Questions for Nita Krevans, University of Minnesota

Winner of the Collegiate Teaching Award, 2010

by Kathleen Coleman

Nita KrevansYou are best known as a scholar of Hellenistic poetry. How did you get from there to teaching medieval Latin lyric, amongst all your other courses?

I actually studied medieval Latin both at Cambridge and Princeton; my doctorate isn’t in Classics, it’s in Comp. Lit. Please don’t throw me out of the APA. One of my foci was the history of the western tradition of lyric. So teaching medieval Latin was not quite as far outside my range as it might have been otherwise.

And what did the students enjoy most in medieval Latin lyric?

I think they enjoyed seeing how varied the material was, because we did everything from famous sacred hymns like the Dies Irae to pretty obscene drinking songs from the Carmina Burana and Goliardic tradition. So they enjoyed the variety, and I think they liked working sometimes with metrical systems that were closer to the systems that we are now familiar with in English and the Romance languages, systems that have rhyme, for example.

How do you bridge that unfamiliarity with the classical world just in general in your teaching?

I think you can go two ways: you can try to connect it with something that they are familiar with, which I often do, or you can try to make it even stranger and force them to sit up and realize that this is something that they are going to have to step back and think about really hard. For example the issue of slavery: most of my students, my undergraduate students at any rate, seem to take slavery as this odd little thing that they put in a box and try not to think about, especially because the teaching about slavery in the United States is linked so closely with the history of a particular group in the country, African-Americans. It is very difficult to make the students step back and realize that slavery in the ancient world, while it was often linked to a particular conquered people, was in theory something that could happen to anyone, so that ancient attitudes about slavery are this odd mixture of the same kinds of things that we find in the treatment of ethnic groups that were enslaved in the European world later and a sort of fatalistic idea that you might be the king one minute and a slave the next — or queen, actually, because they killed the adult males. You could be Hecuba one minute and somebody’s slave the next minute.

You have offered courses on Lucretius. What does he have to teach today’s students?

First of all they are always astounded to find that he talks about atoms. They are also astounded to find that he is so determinedly anti-religious and anti-mythic. Of course, by the time a student is reading Lucretius — in Latin, at least — they are relatively familiar with the ancient world, so to suddenly come upon an author who disparages religion and treats their favorite myths about the underworld as ridiculous fantasies … I would say Lucretius is a good example of how you can defamiliarize the ancient world to students. I think it is an interesting comparison. My students, enterprising little geniuses that they were, went rummaging around online and found some of the more sensational biographies of Lucretius which claimed that he suffered from terrible melancholy and had been rejected in love. They took that and said, “Is this why he wrote this dark awful stuff?”

Which author, in your experience, speaks most immediately to today’s undergraduates?

If I had to just pick one, I would say Catullus. The combination of an almost adolescent Angst and romantic sensibility and the obscenity and the engagement with other contemporary political figures is pretty much a winner. I think that it really depends on the class, what you’re teaching, the surrounding curriculum in the class, and also the students themselves. I’ve certainly had students in courses in translation who found Homer or Sophocles to be incredibly engaging and compelling. But when you are reading in translation as opposed to in the original, lyric poetry does not come across as well. So Catullus suffers in translation, but Homer can still maintain a lot of his force.

Do you have a preferred translation of Catullus? Do you have one that you think works better than others in a translation course?

I have never found a translation of Catullus that I really liked. I used to teach a course called Lyric in Translation, and the worst part of the class was always trying to pick the translations. I think the book I had the most success with is an anthology by Peter Bing and Rip Cohen called Games of Venus. It’s an anthology of love poetry from the ancient world. Not only the translations but also the notes are very carefully and beautifully done, so that the students can really see what is going on in the poem. In Sappho, for example, it handles the fragmentary material exceptionally well for a translation.

Which author gives your students the most difficulty? Who is the biggest conceptual leap?

Well, of course, I am a Hellenistic specialist, so I keep trying to teach Callimachus. It is very hard to teach Callimachus to undergraduates. Graduate students like him; he thinks like a graduate student. All of the Hellenistic poets are a little tricky, because their poetry assumes and relies upon knowledge of earlier Greek literature, so for undergraduates who are taking a course in translation that can get a little difficult. I think Callimachus is exceptionally hard. The other author that I sometimes have trouble with is Horace.

Because of the allusiveness?

Yes, and, again, if we are talking about big generic categories, I think lyric is just harder to teach, again especially in translation. Especially lyric that falls outside the post-romantic accepted categories of lyric. Panegyric, for example: the students instinctively react by feeling that there is something wrong about official praise poetry.

And also with Horace, maybe it is the middle-aged persona that doesn’t really speak to the undergraduates?

Or maybe they are put off because he is writing poetry that anybody who has been raised in a post-Wordsworthian western environment thinks is prostitution. Whereas Catullus, for example, primarily writes exactly the kind of thing that would make somebody who has read Wordsworth’s poetry and the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he talks about “emotion recollected in tranquility,” say, “Oh, Catullus, he’s a poet.”

Do you have mature students in any of your courses?

Yes. One of the benefits of being a flagship university in a metropolitan area is that you get these very talented, very enthusiastic and responsible adult students who come back, sometimes to complete a degree but sometimes just to take more classes in something that they love, when they have the time. I have enjoyed teaching my adult students tremendously; we’ve had some extremely successful ones.

What has been your best teaching experience so far?

I was lucky enough to be able to co-teach a freshman seminar at Cornell with Judy Ginsburg, and to enjoy the luxury of having another faculty member engaging with you and with the students on a topic that the two of you picked. So it wasn’t that it was just a team-taught class; we picked the topic, we designed the course, and these freshman seminars at Cornell, the students choose to apply to get into the course, so it is the most Cadillac teaching experience you could imagine. It was like a dream. The topic was the Nostalgic Empire. It was in translation, it did not require any previous knowledge, it was a course about Augustan Rome and the relationship between the contemporary, political, and social context of Augustan Rome and the treatments of the founding of Rome in works like Livy and Virgil and Horace, a kind of idealization of Rome’s past in the literature of the Augustan age. Judy was primarily a historiographer and I was primarily a poetry person, so it was a wonderful marriage of intellectual interests. The students were fantastic. Every class session was hilarious and exciting. I wish I could do more team-teaching.

What do you think the secret of good collaboration is?

I have done some other team-teaching efforts too, although they weren’t on the scale where all the faculty were in the classroom every time. I hate to say this, but part of the secret is being organized, which is definitely not my forte, but luckily it was one of Judy’s fortes.

And your worst?

There is no problem figuring that one out. When my daughter’s elementary school wanted to do some in-service workshops one year, they asked for parent volunteers to come in for eight to ten weeks and teach a group of students for an hour or an hour and a half every morning, and I volunteered to teach Latin to third graders. I have never been so humiliated and humbled in my life. I would go in with a lesson plan that I thought would take about an hour and it would take ten minutes, or I would go in with a lesson plan that I thought would take about an hour and we would get a tenth of it done. I had absolutely no idea how to map my teaching experience and my ideas onto a third-grade classroom. I came away with the most enormous respect for elementary school teachers. I was completely exhausted — physically and emotionally exhausted — after an hour of dealing with these kids, and I did not have severe discipline problems. These were reasonable, happy, relatively well-behaved kids, but they were third-graders — and half of the boys were a full year and many pounds and inches bigger than the other half of the boys. It was truly mind-boggling how incompetent I was in a third-grade classroom. It was definitely a nice wake-up call that we all tailor our teaching and our ideas about what it means to be a teacher to the population that we know and are experienced with. I would do it again, but only with much better preparation, and with assistance from somebody who knew something about elementary education.

The award citation mentioned your detailed feedback on student assignments. What is your policy on reading preliminary drafts?

It depends on the class and the type of assignment. I will always look at materials that students want to show me in advance. In the classes where we do a lot of writing, the official “writing intensive” classes, one of the ideas is that you are going to give the students extra writing assignments and extra attention to their writing. And in those classes I’ve started having the students come in and actually workshop outlines of one of their longer papers, so that they don’t just get feedback from me; they get feedback from other students in class. We run it the way they run workshops in creative writing programs, where the students come in, they bring copies of their material for other students in the class, and then they have to sit there and take notes without saying anything, while a group of other students make comments and suggestions about their outline. In an ideal world we would have the time and the space to workshop not just the outlines but the actual drafts of the papers. But, unfortunately, in the space of a semester, when we’re having them write seven papers, the best I’ve been able to manage is have them workshop the outlines.

But that is a valuable stage where the structural problems show up.

I think it is also easier for the other students to read and digest an outline than to read and digest an entire paper, especially if there are other issues in the writing that are distracting you and preventing you from seeing the skeleton of the argument. That’s my preferred method, and I think that it’s helpful for the students to critique each other’s work rather than just have me do it.

What, in your view, is the most crucial task of the Director of Graduate Studies, an office that you currently hold?

In this day and age, at public universities, the most crucial task, I’m sorry to say, is trying to make sure that your students are adequately supported financially, and then the second most crucial task is to make sure that your students are getting the training that they need, not only intellectually but professionally, so that when they go on the unbelievably competitive job market they are as well prepared as they can be for that.

Do you have something like a workshop in professional conduct for your grad students?

We have a workshop for the first-year students, where they just meet once a week with the Director of Graduate Studies and we walk them through things like ethical conflicts in the classroom. We’re actually required to do ethics workshops with our graduate students, and of course the main target of this requirement was science and medical research, but it’s actually not a bad thing to sit down with your grad students and talk about, for example, the problem of repatriation of objects. And I have done a workshop on plagiarism with my first-year grad students; I thought they needed to get that one right away.

What is the single work of art in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that your students absolutely must see, and why?

They have to see the Rembrandt Lucretia. It is spectacularly beautiful. He has another Lucretia at the National Gallery at Washington, so you can compare them. That’s my can’t-miss object in there.

How do you make time for outreach to high schools?

I don’t really make that time. I have this fantastic system that’s been set up that allows me to participate in outreach to high schools very easily. We have a program called College in the Schools. It was started for the modern languages to allow fourth- and fifth-year students in high school language courses to get university credit and use the university curriculum when they were doing advanced French or Spanish or German, and then we extended it to Latin. Oliver Nicholson and Stephen Smith built this program from scratch on the model of the modern language departments. We now have at least nine schools participating, some in Wisconsin, most here in the Twin Cities area. Oliver personally did site visits at all these area high schools and recruited the teachers to come into the program. The students take the class in their high school with their own Latin teacher, but the curriculum is our college curriculum and they receive simultaneous college credit for the class. The teachers come and do workshops with us, and the students come and have tours of the campus and lectures from us and get to meet students from the other high schools. It creates a real cachet for these upper-level Latin classes at the high school level.

How do you make the coin collection in the Weisman Art Museum come alive for undergraduates?

We reserve a study room, the registrars get the coins out, and the students get to handle two thousand-plus-year-old coins, although they have to wear gloves, except when they are handling my coins. I have an Alexander coin, and they get to hold a 2,300-year-old coin in their hand. They think that is very exciting. It’s fun to talk about the way that coins are essentially a form of civic advertising: what kind of image do you put on your coins? Typically, I take my honors myth class over there and we look at what sorts of mythic images are on coins and why you would choose that image to put on your coin. It also raises issues of literacy, and it gives us a chance to talk about the conventions of ruler portraiture. They also then like to think about this in terms of modern political advertising, which is essentially what coins are, so we talk about logos and campaign iconography in connection with these coins.

When commenting on Harry Potter for Minnesota Public Radio, what have you tried to put across?

The original impetus for all of this was that a group of parents tried to ban the Harry Potter books from Minnesota schools and school libraries, on the grounds that they were satanic. So I wrote an op-ed piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune pointing out that these books come from a very long tradition of British boarding school books like Enid Blyton and Stalky and Co. and Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The values in the books are all the same traditional values of the boarding-school books — loyalty to your friends, courage in the face of adversity —and in fact the trappings of the world of Harry Potter are the traditional trappings of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British boarding school, including things like Christmas. So it was ridiculous to say that these books were satanic. As a result, I was asked to go on Minnesota public radio and defend these books against the accusations that they were teaching witchcraft. My favorite moment was during the first show, when some guy called in from South Carolina and said that I was teaching paganism because I teach mythology, and the host of the show said, “I have not seen anyone sacrificing to Juno on street corners lately, have you?”

How do you answer the question, “What is the point of learning Latin?”

How do any of us answer that question? You can talk until you are blue in the face about the way Latin helps you learn other languages or how it makes you understand English itself better or the way it trains your mind to think critically or analytically. But the bottom line is that we teach it because we love it and we think that other people will also love it. I can’t justify Latin as being more important than Chinese or philosophy or art history, but it is not less important than any of those things, either. My father was receiving an award one year from the Association of American Medical Colleges, so I went down from graduate school to see him get it, and the speaker was Mike Bishop, who is a Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher. Bishop got up and gave a speech about who should be admitted to medical school, and he said, “Do you know who we should be admitting to medical school? Not the biochemistry majors; we teach biochemistry all over again anyway, because we don’t trust what they did in their undergraduate education. We should be admitting the people who majored in Greek, we should be admitting the people who chose to do something that was difficult and intellectually challenging, because those are the people that we want in the top medical schools.”

Your energy is legendary. Do you have a secret vitamin to recommend?

I do not think of myself as energetic. But I do get a charge out of teaching; I think that most of us do. We walk into the classroom, and we know that we are temporarily entering a community where, for a limited amount of time, everyone is asked to sit up a little straighter, think a little harder, and be a little bolder about talking. I think it gives everybody a charge. At least, I hope it does.

What brought you to the Classics?

I was a chemistry major, and I took this class on tragedy in translation. Then I thought, “I have to learn Greek,” and then I thought, “I have to learn Latin.” Do you want to know why I learned Latin? I learned Latin so I could read the apparatus in my Greek texts.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED

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