to think of it, I probably would have loved home schooling. I doubt my parents would have.

For a college professor, the first day of the semester requires answering an eternal question—what to do with students whom you have never met, who are coming off either summer or Christmas vacation, who probably just met their roommate and hate her or him, who might have spent the previous night getting in a final party before attempting to get serious about their education for at least a week or so, and who are assuming that all we are going to do during our first class meeting is go over the syllabus and leave early? quizI have some professor colleagues who, assuming that all the above is true, descend to their new students’ expectations and dismiss class after a brief overview of the syllabus and the upcoming semester. I am not one of those professors. At the beginning of the first day of school, I give a reading quiz.

This, of course, means that my students have a reading assignment that they are required to complete for our first meeting of the semester. This is easy enough to arrange—I have the class roster available several weeks before the semester begins, so a simple email, followed by at least a dozen reminders in the following days before the semester begins, provides my students-to-be with the course syllabus, other pertinent data, and the first day’s reading assignment (with the promise of a quiz). I often notice a drop of five or six students in my class roster in the day or two after sending this email, which is a good thing (see below).game of thrones I usually receive a bit of email pushback from my students-to-be (“My other classes aren’t requiring a reading or having a quiz on the first day”), so why do I do this? For a number of reasons.

  • One advantage, as noted earlier, is roster control. Unfortunately, because my classes tend to fill up quickly and are often of the core curriculum variety that students have to take, every student who leaves my roster for a more palatable first day experience is immediately replaced by someone else (who doesn’t necessarily know about the first day reading and quiz—hence the multiple email reminders).
  • The amount of classroom time I have in a given semester with my students is limited. This semester we meet for seventy-five minutes twice per week for a total of twenty-seven meetings. Throwing away the first of those meetings sends the message that either our time together is unlimited or that it isn’t important enough to squeeze value out of every scheduled moment. Neither of these is true.
  • Many of my courses (half of them this semester) are filled exclusively with freshmen. Nothing says “this isn’t high school or Kansas anymore” to a first-week college student than for them to hit the ground running—hard.

I’m happy to report that in the interdisciplinary course I teach in every fall, my teammates have been happy to join me in assigning significant work for the first class. Two years ago, my colleague and I assigned the entire Iliad for freshman summer reading, building on it through the first two weeks of the semester. The first meeting of this year’s interdisciplinary course freshmen met today—penguinsmy colleagues and I assigned fifty pages or so and gave a quiz. Amazingly, everyone survived. It’s amazing what you can get freshmen to do without complaining.

Other than making the first day of school a difficult one for my students, what really am I up to as I return to the classroom this week? I reflected on this just before as my sabbatical began sixteen months ago; as I get back into the teaching saddle I return to what I was thinking then. As a professor, I am a facilitator of lifetime learning, a person who points students in fruitful directions, helping them identify and become skillful in the use of tools that will help them construct their own moral frameworks intelligently. The liberally educated lifetime learner is equipped both to seek and create meaning throughout her life. I take pride in playing a part in this process. I have thought a lot over the past twenty-five years about the day-to-day dynamic between professor and student; I continually return to the difference between an idol and an icon.

Idols and Icons

virgil and danteThe point of a professor is to be Virgil to the student’s Dante, guiding the educational journey, relying on knowledge and experience to point out the pitfalls and attractions of a journey that each person must encounter individually. The professor helps the student learn to identify what is important and what is not in the perpetual sifting process of education. The professor is not the main attraction at any point in this process. The professor is an icon—something to look through or past, in other words—rather than an idol—something to look at. second commandmentThere is a reason that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolaters, more than happy to pattern themselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for themselves. For those who are interested in creatively addressing the undoubtedly real shift in higher education toward preparation for a good job and financial success that has been going on for a while now, I highly recommend iconography.

A Good Match For Myself

civcoverlogo-588x290Although the spring semester ended less than a week ago, I have been planning for my fall courses for several weeks now. Such is the life of a teacher—we often live at least six months in advance of the date on the calendar. My teammate in the freshman first semester segment of the four-semester interdisciplinary program I direct and have taught in for years and I have already made our book order with wonderful texts ranging from Aeschylus to Boethius in store for the incoming eighteen-year-olds we will meet in September.

Virtually every team teaching the first semester of this course includes one of Homer’s epics on the syllabus—the question always is “which one?” Iliad or Odyssey? This is not quite the academic equivalent of “boxers or briefs” or Red-SoxYankees“Red Sox or Yankees,” but it is close. I have led discussions on each epic multiple times over the years; which is most appropriate often depends both on the interests/tastes of the faculty on the team and the chosen organizing themes for the semester. Two years ago we used the Iliad; last year my team went for the Odyssey. I profess a preference for the latter, but as my Fall 2014 colleague and I discussed the Homer issue during a planning meeting a few weeks ago, she expressed a marked preference for the Iliad for a number of good reasons. i and oI’m senior faculty, she’s in her third year, I did not want to pull rank (imagine an academic choosing not to pull rank), I appreciate the Iliad’s greatness, so I deferred. She’s a classicist after all, has forgotten more about ancient Greek literature than I think I know, and (I suspect) just really likes the overall violence and bloodshed of the Iliad. But over the past few weeks I’ve wistfully thought “I really like the Odyssey better.” A couple of days ago I found out why.

“Which Classical Character Are You?” the latest Facebook quiz asked.

Which Classical Character Are You?

This quiz was from an Oxford Dictionaries blog, so I expected that it might be a bit more erudite and serious than most. But no, it was pretty much at the same level of complexity (about eighth grade) as the others I’ve taken over the past months. It asked first whether I was male or female, and shortly after the first couple of questions I could pretty much tell that the available options were Achilles, Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas or Odysseus. I was not surprised when I found out thatFWRO

You are Odysseus. You are renowned for your cunning wiles and fantastic plans. You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve. You are also a home-loving type and will do anything to protect your family.

I am more than happy to be Odysseus, although the quiz description hardly does him justice, nor does it sound that much like me. Odysseus was not the strongest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, nor was he the swiftest or the bravest. But he was definitely the smartest. He’s the one who manages to keep Achilles and Agamemnon from fighting to the death at the beginning of the Iliad (a good thing, or it would have been a rather short book). Other than that, he’s a relatively minor character in the Iliad. We find out from the Aeneid that the Trojan horse scheme that ended the 2011_odyssey_map_BTrojan War and sent Aeneas off looking for a new place to live was Odysseus’ brainchild.

In the Odyssey we get to know Odysseus intimately—full of hubris, always thinking and scheming, a good leader (most of the time) although all of his men die by the time he gets home, comfortable in his own skin, an introvert who has no trouble spending lots of time alone, incurably in love with his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years, and intensely focused on his one motivating goal—getting home. Tell me something I don’t know about myself.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to retake the quiz as a female. My options appeared to be Dido, Clytemnestra, Penelope, Medea and perhaps Eurydice.Penelope

You are Penelope. Loyal and patient you tend to avoid conflict. Everyone admires your restraint and elegance but sometimes you can be a bit of a doormat – but you never give up on someone you believe in.

This makes me even happier, because Penelope is my favorite female character in all of classical epic and drama (with the possible exception of Medea, who’s just a total bad ass). Once again, the quiz description does not do Penelope justice. She is undoubtedly loyal, patient and elegant (I am also loyal and patient, although inelegant), but she is anything but a doormat. 4917188777_f31b2c45e5_zShe is a consummate manipulator, putting her long-absent husband to shame in that category as she keeps a crowd of suitors at bay for years by weaving a death shroud for her supposedly dead husband during the day and unraveling it at night. She is a dedicated mother who is struggling with how to let her young adult son Telemachus go so that he can become a man, something every parent can resonate with.

And Penelope is a brilliant match for Odysseus, his complete equal in cunning, intelligence, and insight. He is a man of action, as all Greek heroes are; given the restraints on women in the classical age, her action is limited but highly effective. My favorite passage in the entire Odyssey is in Book 23, after Odysseus has, with a bit of help, slaughtered all of the suitors who have been plaguing Penelope for years in the banquet hall. P and O marriage bedPenelope is not entirely convinced that this is Odysseus—they have not seen each other for twenty years, and she is aware that gods show up in disguise at the drop of a hat in the classical world. Odysseus, grudgingly, agrees to give her all the time she needs to be sure—he’ll sleep on the couch, so to speak, until she’s ready. When Penelope instructs her maid to have the bed from the master bedroom moved into the hall for Odysseus, he goes nuts. “What the fuck are you talking about??” (my free translation). He knows that growing through the center of the house, and hence the center of the bedroom, is an olive tree that at the time of the house’s construction was used as the center post of the bed. In other words, unless the olive tree has been chopped down, this bed cannot be moved—something that only Odysseus would know. “Gotcha!” Penelope says, they embrace and live happily ever after. Not exactly, but close enough.dos-equis-most-interesting-guy-in-the-world-300x300

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of The World’s Most Interesting Man: “He would be in touch with his feminine side—if he had one.” Psychologists tell us that everyone—other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, of course—has both a feminine and masculine side. In my case, I am thrilled to learn that my masculine and my feminine side are so well attuned that if they met, they would get married. Talk about integrated! So Robin, if you read this you will now know what a great sacrifice I made when I agreed to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey with our sixty-four freshmen this fall. The Odyssey is more than just one of the greatest works of Western literature. It is the story of me!

All Things are Become New

Last Saturday was the official dedication of the beautiful new humanities building on my campus. I shared the speaker platform with David Mccullough! I even got to participate for the first time in my life in a ribbon cutting ceremony, the finishing bookend to the groundbreaking event a bit over a year ago. As the director of the large interdisciplinary program whose classes all take place in the new building, I was asked, as part of a series of speakers, to bring greetings to the several hundred people gathered from the faculty. Here’s what I said.

My father, an itinerant Baptist minister, once told me about a plaque on the preacher’s side of the pulpit in one of the many churches in which he sermonized during my growing-up years. The pulpit plaque challenged the person giving the sermon directly by asking “What are you trying to do to these people?” As director of the Development of Western Civilization program that has just finished its first month in this glorious new building that we are dedicating today, I frequently ask myself this question and bring it regularly to the DWC faculty. liberalartsdegree[1]“What are we trying to do to these people, these students who have chosen, along with their families, to make a Providence College liberal arts education a central part of their plans for a flourishing future?”

Just as I usually start DWC faculty meetings with “Here’s what we are not talking about today,” a good answer to “What are we trying to do to these people” might begin with understanding what we are not doing as well. In DWC, for instance, we are not conducting a four-semester long museum tour, spending last week in the Homer wing, this week in the Herodotus wing, and next week in the Sophocles section, bemused by how quaint and how different things were back then. As I often tell my students, if we can’t find something directly relevant to us in what we read and discuss, something of importance to twenty-first century people, we’re wasting our time. So how do we make the connection between the past and the present in such a way as to shape a better future? nadia-portrait[1]Brief passages from two different authors, a Lutheran pastor and an Anglican bishop, have recently helped me frame this question anew.

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that You have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. A liberally educated person knows where she comes from. Athena may have sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head, but a liberally educated person is shaped, molded, and formed by continual and intelligent immersion in the greatest works and ideas of the past. A liberal education is not a museum tour. It is a deliberate and extended engagement with where we come from; such an engagement forms the foundation a well-lived and creatively expressed life.

Rowan_Williams_-001b[1]Rowan Williams writes that To read means to reread. If we are to gain any meaning out of the past, we must energize it in terms of the present. Contrary to a favorite phrase among Rhode Islanders, liberally educated persons are never “all set.” The ultimate purpose of a liberal education is to establish the tools and habits of lifetime learning, tools and habits that will help shine a new light on everything, even things you thought you already knew. The past, whether my past or a text from several thousand years ago, becomes new each time it is considered, shining a new light on possible futures. Two weeks ago in a seminar on the Odyssey, I understood a text that I thought I knew thoroughly in a brand new way as a student compared the challenges faced by Odysseus and Penelope once he makes it back to Ithaca with similar challenges faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.004

This beautiful new building has been in full pedagogical operation for a month, and the early returns are wonderfully positive. Students and faculty walk the halls with smiles on their faces. There are students already studying and conversing in the Great Room when I arrive at 7:30 every morning. Several colleagues have reported that they are having the best seminars of their lives. The faculty has not become smarter, the students aren’t necessarily better, but we are teaching and learning in a building whose beauty and elegance matches the beauty and elegance of what takes place inside on a daily basis—preparation for a life of learning and excellence.081407009841[1] Since the DWC offices were moved into the Ruane Center two months ago, I frequently find myself wandering the halls alternating between smiling and pinching myself to make sure that this is truly our building. To take the Apostle Paul out of context, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” On behalf of the Providence College faculty, I have two words to say to all of those on the stage and all those out there who contributed to making this dream a reality: THANK YOU.