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Ellen Millender, classics
I have never met such a consistently engaged group of students. They don’t care about grades, which shocked me when I first got here, because—I’ll admit this—I was obsessed with them when I was an undergraduate. The students come here even as freshmen with the expectation that they’re going to work hard, they’re going to learn a lot, and they’re not just here to party. I thought that this attitude toward their education was something that got socialized into Reedies; but no, they seem to come pre-packaged as “scholars in training.”
What really amazes me is the kind and amount of work I can give to students. Last year, a professor from Berkeley who’s one of the leading ancient historians in the world visited Reed. When he saw my Roman history syllabus, he was shocked. He couldn’t believe I was asking undergraduates to digest and synthesize such complex, sophisticated, and often challenging pieces of scholarship. At many schools, students might be willing to do the work, but they don’t want to appear to be “intellectuals.” At Reed the situation is totally different, and that’s one of the reasons Reed is a dream place to teach.
I hold students to a very high standard, and at the same time I worry that they’re too focused on their work. As an undergrad at Brown I worked incredibly hard. I took five courses every semester, but I also had fun. I was in a band, I did standup comedy, and I went to parties every weekend. I sometimes worry about Reedies, because they work, work, work, and I want to make sure they’re enjoying other aspects of life. But then again, I give them tons of work, and I’m very disappointed when they don’t do it carefully and thoughtfully. So I am a hypocrite; I want it both ways.
"My hope is that when my students graduate, they have what it takes to be inquisitive and intellectually engaged adults, so that even if they’re in a desert of ignorance, they still have that apparatus with them.” —Ellen Millender
I’m a strong defender of Hum 110 for many, many reasons, and it’s not necessarily because it’s classically based, although I have to admit I’m biased—it’s wonderful to be able to teach texts that I love. We are teaching students how to think critically, write critically, read critically, and participate in a conference with other students in a constructive and intelligent manner.
Could we deal with other texts in Hum 110? Absolutely, but I also feel that the texts we read are very good for thinking. They resonate with contemporary issues that our students need to confront. For example, we recently read Thucydides, the fifth-century Athenian historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian War. He asks key questions about warfare, human nature, and politics. What is the effect of warfare on human nature? Is democracy a reasonable or viable form of government? These are questions that I hope our students are asking themselves. Look where we are right now: We are living at a time when our country is at war.
We are having an election. These texts force them to realize that certain questions are timeless.
One thing that’s really interesting about the classical works is that most people think women are absent. But they’re not absent at all. Granted, you have to find them. We only have one female author—Sappho—on the Hum 110 syllabus this fall. So what I try to do is ask students how male authors are portraying women. For example, Hesiod, a late eighth-century Greek poet, suggests that males were deeply afraid of the female body and female control of childbirth. Why were they afraid of the female body? Why is it that when certain Greek states moved toward democracy, women were completely shut out of the picture politically, while that was not true earlier under oligarchies?
I was at an institution previously where teaching was seen as something that shouldn’t absorb a lot of faculty time or effort. In fact, when I got my job at Reed, people came up to me and said, “You know, they really want you to do a lot of teaching there.” And I said, “Yes, that’s why I’m going.” Since I came to Reed, I have found that there’s a symbiotic relationship between my teaching and research—my teaching enriches my research, my research enriches my teaching, the thesis process enriches both. I was really unhappy at my last job, and I found that I became, over time, less and less creative in terms of my research. After teaching at Reed for one year, I had ideas for four articles, two of which are coming out this year. So even though Reed is a very teaching-intensive school, I feel like the return is tremendous, because I learn so much from my students, and I’m allowed to create syllabi that are complex enough that I can learn along with my students.
My hope is that when my students graduate, they have what it takes to be inquisitive and intellectually engaged adults, so that even if they’re in a desert of ignorance, they still have that apparatus with them. And many of them seem to find that that’s what sustains them.