Mabel Louise Lang (1917-2010)

Mabel Louise Lang, emeritus professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr College, died peacefully on July 21, 2010, at the age of 92. She had spent more than seventy years at Bryn Mawr, where she was worshipped by generations of students and admired by scholars around the world.

Lang was born on November 12, 1917 in Utica, New York, and received her AB from Cornell in 1939 and her PhD from Bryn Mawr in 1943. She began teaching at Bryn Mawr in 1943 and continued to do so long after her official retirement in 1988, allowing more than half a century’s worth of students to benefit from her extraordinary ability to bring out the best in them.

Lang was a tireless worker with a selfless devotion to her students and to the college; she rarely took sabbaticals and abstained from any leave whatsoever while serving as chair of the Greek department, a role she filled continuously for twenty-seven years. Her scholarly productivity was remarkable, particularly considering her heavy teaching load and administrative responsibilities (in addition to her long tenure as chair of Greek, she served four times as a dean, was Secretary of the General Faculty for five years, and chaired the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens from 1975 to 1980). Over her career she produced twelve books and more than fifty articles, as well as countless reviews. At her death Lang left a substantial body of unfinished work, which was published by colleagues as her thirteenth book (Thucydidean Narrative and Discourse). Her writings are noted for their accuracy, clarity, and concision and received high acclaim from the scholarly community; more than seventy reviews of her books are listed in L’Année Philologique, many in the field’s most prestigious journals.

Although officially a member of the Greek rather than the Archaeology department at Bryn Mawr, Lang worked primarily on archaeological material for most of her career. Her best known publications are the reconstruction of the Bronze Age frescoes from Pylos (The Palace of Nestor at Pylos II), the preliminary publications of the Linear B tablets found at Pylos between 1957 and 1964 (when her transcriptions of new tablets appeared in AJA each year only a few months after those tablets were discovered), a series of articles about Thucydides’ historiographic technique, and a study of Herodotus (Herodotean Narrative and Discourse). She was also responsible for three volumes of the official publication of the excavations of the Agora in Athens (Weights, Measures, and Tokens; Graffiti and Dipinti; and Ostraka), as well as a guidebook to those excavations, five works in the Agora picture books series, and a guide to the Asklepieion at Corinth.

Despite her impressive research record, Lang was first and foremost a teacher. Happily shouldering a load of 10 or more class hours each semester, she taught on a regular basis everything from elementary Greek and mythology to graduate seminars and was legendary for giving every student in every class an extraordinary level of care and attention. Her signature undergraduate course, which she offered nearly every year from the time she joined the faculty until her retirement, was elementary (“Baby”) Greek, a course legendary among the undergraduate population as the ultimate Bryn Mawr experience. In the first semester the students learned all the grammar of ancient Greek, and in the second they read Plato’s Apology and Crito, the gospel according to Matthew (at sight), and sometimes Euripides’ Alcestis as well, while also re-learning all the grammar. The course offered not only a solid foundation for future study of Greek, but also friends for life in the form of the other students who had survived the experience. Despite meeting at 9 am four days a week, Baby Greek was so well attended that often a second section had to be added at 8 am; in a college with an annual intake of fewer than 300 students, Lang’s Baby Greek classes had an average enrollment of 22 and in some years more than twice that number. During her teaching career she introduced nearly a thousand students to the Greek language via this course.

At the graduate level Lang was equally famous for her Homer seminar, in which students read the entire Iliad and Odyssey in the original along with vast amounts of secondary literature in a wide range of languages, which students were expected to read and understand whether or not they knew the languages concerned. (When one of her former students attempted to teach a version of Lang’s Homer seminar at another institution, she discovered that she had to reduce the workload to one twelfth of the original in order to make it possible -- and even this reduced version was considered unusually difficult.) Close competitors to the Iliad seminar were Lang’s seminars on Thucydides, Herodotus, and Problems in Athenian History; she described the Thucydides seminar as “an attempt to induct students into the ecstasy and agony of Thucydides.” Common to all her seminars was an immense workload (often around forty pages of Greek text a week), meticulous planning and design, and an intense learning experience that caused students to do whatever it took to be prepared for the seminars.

Lang’s cult status among Bryn Mawr students was something of a mystery to many outsiders, as her technique appeared to consist of assigning an impossible amount of work and terrifying students into doing it, a system that does not normally lead to adoration on the part of the student body. The reason it worked in Lang’s case seems to have been her deep respect and affection for the students. Lang once laid down as a rule for a person in charge of student welfare that “even when she is dealing with unimportant problems she will show the students respect, nor will she ever condescend,” and this was a principle she followed absolutely in her own teaching. She considered every student her equal and treated each as she treated herself -- and she drove herself very hard. So Lang was ruthless in holding her students to the highest standards, but she cared about them as people, helped them when in need by giving them her own money and possessions, never dismissed their concerns as trivial, apologized sincerely on the rare occasions when she erred, gave her time without any limits at all, and believed absolutely in the ability of each and every student to succeed. Convinced that a good course is a challenging course, and that all the students were of her own intellectual caliber, Lang gave her students courses that would have been challenging to someone of her own intelligence, but did so out of sheer goodwill. And when faced with her unshakeable confidence that they could rise to the challenge, students usually did. In doing so they discovered new abilities in themselves that then became available for accomplishing other challenging tasks, and their lives were transformed by the discovery of what they were capable of. Such students remained forever grateful to Lang for making them into the talented and successful individuals they became.

It is customary in obituaries to discuss the deceased person’s personal life, but Lang had very little personal life owing to giving everything to her work and her students. The noted examples of non-academic existence on her part are all academic-related: she knitted sweaters and socks with inscriptions in Linear B for favoured colleagues and students, she cared for former colleagues in their old age, she directed and stage-managed the faculty shows that used to be produced every few years at Bryn Mawr, and she had extraordinary physical stamina, which she demonstrated on long-distance walks with other members of the Bryn Mawr community. When she died she left, instead of a husband and children, several thousand grateful students.

A memorial for Mabel Lang was held at Bryn Mawr on April 3, 2011. Tributes to her from this and other occasions have been posted on the blog dedicated to her memory (http://mabellangmemorial.blogs.brynmawr.edu/), and a biographical sketch with a complete list of her publications can be found at the end of her posthumous book Thucydidean Narrative and Discourse (Ann Arbor: Michigan Classical Press 2011).

Eleanor Dickey
University of Exeter

[Note: some portions of this obituary have been taken from the biographical sketch mentioned above.]

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