Great Professors: Michael Lurie

Michael Lurie: The Young Master of the Classics Department

Michael Lurie: Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Could you tell us a little bit about your background and where you’re from?

Michael Lurie (ML): The most interesting fact about my biography is, I guess, that before coming to Dartmouth I lived, studied, and taught in four different countries. I was born in St. Petersburg, a town that actually then was called Leningrad, in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union I had an opportunity to go abroad and study Classics in Switzerland, at the universities of Bern and Zurich. After graduating, I decided that I needed to see more of the world and I went to Germany, where I wrote my PhD and then taught Classics at the University of Goettingen. Then I decided that I spent way too much time in the German speaking world and went to Oxford with a post-doc fellowship. There I got seduced and corrupted, as it were, and never returned back to Germany. I was appointed in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh and spent several years teaching there, before coming to Dartmouth two years ago. The experience of living, thinking, and teaching in very different cultures and different languages has profoundly shaped me as a person, scholar, and teacher.

TDR: What first got you interested in Classics, and particularly poetry and tragedy?

ML: Well the remarkable thing about one’s professional career is that the reasons why you’re doing something might evolve over time, and frankly I think the reasons that drew me to Classics in the first place are not the reasons why I’m doing it now. I grew up in a literary family where almost everyone was either teaching literature or writing literature themselves, and I was – back then – very tired of people talking a lot about literature and poetry. I wanted to do something different, something serious, and for me, studying Classics and learning ancient languages was something that I thought was much more serious and solid than just chatting about literature all the time.  I was fascinated simply by this magical experience that you can learn a dead language, and, all of a sudden, you can read a page of Cicero or Sophocles or Tacitus in the original – and maybe just a page but this was still a magical experience. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the sentence means exactly. Your ambition in the very beginning is not to say something very subtle and sophisticated about the text you are reading but to make sure you really understand the construction of any given sentence: you understand why something is in genitive, why something is infinitive, how it all fits. That trains you to look at the text in a particular way: you take each sentence very seriously. And I loved it. I learned Latin, and then I learned Greek, and in the beginning I really all I wanted was to read and translate ancient texts. I was one of those students who would say: before we start talking a lot about literary theory, let’s really try and understand what exactly this text says. And very often if you learn to look at the text closely and translate it properly, you can develop an interesting interpretation out the text itself, without relying too much on external theoretical models and that was very important for me.

However, the more I got into Classics and the more I read, the more important the content has become. The ability to read ancient texts in the original is still very important to me, of course, and reading Sophocles and Plato in the original is still a magical experience, but at the same time I’m generally speaking driven by the idea that reading Greek tragedy and Greek literature in general means something to you, is, or at least can be, an intellectually and emotionally engrossing, perhaps even soul-changing experience, that Greek pre-Platonic literature, quite possibly more than any other literature of any other cultural period has this intrinsic capacity to explore big questions about human life and human society and to convey to you a particular worldview, mentality, and conception of life.

In Greek culture before Plato, literature in general and tragedy in particular was the main medium of reflection, the main medium of exploration of the world and man’s place in it. This is how Greeks asked big questions and tried to answer them. This notion is very alien to us. Today literature doesn’t really play this crucial role in society. If you want to answer big questions, then you either do science or you do philosophy or you study theology. Literature is something you read to be entertained; it’s not the medium of crucial intellectual, theological, philosophical debate. Now, in Greece before Plato this was the case. It was literature and poetry that asked big questions of all sorts about the gods and human responsibility, but also community and social life and politics. Poetry was also philosophy, and theology, and political science as it were. So there was a transition from philological interest in languages and respect for the text that I am trying to read to an intellectual discovery of the fascinating and challenging world of Greek literature, the world of ideas and, really, big, central questions.

TDR: What impact do you think that the study of classics has on our interpretation of modernity? Aside from that capacity, is the study of Classics an intrinsic good?

ML: Well if I thought it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. There are two ways of looking at that and both are quite possibly valid. One is to say that in many ways ancient culture in both Greece and Rome is foundational for the western tradition and society, that so many things when you look around, when you use the words and think about anything from politics to theatre – that all of it is in many ways is informed by ancient culture and by the engagement with Greek and Roman literature and culture that occurred in Europe and the West for the last five or six hundred years. One answer that I can imagine you’ll get very often to this question is that it’s very important to study ancient Greek culture and antiquity in general because it helps us understand the world we live in better, because so much of our world is informed by ancient culture. However, the more interesting, other way of looking at it is that in many ways ancient Greek culture, while being foundational, is also strikingly different from the modern world and that studying ancient Greek literature and philosophy will in many ways challenge the way we today see the world. That is a much more existential, if you will, approach to ancient culture and literature and the studying of Classics. I study Classics not only because I want to know where democracy comes from; or to know why theatres everywhere in the world are shaped the way they are; or why we go to theatre in the first place. But because studying ancient Greek literature challenges the way I think about the world and myself and it can change the way we understand the world we live in. And this slightly anti-modernist approach to antiquity is something that I think can be a powerful tool in your own development but also in education. Very often we look for things that we are familiar with and that would reinforce our own values and beliefs. Studying Classics in particular and studying literature in different cultures in general, but in particular with ancient Greek culture that is in many ways so close to us and yet at the same time so profoundly different, can challenge your values and your ideas about the world. That is something that I think is very valuable.

TDR: What lost work would you most like to have back and why?

ML: It’s a boring answer to a fun question, but you see very often we forget that an enormous amount of stuff is lost. Sophocles wrote more than a hundred tragedies. We have just seven. And it’s exactly the same with Aeschylus and Euripides and many other ancient authors; the amount of Greek literature and poetry that is lost to us is staggering. So it’s very difficult to choose. If we could have another tragedy by Sophocles – well as far as Greek Literature before Plato is concerned, then more tragedies would be great and quite possibly the interesting question there is to what extent a discovery of a new complete tragedy say by Aeschylus or Euripides or Sophocles would change our understanding of the genre and of the history of Greek culture of the period in general. Because all theories and ideas about Sophocles, for example, are based on the seven plays out of, say, 120. If we had another hundred, then quite possibly we would have to rewrite the history of Greek literature.

TDR: How does teaching Classics in the US compare to other places you’ve taught, in Europe and in Britain?

ML: Well it is very different. Partly it has something to do with Dartmouth and our quarter system which makes everything very intensive and some of it has to do with American high school and just the American culture and educational system in general. I would like to mention two things and they’re related to each other.

The one is that, generally speaking, students in Europe, both in continental Europe – say in Switzerland and Germany – and in Britain, they come to university knowing more, particularly about the subjects they want to study: in Germany and the UK you choose your major before coming to university and focus on it from the very beginning of your degree. However, the American students, or at least the Dartmouth students, have this amazing capacity to embrace and process, in an interesting and creative way, new material much faster than, say, European students would. Everything that happens at Dartmouth happens within nine weeks. You come to class, and very often it is a topic that many students know very little about. So if you think of CLST 2: Tragedy & Comedy of Greece and Rome, there are many students who have never read tragedy before, never done Classics before, and they are confronted with a completely new world and new material, yet they have the capacity to learn very quickly: to figure out exactly what matters and to come up with interesting, creative ideas and questions and also work in a very short period of time. This is very impressive and this is a skill – or a set of skills – that European students generally speaking don’t have. The semesters are much longer; there are fewer deadlines; for everything, you have more time. This idea that I have nine weeks or I have a week and I have to come up with an essay and then write and submit it would be alien in many other places. For example, in Germany you submit your final paper after the end of the term. So there is the term and it is quite possibly twelve or thirteen weeks long, and you read and discuss and do presentations and read and study and form your ideas about a particular topic or text or whatever it is. Then the term ends, and then you have another three weeks to write your paper. That is a completely different. It has also many advantages because in a way you have more time and can engage more deeply, but it also means that the students in Germany, but also many students in Britain, would also not be able to cope with this pressure that within nine weeks I have to understand what it’s all about or I have to learn elementary Greek in nine weeks, and I have to do well. And the Dartmouth students are actually quite amazing at that. And my impression is – I always tell my colleagues that – if I had a Greek class, say Greek 24, and I told my students, “well your assignment for Monday is to translate this passage or this text from Japanese” and said, “well you have to translate it and this is 10% of the grade.” The students will think I am insane and quite possibly curse me but they won’t even complain that much, they will just go home and say “well how much time do I have to learn bloody Japanese?” By Monday, they will be done; they will figure out how to translate this text from a language they have not learned. And they will do a very good job. That is an amazing skill that I think is very typical for Dartmouth and quite possibly for the American education system.

The other, related difference is that students in Europe are given much more time and space to work on their own. Each class that you take has fewer contact hours. And students are supposed to do much more independent study and work. Which means that very often you don’t have a quiz, and you don’t have to tell the students what they have to do for tomorrow and the students can spend the afternoon reading and studying in the library because they know at some point they will have to write a paper or do a presentation and they will just work on it. That is not really the way Dartmouth works. If I want the students to work for my class, I have to come up with an endless chain of small assignments and if I do so then the students will be great and will work very hard. But if I just say, “you don’t have to do anything in particular for tomorrow and there will be no quiz, just go to the library and enjoy the beauty of Greek poetry,” because they’re so busy and the terms are so intensive, they will immediately shift focus to other courses where professors are more demanding and ask you to do something every day, which means that each course has to come up with a chain of assignments and quizzes. Quite possibly it is similar to what you know from high school where you are told what you have to do every day. You know: for tomorrow I have to do that, and Friday I have to do that, and Friday there’ll be a quiz, and Monday there’ll be another quiz. That I think is really different. I never in my life had to set so many quizzes as at Dartmouth. But I feel I have to because otherwise my wonderful students will be too busy to do work for me. That is potentially problematic; for in the worst case it might lead to a strange competition between courses because every professor, if they want their students to work for the class, has to give an endless chain of daily assignments. As a result, you have even less time to be independent or to study independently, and this is a vicious circle. So these are the two, quite possibly related ideas.

TDR: What’s your philosophy of teaching?

ML: What you wrote in The Dartmouth Review reflects many important aspects of it very well. Normally it’s petrifying to see what students write about you. We’re all delighted, of course, to hear that students like our courses, but they can like your courses for different reasons, and it’s important to me that students understand what I am trying to do and like my courses for the right reasons. I do think that studying Classics ultimately is about intellectual discovery and exploration of the world we live in and about developing your abilities to think critically and to think about the world you live in critically, independently, and quite possibly in a more creative and sophisticated way than you are used to. So at the heart of my teaching philosophy is the question how I can get students to engage with what I teach and the texts and the ideas and the questions that we explore seriously and creatively, in a way that will ultimately, maybe, change their perspective and increase their capacity for critical thought. That is basically it.

My teaching is also very much informed by a particular notion of liberal arts education that Dartmouth is historically grounded in and that I feel many students coming to Dartmouth don’t understand any longer: the very idea is that you can study ancient Greek or art history or philosophy or whatever it is, and that will prepare you to embark on any walk of life, that if you come to Dartmouth you come here not to do vocational training and to take endless courses on economics and government because you think that this is what will get you a job. But it is ultimately the study of Classics that can get you a job. And I believe in that still very strongly. So the courses I teach are designed – or I try to design them – in such a way that they will open horizons and make students think critically, whether it’s Greek tragedy or intellectual history or whatever it is. So that by the end of their time at Dartmouth they look back and say, “well in a way it changed me,” not in the sense that I got indoctrinated by a particularly ideology, but because I understand so much better the place I live in and my own culture and history. How do you do that? That is a big challenge I think, and each course and each group of students require a different approach. You see, very often it’s not really about ‘teaching philosophy’ because when we talk about teaching philosophy we all say the right things. The trick is whether you can actually find a way of doing it successfully. You can ask anyone “what is your teaching philosophy; what do you think liberal arts is about?” Everyone will come up with beautiful, right, correct answers. Whether you can achieve that in class is a different matter.

My job is not to make students like me or take my courses at any cost, but to make them think, and engage with interesting texts and ideas in a meaningful way. The ambition is rather to design and structure courses in such a way that by the end of the course, and quite possibly only by the end of the course, the student looks back and thinks “wow this was actually a meaningful experience; I really learned something.” Not only that you enjoy class on a daily basis and have fun working on the things we work on but look back and think “well, it all makes sense now.” And very often a good, intellectually coherent course only really makes sense at the very end. The measure of real success is perhaps if a year, or two years from now the students still remember the course they took with you and it still means something to them. And if the course turns out to be just the beginning of a conversation or thought process that will then continue through other courses and through discussions and readings and with other professors, perhaps even after you left Dartmouth, then I think I did a good job.