Great Professors: Hakan Tell

Associate Professor of Classics Hakan Tell

Associate Professor of Classics Hakan Tell

Hakan Tell is an Associate Professor of Classics at the College specializing in Greek literature. He is renowned for his intensive Ancient Greek class, in which students new to the language learn all of Greek grammar in only ten weeks. Professor Tell sat down with The Dartmouth Review to discuss his classes, his approach to teaching, the liberal arts, and learning at the College.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Tell us a bit about your intensive Greek elective. How do you approach such a rigorous class? (The Review can confirm this is the case)

Hakan Tell (HT): I never think about rigor regarding a class I teach. I think about it as fun and the enjoyment of learning. My students come in and start from scratch and in nine weeks have a lot of fun learning Greek. I focus on fostering an atmosphere of enjoying learning. I never think about it in other categories. Rigor sounds so technical and clinical.

The intensive Greek class was developed as a way for students to jump start learning Ancient Greek and take higher level reading courses very quickly. Earlier, we had an introductory sequence but we thought it wasn’t adequate in meeting students’ needs. We wanted to get to the goodies in a quicker way and benefit the students. We aimed to find a way to facilitate language instruction that ended in a high level of proficiency.

TDR: How do you see Classics fitting into the liberal arts curriculum?

HT: The composition of our department is unique in that it’s an area studies department combining ancient history, archaeology, and languages. We’re the only undergraduate institution in the country that has that configuration for Classics. All of us study the same thing from different angles so it makes sense that we should be together. We also seek to establish connections between different departments. In that sense, I think that we are very “liberal artsy.”

Classics combines different modes of thinking into one area of focus. In many ways the discipline is the very foundation of the liberal arts. Classics gives us the historical perspective of what we have once been, puts us in touch with thousands of years of history of our civilization, and informs us as to how it has continued to be refined. We still use Greek and Latin and concepts developed in Ancient Greece and Rome.

By studying the Classics we understand the unconscious of today. We think about the way we use words. Senate, for example, comes from “senus” old man. There are these concepts of political process and organization and we use words that reflect those origins in our civilization. By studying Classics, we can critique it from that perspective.

TDR: Classics has lost much of its social prestige over the years. Do you think people still view the Classics differently and how does that impact your work and what you teach?

HT: I don’t have the preconception that Classics is an elitist subject. We rest on the assumption that anyone can learn Greek. If you show up to class and do the homework, I can make sure you can learn it. My ambition is to have as many Dartmouth students as possible learn the language. I want to talk about how straightforward the grammar and concepts are. For me the language isn’t technical, but language is descriptive.

It may be the case that Classics is viewed differently than other subjects, but I see very little of it personally. Of course it’s hard for me to say because I’m in the field myself. Colleagues in other departments have implied that Classics has an air of exclusivity, but for the most part I wouldn’t say so. I also don’t think of the Classics department as an outlier in terms of social prestige. I would expect that learning (as I mentioned previously I don’t like the word rigor) is the same ambition of everyone in the college. We are all very ambitious in our goals. My intensive Greek course isn’t really that different from many other courses.

I vary the curriculum based on student mood. If students are too stressed about quizzes I cancel them! Let’s read Aristotle or do something different. I sometimes feel that if I follow my syllabus to the letter, I’m missing an opportunity. Some students are so distraught that I tell them to sleep. If you lose track of the learning and don’t have your students enthusiastic about the material, you’ve lost it. I remember one day a student came to my office after failing a quiz so distraught that I ripped her quiz up and said let’s not count it. The intensive Greek class is about pure fun, collaboration with your peers, and enthusiasm for the material. Without those elements we lose the learning.

TDR: Dartmouth recently lost its R1 classification as a top research institution. What do you make of this change and what do you think is the best way to respond to it?

HT: I don’t know about the ranking of the college as a whole: that will go up and down and they’re using all kinds of different metrics to assess the university that are fairly nebulous. I can only speak for myself and my colleagues. I try to do my absolute best in balancing teaching and research. I take my teaching incredibly seriously. That means that when I teach it is my priority. Regarding research, I always try to have projects in the works.

I just finished this project now. I’m thinking about a shift that happened in fifth-century Greece in how people envisioned succession from fathers to sons. It’s sort of this small shift that has monumental consequences. In earlier Greek society, they believed the son was a natural extension of his father. Anything that happened to the son was to the father: he carried his nature within him. Sons would turn out like their fathers. In the latter part of the fifth century, the conception changed. Fathers were not entirely sure how their sons would turn out to be. This complicated the education system because fathers became concerned about other influences on their children.

What does Socrates do? He corrupts the youth and turns them against their fathers.

Returning to the original question, I take my research and teaching very seriously. I do my best to publish work that is good and the same holds true for most of my colleagues. I think we have a very good reputation as a department and as individuals for our research.

TDR: You’ve stated before that many professors see Dartmouth as either a small Harvard or the best liberal arts college. What are your views on this dichotomy?

HT: I think the dichotomy is indicative of the two facets of what we do at Dartmouth. I don’t want to use the term “false dichotomy” because it’s so darn cliché, but with regards to teaching and research, you do not have to pick one or the other. Teaching is incredibly resource intensive and it should be because that is how students learn. As a teacher I need to be available to my students. Without that I don’t think learning can happen. In intensive Greek I expect students to learn all of Greek grammar in ten weeks! If I’m not very accessible to my students how can I expect that kind of work from them?

Research is intensive too. Really it’s an issue of scarce resources. When Dartmouth is at its best it does both very well. When we can’t do both, the research university versus liberal arts college divide is exacerbated. The Classics department is an example of a department that does that very well. We are all productive scholars as well as accessible teachers. I never turn a student away, not because I’m a nice guy or anything but because I want to be there and assist students learning Greek. You guys come in here very well prepared and with all these ambitions and doubts and questions and that’s great. I think that being able to interact with young students is what makes the job so rewarding.

I do everything I can to make sure my research output is excellent.

TDR: You grew up and went to university in Sweden. How did that differ from university here? In terms of the pedagogy and the culture?

HT: Part of it is an historical answer. The Sweden I grew up in is not the Sweden of today. On one level we did not have a liberal arts education. You came in and decided on your major and that’s what you did. I took Greek, Latin, and ancient history. I never took a math class or modern language or anything else. The assumption was that high school would prepare you enough and you could come in and specialize in a specific field.

I really love this idea of the liberal arts, that you don’t specialize and I wish I were able to have this experience as an undergraduate student. Most of us never had much interaction with professors. I don’t know if this was the same for other subjects or if much has changed since then, but I wish I could have similar interactions with my professors that are afforded by Dartmouth. You can mature much quicker with back and forth interactions.

I also think that a place like Dartmouth has enormous resources at its disposal, and that means I can spend time with my students.

TDR: In addition to Latin and Greek, you and most of your colleagues are skilled in many other languages. Do you have to be proficient in other languages to be an effective classicist?

HT: It’s helpful for engaging in scholarship in the Classics. There are people who don’t know two or three other languages, but not in this department. It’s hugely helpful as a scholar. A lot of the research I’m engaging in was written in the 18th century and is in German, so being able to read the work without a translation is very important for my projects.

TDR: Thank you for your time, Professor Tell.

HT: Thank you.