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Teaching the Classics: On Campus and in the Community


A commitment to economic and political empowerment led English professor Pancho Savery to join the H.I.P. program.


Pancho Savery is a professor of English at Reed College, specializing in African American literature and modern drama. The Eastmoreland Heights resident has coached soccer and basketball in the neighborhood for many years, and has given theatre talks at both Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. At Reed, Savery teaches the required freshman course, Humanities 110, which introduces first-year students to classical Greek and Roman texts. It is this teaching expertise, along with a long-time commitment to economic and political empowerment, that has led Savery to participate in the Humanities in Perspective (H.I.P.) program, a year-long college-level humanities course taught by Reed professors and administered by the Oregon Council for the Humanities. The program is designed for adults in the Portland community who are living on low incomes and do not have a four-year college degree.

Recently, Reed magazine editor Mitchell Hartman spoke with Savery about his experiences teaching in the program.

Reed College: As a professor in the English department, what kind of materials are you teaching?

Savory: It’s very wide-ranging. Technically, what I’m supposed to be expert at is modern literature. I teach most of the English depart­ment courses on modern drama. I teach all the courses in the depart­ment about African American literature, so I go all the way back to the beginning up to the present moment. And I teach Humanities 110, so I have had to school myself on ancient Greece and Rome.

What are some teaching techniques that you use in your classroom at Reed in order to engage students?

I have never repeated a course at Reed. I do something new every single semester, and the reason that I do that is that it keeps me lively and interested. Usually, half of the syllabus I assign consists of books I’ve never read before. I also think it’s very beneficial to students, pedagogically, because I walk into the classroom and say, “I just read this book for the first time in my life last night, and these are the questions that occurred to me while I was reading.” It allows me to serve as a model for my students and say, “this is the process that I went through, and I want you to go through a similar process when you are in your dorm room reading.”

How did you get involved in the Humanities in Perspective (H.I.P.) program?

When Reed got involved in the program, the dean of the faculty’s office sent out a call and asked if anyone was interested. I was interested from the very beginning.

Why?

I taught at the University of Massachusetts–Boston for 15 years before I came to Reed. UMass Boston is a school totally designed for working-class students, older students—when I was there, the average age of the students was 27—and they were almost always the first person in their families to go to college. It was a huge transition for me, coming from a place like that, to a place like Reed. Most of the students there were working at the same time as going to school, they were paying their own tuition, sometimes they had to bring their kids to class, sometimes they couldn’t come to class because they had to be in court. They brought that real-life sense into the classroom, which really added interesting things to class conversation. I saw teaching in the H.I.P. program as a way to reconnect with that kind of student.

What are some of the differences between teaching H.I.P. students and teaching Reed students?

Well, obviously, none of these people have had any experience in college, and a significant number of them have not graduated from high school. And if they have, it was a while ago, and so their writing skills, for example, are not going to match the writing skills of Reed students. For these people, it’s usually the first time they have written any kind of paper in years, and so you’re looking for different kinds of things in the papers. But in terms of what happens in the classroom, in terms of talking about the texts and what kind of questions you ask to talk about the texts, I would say it’s exactly the same.

Do you find the same level of sophistication in conference discussions?

Yes, I do.

Reed’s Humanities 110 program focuses entirely on ancient Greek and Roman texts. In what ways is the H.I.P. program structured differently?

The first half of the H.I.P. program is all Greece, and the second semester is American material. It starts with the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, and ends with Toni Morrison. So it’s literature and history.

Is it a civics class?

Yes, it is absolutely a civics class. I believe that education doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I think that the purpose of a college or university is to help prepare students to deal with the real world when they graduate. I define education as a political activity and as a civic activity, and so I am very explicit about wanting students to become better citizens.

Do you think the H.I.P. program is a means of self-betterment for the students who take it?

Absolutely! Improving their language skills, for example, that makes them more marketable in terms of getting a job, quite simply.

Do you encourage the students in the H.I.P. program to do something about the economic conditions around them?

Yes, I do, and I do that at Reed as well.

It seems like teaching low-income adults who are not college-bound about the Greeks and Romans is a bit esoteric. How useful is it to them?

You could make that argument, but I would say, for me, that what keeps me interested in teaching the Greek material is precisely that I do find contemporary relevance. I’m not just going into the classroom and talking about the death penalty; we talk about it in the specific context of the debate in Thucydides. But we do also say, “isn’t it interesting that the arguments being made concerning the death penalty today are exactly the same issues being argued about in Thucydides? And what does that tell us about how the world has evolved over those thousands of years?”

How much do you bring contemporary politics into your teaching?

I would say that in the H.I.P. program we tend to talk a little more about current events. But we also talk about current events in Humanities 110—it’s hard not to. You’re reading Homer and he’s talking about a war and there’s a war going on—you can’t avoid that. So I would say that for all of my classes, I want my students to become better citizens and one way to become a better citizen is to be a better thinker. And so I’m trying to help my students become better thinkers, better readers, better writers. And when they have developed those skills to a higher level, then they are in a better position to go out and make the world a better place.