Reflections on Teaching and Learning,

Writing and Research, the Profession and

the Professor. . . .

"Chasing Sappho: Teaching, Translation, and 'the Text'"

Honestly, I feel like a fraud—I may teach Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, but I’ve never studied Greek, and although I did take two years of Latin, I knew only enough on one day of my life to pass a translation exam.  All the Latin I’d crammed into my head promptly fell out the day after the test.   So, even though I jump at the chance to teach Greek and Latin classics in the literature classroom, I can’t help feeling like an imposter, or maybe a swindler, some Bernie-Madoff-like schemer who is defrauding my students.

I teach Beowulf in translation, of course, but I never feel guilty about it, maybe because I know the Old English of the Beowulf poet.  I don’t regularly set myself 200 or so lines of translation, just to keep the original fresh in my mind, but I’ve worked with the poem so long, first as a student and then in more than thirty years as a teacher, that when students fall in love with Seamus Heaney’s modern English translation, published in 1999—a new Beowulf for a new millennium—I can still hear the original alliterative half-lines in my mind.  They’re always there for me, a part of me, resources I can call on for quotation, illustration, or complication.  But I don’t have that stored wealth when it comes to the Greek and Roman classics I teach in the “Masterpieces of European Literature” class.  I am only too well aware of my inadequacies.

My students are aware of them too, and I suppose that is what saves me from being a complete fraud.  Rather than posing as an “expert,” sharing a lifetime of reading and study with her students, I can position myself as one of them—a lover of literature, an adventurer, setting out with them on one of the great journeys of a lifetime.  My students know that I cannot read the Greek originals and that the most I can do with Virgil these days is a line or two of the original, spending more time with the dictionary than with Virgil’s dactylic hexameters.  And so literary translation—the way we encounter texts in a language that is foreign to us—becomes an integral part of our classroom discussions from the moment we set off together. 

In the spring of 2009, I was lucky enough to have thirty-five adventuresome students in the “masterpieces” class, and they quickly proved themselves ready for anything.  On our second day together, we spent nearly two hours discussing three different translations of the opening lines of The Iliad.  Here is the opening of Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,                          

That caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

And crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

Leaving so many dead men—carrion

For dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

And here is Robert Fagles, from his 1990 translation of the poem:

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

Feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

And now from Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 The Iliad, the translation that we were using in class:


            Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,

Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks

Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls

Of heroes into Hades’ dark,

And left their bodies to rot as feasts

For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.1

You know you are going to have a great semester when thirty-six people can spend an entire period discussing not only the relative meaning of “rage” and “anger” and the differences between “undergloom,” “House of Death,” and “Hades,” but also the effects of lowercase and capital letters (“immortal one” versus “Goddess”), the significance of line breaks (“Rage” all by itself in Lombardo’s version), and the varying effects of the colon (“Rage:”) and the dash (“Rage—”).

As we worked our way through the semester’s reading, I found my fellow travelers more and more willing to consider the role of translation in their reading.  Their engagement resulted in a particularly interesting discussion of the Greek lyric poet Sappho, whose work is notoriously fragmentary and elusive.  Along with our discussions of the text, we spent time with a series of sequenced writing assignments.  On our first day of discussion, we did a close reading of the only complete Sappho poem that survives, but I had asked every student to read among the fragments as well: “sample the fragments—we’ll look specifically at the pieces that you really enjoy, for whatever reason.”  I had also given them a short writing assignment, based on the introduction to our Sappho translation:

In her “Reading among the Ruins” comments, Pamela Gordon suggests that one way to read surviving Sappho fragments is to think of them “as though we were reading a note in a bottle” (xi).  “Each fragment comes to us against the odds and across the centuries,” Gordon writes, “and none arrives with any original instructions about context or meaning.  All we know is that the sender is Sappho . . . , and some of us are certain that we are the right recipient.”  So, as you read through your book, which fragment strikes you, moves you, or intrigues you?  For which fragment(s) are you “the right recipient”?  Just a brief paragraph is all that’s needed (though feel free to write more if you wish).  We will use these for discussion today (Thursday), and you’ll need to turn it in, so it should be in reader-friendly form!

And then, after that first day’s lively discussion (lots of interesting personal revelations about why students were the “right recipient” for the fragments they’d chosen), we turned our attention to a single fragment, conventionally numbered Fragment 30.  Here is David Campbell’s version, from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Sappho:

He seems as fortunate as the gods to me, the man who sits opposite you and listens nearby to your sweet voice and lovely laughter.  Truly that sets my heart trembling in my breast.  for when I look at you for a moment, then it is no longer possible for me to speak; my tongue has snapped, at once a subtle fire has stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me all over.  I am greener than grass, and it seems to me that I am a little short of dying.  But all can be endured, since even a poor man. . . .

In addition to asking students to read these translations, I asked them to prepare a response to them—noting what they liked, what they didn't like, and what the differences among the translations were.  During the discussion that followed, based on their prepared notes, we noticed with interest the way male translators smoothly inhabited the poem and seemed to "fix" the desire Sappho's female narrator expresses for the young woman she observes, while the translations by women seemed to preserve the same-sex desire expressed in the original.  We explored the varied ways the translators dealt with Sappho's images, for example the "subtle fire" in the flesh, in Campbell's translation, and the description of the narrator as "greener than grass."

And then I asked them to venture one step further.  In 2004, a new Sappho fragment was identified and, when combined with a fragment that had been recovered in 1922, an "almost complete" poem emerged—the news of this "new" Sappho poem was widely reported in the popular press.3 Here is a reconstruction of the “new” Sappho poem, produced by Martin West, from his Times Literary Supplement report on the discovery:

            [You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gift

            [be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:


            [but my once tender] body old age now 

            [has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;


             my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,  

            that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.


             This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?

             Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.


             Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,

             love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,


            handsome and young then, yet in time grey age

            o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

My challenge to the students in my class?  To create their own translations.  Working in groups from West’s literal translation, they were asked to “produce your own translation—that is, try to work from the literal to a version of the poem that is as accessible and pleasing as possible.”

The results were more than I expected—and I think more than my students expected as well.  The groups worked furiously.  Who knew the act of translating could produce so much laughter and the occasional vehement outburst?  Including the original Greek version on the assignment sheet was fun because one student, TM, was taking Greek and could pick out some of the original to share with us.  In the end, we decided to “publish” our translations in a little anthology.  Each group submitted its translation for publication, but, to my surprise, several students chose to add their own individual translations into the mix.  I compiled their work, and then we circulated and recirculated the draft anthology, so groups and individuals could polish and perfect their efforts.  In the end, after several weeks of editing and polishing, our Sappho anthology contained twenty different "translations" of the poem.

The opening lines of the poem proved very difficult—it was hard for students to unsnarl the syntax of West’s literal translation to produce a modern English version, and most groups simply gave up.  But in their group, KR, LC, AG, and KM avoided the syntactical difficulties and provided a simple and harmonious reading: “Girls, love the gifts given to you by the Muses.”  In his version, MR wrote, “Ladies, respect what the fragrant-blossomed Muses / Bless you with, lovely gifts and the music of the lyre.”  LV and KB produced a more elegant variation—“Girls, for the sweet-smelling Muse’s / lovely gifts and the song of the lyre, / be zealous”—as did JG—“You young girls have been given gifts from the Muses. / Love these gifts and be grateful for your youth.”  But NG moved very much away from the literal, and instead of addressing the “girls,” the opening lines were an invocation to the Muses themselves: “Enchanting Muses, / swiftly present your golden gifts. / Sing, melodious lyre.”  As you can see from this sampling, most of the translators retained “fragrant-blossomed” in describing the Muses, but a few tackled this phrase.  In addition to the variations I’ve already noted, TM called the Muses “fair-scented,” while JS called them “the flower-blossomed and fragrant Muses,” and CW changed the phrasing to “the Muses with their fragrance so sweet.”

In rendering West’s “[but my once tender] body old age now [has seized],” KJ and SK produced a translation with a very effective verb: “But my once tender body withers with age.” TM created a beautiful pair of lines: “Now my body, once youthful and tender, / Is worn by time’s eternal flow.”   In her translation, CW was inspired by the metaphor suggested by West’s interpolated “has seized” and wrote, “But my tender body is withering away / In the grip of old age.”  Following their simple opening lines, KR, LC, AG, and KM produced another clean and direct reading, but not nearly as literal as most: “I, too, was once young.  / But now I’m growing older.”  They continued, “See, look—the proof is in my / graying hair, once dark.”  A lovely four-line stanza. 

The first-person narrator’s reference to her physical weakness in this poem (in West’s literal version, “my knees will not support me, / that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns”) were a daunting obstacle.  RN did a fine job in making sense of the original: “these knees / once allowed me to dance with the fawns; now I struggle to walk.”  JR shifted the image just a bit in her translation: “my knees no / Longer support me as they once did / When I had the gracefulness of a fawn.”  AW employed a similar move, translating the original as, “My knees will not support me as I dance / They are weak as young fawns, and it causes my heart to grow heavy.”  JG just avoided the whole fawn thing with her “My heart is so heavy with emotion / that not even my knees can support its weight.”  She lost the original metaphor, but I love the way she used the heavy heart in her own unique way to produce an alternative image.  AC made a similar move with his version: “My heart, broken so many times, weighs me down.”

The turning point of the original—the recognition by the narrator that there is no real alternative to growing old—offered an interesting opportunity for this group of translators.  TM chose the aphoristic “As a human, age will find you.”  KR, LC, AG, and KM again chose the simple and direct while maintaining the first-person of the original: “I hate to grow old, / but what is there to do / since I’m mortal?”  I particularly like the way WD tackled this critical turning point in the poem: “I often ask myself: How does one not grow / Old?  But being human, this is my doom.”  JR chose to play with questions in her version of the lines: “I moan about this but what can I do? / Can I stop growing old and stop being human? / I think not.”  Still playing with figurative language, CW wrote,

            I often begrudge this state;

            But what am I to do?

            Being human, there is no way

            To avoid the cold hands of age.

NG went for something a bit more archaic, with her version:

            O woe is me,

                                                But such is the fate of humanity.

I’ve reproduced the look of her line on the page here.  This is a single line in her translation, breaking up the three- and four-line stanzas that precede and follow it in her version of the original.  Printed this way, the line truly does present itself as the turning point in the lyric, and the internal rhyme of the line emphasizes its significance. 

The final allusion in the poem, the reference to the “tale” of Tithonus and Dawn, posed another interesting challenge for the translators—how to incorporate this example of human aging into the personal experience of the “I” narrating the lyric.  In his literal translation, West focuses on Tithonus himself: “Tithonus once, the tale was, . . . Dawn, / carried off to the world’s end. . . .”  He used “once” and “the tale was” to signal the exemplary story that followed.  In her version of these lines, SO kept the focus on Tithonus: “In the tale of love-smitten Tithonus. . . .”  JR integrated the story by having the first-person of the narrator introduce it: “I often think of Tithonus. . . .” MR chooses the impersonal: “There is a story of Tithonus. . . .”   But a surprising number of translators placed the emphasis not on the mortal given eternal life (but not granted eternal youth) and focused instead on Dawn.  TM, for example, wrote, “An old legend speaks clearly, / Of Dawn. . . .”  WD struck a similar note with his translation, though he altered the conventional “rose-armed” in his version: “There was once a tale of gold-armed Dawn. . . .”  JS returned to the description of the Muses as “fragrant-blossomed” here at the end of his translation, making for a nice symmetry: “Flower-armed Dawn was love-smitten and / carried Tithonus off to the edge of the world.”  The most surprising—and surprisingly effective—twist was in KJ and SK’s translations, in which the first-person shifts, and instead of the woman lamenting her graying hair and weakening knees, we hear the voice of Dawn speaking:

           Love brought Tithonus to me as he

           Carried me to the ends of the earth.

           He was so young and handsome

           And in time he grew old.

           He became old and feeble and I stayed young forever.

Their choice here reflects their reading of Sappho—who frequently incorporates the voice of a goddess into her first-person lyrics.

In the end, the value of the translation exercise was not necessarily in the quality of each of the “finished” translations, though some of them were quite beautiful and every one had at least one interesting word choice or line break.  But the student-translators grappled with real issues.  Were they going to stay as close to West’s literal translation as possible, or were they going to change the syntax?  What were the effects of word choices, of line breaks, or different stanza patterns?  Should the diction be contemporary, or more sonorous and formal, or more “poetic,” an “Alas,” for example, or NG’s “O woe is me.”  The rhymed couplets of one version were dreadful, but the unrhymed couplets used by three other translators, following West’s example, were perfect.  TM chose quatrains, and KJ and SK used a single fourteen-line stanza that looked (and read) much like a sonnet.  WD and AW favored long lines, while NG’s were very short.4  

As we left Sappho behind and moved on with our reading, we did not forget that the texts we were reading were the result of a translator’s decisions and interpretations.  We were all more careful readers, and a few students took to bringing another translation or two to class, so that we could refer to other readings of lines or passages as we discussed Agamemnon and Medea, for example, and later Virgil’s Aeneid.  A few raised skeptical eyebrows when we used my own “edition” of Perpetua of Carthage’s Passion in the classroom—why had I decided to provide my own version of the text?  How had I produced this “translation”?  (I worked not from the Latin original but from several nineteenth-century translations.)  Why had I added an explanatory note here and not there? 

And a few of these more careful readers seemed determined to continue their language studies so that they could read, if not Homer and Virgil, then Spanish, French, German, and Chinese texts in their original—no matter how long it might take to translate a few lines or how many times they had to rely on a dictionary.

1. My thanks go to Professor Rochelle Snee, Department of Languages and Literature, Pacific Lutheran University, for her suggestions about which translation to use in the classroom.  I used the Lombardo translation after consulting with her, and she was right: students loved it.

2. I again used a Lombardo translation, with an excellent introduction by Pamela Gordon.  Several of her subheadings indicate something of the challenges presented to us as readers—“Searching for Sappho” (v-x) and “Reading among the Ruins” (xi-xvii).  The final section—“Upper Case, Lower Case:  Was Lesbian Sappho a lesbian” is also a terrific section, one that surveys a variety of ways readers respond to expressions of female desire in Sappho’s poetry.

 3. The 2004 discovery was reported in 2005 by Martin West.  In his words, “In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote."  In his announcement of the Sappho discover, West included a reproduction of the original (available at

4. Several translations of this “new” Sappho poem are published online, a few accompanied by extensive commentary on the original Greek—see, for example, the translations and comments at and a Greek reconstruction, with notes,  by William S. Annis at  See also Meryl Altman’s “Sappho’s Knees,” a critical essay and translation at  I think my students’ efforts compare quite favorably.

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert, trans.  The Iliad. By Homer. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans.  The Iliad.  By Homer.  New York: Anchor Books, 1974.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans.  The Iliad.  By Homer.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. Sappho: Poems and Fragments.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 2002.

West, Martin.  “A New Sappho Fragment.”  Times Literary Supplement: Times Online 24 June 2005.  2 February 2010

 . . . . .

This brief piece about reading, research, writing, and rediscovery was first published 

under the title "Finding What Was There" (Prism, Spring 2008; available at; in a slightly different form, it appears as the preface

to Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan,


"Finding What Was There"

In the early spring of 1996, I spent a few weeks working intensely, almost frantically, in the British Library at its old Great Russell Street location, moving back and forth between the Main Reading Room, the North Library, the North Library Gallery, and the Manuscripts Students’ Room. 

I worked intensely because I was mid-way through my sabbatical leave, and I was conscious of the passage of time.  And I worked intensely because I was more than a little homesick—as long as I stayed busy, I wasn’t missing my son, worrying about how much money my trip was costing me, or fretting about my garden at home.  So I planned my days carefully.   The reading rooms opened at nine in the morning six days a week; six days a week I was waiting on the steps, ready for the Library to open, by 8:45 a.m..  During the day, I never left the Library, not even for lunch.  Well, I suppose that, technically, I left the Library when I left my seat in the reading rooms, exited the various check-points, and headed to the British Museum’s self-service cafeteria.  It was not only handy but relatively inexpensive, and if I timed my break just right, I could avoid the worst of the crowds and still enjoy a few moments of casual conversation with tourists at the tables we shared.  These brief moments of talk were the only exchanges I had that didn’t involve ordering meals or books, and sometimes I returned with regret to my seat in the Library.  On Mondays, Friday, and Saturdays, the reading rooms closed at 5:00, but on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I worked twelve-hour days, because the Library stayed open until 9 p.m.

Although I was working intently, then, I still couldn’t help feeling a little frantic.  The British Library was preparing for its move to St. Pancras, and although no one was going to be grabbing the chair out from under me while I was reading, banners announcing the move were everywhere, and it seemed as if new pamphlets and brochures appeared daily—my memories about the frequency of these publications are not completely misleading, since the one I’m holding right now informs me that “This leaflet is number 6 in a series designed to inform readers and users how each stage of the move will affect them and their use of the collections.”  This small pamphlet also reminds me that the well-publicized move to St. Pancras was accompanied by the equally well-publicized “introduction of the British Library Online Catalogue and the Automated Book Request System (ABRS).” 

All the signs, pamphlets, displays, and models were intended to be helpful and reassuring, I’m know, but I found them somewhat ominous.  Would the Online Catalogue really “overcome the limitations of traditional catalogues”?  I loved the huge volumes of the printed and well-annotated catalogues in the center of the great Round Room.  Could a computer terminal—even though there were to be eighty-six (!) of them—ever substitute for the old book application slips, filled out in triplicate?  I loved those old tickets with their bold-faced reminders to “PLEASE WRITE FIRMLY IN BLACK INK.”   I loved carefully entering my delivery location, my seat number, and, on the “Application for a Manuscript,” noting my “Students’ Room pass number.”  I loved seeing the books waiting for me at my place each morning when I arrived.  I loved getting tickets returned with a red stamp telling me to “Please present this slip at the North Library Issue Desk” or a green stamp telling me to “Please present this slip at the North Library Gallery Issue Desk.”  I even loved finding a slip returned to me with the “Please see reason for non-delivery” box ticked—I didn’t mind being informed that the book I wanted was “in use,” because if it was “urgently required,” I could “apply to the North Library Issue Counter.”  I didn’t mind that “Permission of Superintendent” was required before certain manuscripts could be delivered, and I didn’t even mind being informed that I would never get the book I wanted because I was informed so gently:  “It is regretted that this work has been mislaid.”  I cherish my book application for one volume that failed to appear:  “This work was destroyed by bombing in the war, we have not been able to acquire a replacement.”

All this came back to me recently.  I was cleaning out a filing cabinet and pulled out a couple of manila folders, one labeled “BL-printed,” the other “BL-mss.”  As I removed them from the drawer, they wound up on the top of a slippery stack, and as they fell to the ground from my overloaded arms, a cascade of book tickets fluttered to the floor.  I read through them all as I picked them up and carefully sorted them, their titles bringing back those cool March days in London now more than a decade ago.  The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.   An Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjectes, against the late blowne Blaste, concerning the Gouvernment of Wemen.  A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power.  Six Livres de la République.  Sphaera civitatisPolitique tirée des propres paroles de l'Écriture sainteDiscours de la légitime succession des femmes aux Possessions de leurs parents:   & du gouvernement des princesses aux Empires & RoyaumesPatriarchia:  Or the Natural Power of Kings.

What also came back, as I looked at these titles, was another emotion.  I had spent every day in London immersed in a sixteenth-century debate about women’s nature and abilities, and at the end of each day, it hadn’t been easy returning to the late twentieth century.  I was a college professor, the single parent of a child soon headed off to college, a socially, politically, intellectually, and financially liberated woman, independent in every way possible, traveling on my own in one of the great cities of the world, yet at the end of every day I was left feeling overwhelmed.  I remember leaving the BL each day, walking down the steps and through gates of the British Museum, emerging into the bustle and traffic of Great Russell Street, and finding it hard to shake off the sense that, despite everything, I was a weak, irrational, incapable, and  despicable creature. 

And as I sat on the floor in my home office, looking again at those carefully preserved book-order forms, I also thought about the manuscript that sat at the back of the bottom drawer in the same filing cabinet.  Maybe it was time to pull it out and look at it again?  When I was in London that spring, I was writing a book about female rulers during the early modern period, and I had decided to prepare myself by reading the primary sources in the “gynecocracy” debate of the late sixteenth-century.  I was interested in the argument itself, which was a particularly toxic one, but I was also intrigued by the fact that so many women had gone about the task of governing even while their right—and ability—to do so was being bitterly disputed.  I came home to finish that book about women rulers, but I had been so profoundly affected by the texts I read during those weeks at the British Library that I prefaced my study of women rulers with a detailed analysis of all arguments offered by the many combatants in that debate.  When she received my draft, my wonderful editor at Palgrave, Amanda Johnson (now Amanda Moon), tactfully suggested that perhaps a 200-page “preface” was a bit too much.  In the end, all that remained from my stay in London and my obsession with the texts of the gynecocracy debate was the title that I borrowed from John Knox and then deliberately subverted:  The Monstrous Regiment of Women:  Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (2002). 

But even then I couldn’t quite get the debate out of my system.  Every once in a while I added to my “preface,” eventually embedding my analysis of the gynecocracy debate about female sovereignty in the larger Renaissance humanist debate about women’s nature and ability, and then, as their work began to appear in accessible modern editions, juxtaposing the responses of women writers to the arguments of their male contemporaries.  When the whole thing got completely out of control, I shoved it to the back of the file drawer, where it sat.  I never forgot it, but I tried to. 

Then the book slips fell out of a file folder and onto the floor.  Even now I’m not convinced that I would have pulled my book manuscript out again, but two days later, on 18 December 2006, as I was driving home from campus after turning in grades for one of my fall-semester classes, I was tuned into All Things Considered and heard NPR’s Michele Norris asking a number of political strategists, legal experts, and well-published academics whether Americans were ready to vote for a black presidential candidate—or for a woman candidate.  The subsequent interviews of likely voters from across the country seemed to suggest, at least to me, that there was less resistance to a black presidential candidate—always assuming that candidate was male, that we were talking about Barack Obama and not Shirley Chisolm or Carol Moseley Braun—than there was to the idea of a female candidate.  That night, I opened my filing cabinet, pulled out the bottom drawer, reached into the back, and pulled out my manuscript.  I left it lying on the floor by my desk.

On 20 January 2007, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee.  “I’m in.  And I’m in to win,” she said.  “We will make history and remake our futures.”

Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, responded quickly, endorsing Clinton’s candidacy:  “I am one of the millions of women who have waited all their lives to see the first woman sworn in as president of the United States, and now we have our best opportunity to see that dream fulfilled.”

“Clinton Hopes to Make History” read the headline on my Sunday Seattle Times/Seattle Post Intelligencer.  The front-page news continued on page A-2, but nearly half of the story detailed the candidate’s personal liabilities rather than her political strengths.  And four of the five columns on page A-2 were filled not by the continuation of the page-one story but by another piece, this one an extended analysis of the Clinton marriage, the Clinton scandals of the 90s, and the Clinton psyche—Bill Clinton’s psyche, that is.  “Bill:  Will He Help or Hurt?”

In July, just as I was preparing the final draft of this book to meet my 1 August deadline, the story in the news, on television and radio, and all over the Internet was not about Clinton’s campaign but her cleavage.

Although it’s been nearly 450 years since John Knox argued that “to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city is repugnant to nature,” an insult to God, and a “subversion” of order, equity, and justice, and since he concluded that rule by women is the “most detestable and damnable” of all the “enormities” faced by men, somehow the time seems right for Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe.

 . . . . .   

When I was hired into a tenure-track position in 1980, no one wrote statements of their

teaching philosophy—or at least no one I knew did.  What happens, then, when a career

professional, rather far along in her career, suddenly realizes she has no clearly articulated

statement of her philosophy?  The following is a brief statement, crafted for no particular 

reason other than to remedy a philosophy-less situation. . . .


"My Teaching Philosophy: A Personal Statement"


“. . . there are times when what you really want from Shakespeare

is Denzel Washington in leather pants.”

--Anthony Lane, “Tights!  Camera!  Action!”

The New Yorker, 25 November 1996


I was having lunch with a colleague, who had just arrived after interviewing a candidate for dean of the School of Nursing.  My colleague was incensed:  when asked about her philosophy of teaching, the candidate had replied that she didn’t really have one.  Although I found myself shaking my head along with my colleague, I was actually dismayed, because it had suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have a philosophy of teaching, or at least not one that I had conceptualized and could articulate.

I remember worrying about this quite a bit—although I was a full professor and although a majority of my students evaluated my teaching very highly every semester, my confidence had been shaken.  What was wrong with me?  How had I failed so miserably in the profession that I loved?  What did I think I was doing, anyway?  And then, flipping through my newly arrived New Yorker, I stopped to read Anthony Lane’s essay about a spate of new film versions of Shakespeare’s plays, including his comments on Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing.  A single sentence jumped off the page:  “. . . there are times when what you really want from Shakespeare is Denzel Washington in leather pants.”  Today Lane’s observation not only appears as an epigraph on my Shakespeare syllabus every spring, but it can also be read it as an expression of my philosophy of teaching.

Before going any farther, I should say that, in more than twenty years of teaching, I have been exposed to any number of educational theories and practice:  process-oriented instruction; writing-to-learn and writing-across-the-curriculum; technology-intensive education; de-centered and feminist classrooms; student-centered and peer-based learning; problem-based education and outcomes-based education; learning-centered instruction.  One newly hired provost, on arriving at my home institution, used a surfing metaphor to illustrate his philosophy of education; he wanted us to be willing to “follow the wave” with him.  Unfortunately the wave rather quickly engulfed him and swept him out the door.  As members of the University’s long-range planning committee, my colleagues and I debated long and hard in our effort to frame a statement of philosophy that would guide our institution into the twenty-first century.  The glossy brochure in which our statement was eventually published called it a “powerful and effective expression” of the university’s mission, but, in the end, we had only managed to agree that our goal was to “empower students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care.”  And now another new provost has just presented us with yet another philosophy of education.  In an address entitled “Toward an Academic Vision,” he envisions a new “academic roadmap” that will show “the lay of the land” and provide us with “driving directions” for the “preferred route” to an “academically viable academic program.” 

I include all this as a way of admitting to a degree of healthy skepticism about any single philosophy of teaching and learning.  I am as cautious about grand theoretical systems as I am about the metaphors deployed to articulate them.  By contrast, my own philosophy of teaching is more elastic—that is, I have adapted and adopted theoretical perspectives and pedagogical practices to suit my own purposes, which themselves are subject to change.  I can, for example, de-center my classroom, and explain what I am doing and why I am doing it, even while I point out to my students the ultimate fiction of such a de-centering.  As long as I am assigning grades, I am always going to have more authority and control, whatever the configuration of the desks in our room.  I can also identify specific learning objectives for a course, include them on my syllabus, and articulate my rationale for their inclusion, even while I believe that what is often most important about education cannot be listed, enumerated, or quantified.  As a teacher, then, I have learned to be experimental and flexible, equally open to something new and comfortable with changing what is familiar.

Which leads me to my next point.  I am also pragmatic when it comes to my philosophy of teaching.  Given my discipline and my particular specialty within that discipline—I am a medievalist, specializing in English literature—I know that most of the students I teach will not be following in my footsteps.  I also know that, ten years from now (or ten weeks from now, for that matter), they will not be picking up Beowulf or Margery Kempe’s Book for fun when they have a few spare minutes at the end of a long day.  So when I enter a classroom—whether it’s a survey of western civilization, a first-year seminar, or an upper-division literature course for majors—my aim is to make connections, to link the course and its contents to my students’ own frames of reference.  If I need to, I can use Green Eggs and Ham to teach Marie de France’s octosyllabic couplets.  I can use Lyle Lovett’s version of “Stand by Your Man” to show how heterosexist assumptions can shape our reception of Christopher Marlowe’s “Come Live with Me and Be My Love.”  While few of my students will become English majors, much less medievalists, fewer still will ever become academics, devoting their professional careers to writing scholarly papers.  And so, whatever their majors and career goals, I want my students to be able to write clearly and persuasively, whether their writing task is a memo to their employer, a letter to the editor, or a note to their child’s second-grade teacher.  I want them to recognize the significance of all these tasks.  I want them to be open to the views others express, able to suspend judgment, to reflect thoughtfully and then to respond critically and articulately, whether they are exploring the implications of feminist theories, making tough political decisions, or explaining to a friend why they think The Matrix is a good movie.

Finally, I believe that teaching should be intensely personal.  Whatever the course, whatever the reading assignment for the day, my goal as I enter the classroom is to make my students love what they are reading or writing.  Even if it’s just for the fifty minutes of that particular class session, I want them to be so focused on what we’re doing that they forget everything else.  Sometimes this is easy—my first class on September 11, 2001, was “Masterpieces of Western European Literature,” beginning at 8 a.m.  From our first session, everything we read was personally and immediately challenging: The Iliad, Agamemnon, Medea, The Aeneid, the Passion of Perpetua.  We explored these texts for what they had to say about war and peace, about the search for justice, about unspeakable acts committed by the desperate, about duty, honor, country, and about the choice of martyrdom.  Obviously that semester was unique—but even in less emotionally charged contexts, I want to engage my students immediately and viscerally through reading and writing.  I want them to feel Christine de Pizan’s despair at the outset of The City of Ladies, to connect with its pain, to recognize the moment of self-loathing that makes her ask why she was ever born.  The greatest satisfaction I have as a teacher is when a student tells me that our literature class is the one that she most enjoys—the one she looks forward to attending. 

So, as odd as it may seen, Lane’s celebration of the pure joy to be found in Shakespeare’s plays—in all their manifestations—conveys the essentials of my own philosophy of teaching:  the incongruities, paradoxes, surprises, and sheer delights to be found as we engage with one another in the process of reading, writing, and talking about literature.

 . . . . . 


Writing a self-assessment is a frequent task for the academic.  At my home institution,

we write such self-evaluations annually, at the end of every academic year, and then at the

important milestones on our way through the tenure and promotion process--for a third-

year assessment, for tenure, and for promotion to the ranks of associate and full professor. But

even then the process doesn't end.  What follows is a reflection on the process of of self-

assessment and on academic career as it nears its end. . . .



"A Final Review?"

I’ve been fretting about this review for a long time.  Even before my 2009-10 sabbatical, J** laid out a schedule of upcoming reviews during one of our Thursday department meetings.  I was immediately anxious and a little peeved—he had interrupted my golden daydream of the year to come with an unpleasant reminder that I would have to prepare for a review after I returned.  I was also forced to think about this review later that year as I prepared my office for a temporary occupant while I was gone—opening the file drawer of my desk, I realized I would have to clear out all the envelopes full of student evaluations that were stuffed into it and then figure out what to do with them while I was away.  In the end, since I couldn’t find any place to stow them on campus, I had to take them home with me.  I left them in a sack in the garage, just on the other side of my recycling bins.  Every time I tripped over the bag during the year I was on leave, I was reminded of this review.  And last fall, hardly back from sabbatical, as it seemed to me, I once more came face-to-face with the task when R** distributed a beautifully laid out spreadsheet at the start of a department meeting.  There it was, in black and white: my review was scheduled for spring 2011.  Of course that chart also shows I’m on the schedule for a fifth-year review in 2016, when I’m sixty-five, and for another in 2021, when I’m seventy.  We can never be sure of what the future holds, of course, but I suspect that 2011 will be the last time I prepare a box for review and engage, once more, in the process of writing a self-evaluation based on the procedures mandated in Section A.3.a.i–3.b., of the Faculty Handbook, 6th ed., dated February 2003, revised 17 April 2009 and December 11 2009 (pp. 98-99).  

The handbook reminds us in these carefully enumerated sections and subsections that the purpose of such regularly scheduled reviews is “to promote faculty development, ensure teaching effectiveness and the fulfillment of instructional and other faculty responsibilities, and promote fair treatment within the university.”  In its impersonal bureaucratese, the handbook confidently asserts that “[c]omprehensive peer review is the hallmark of an autonomous, self-governing faculty body and is essential to our practice as responsible members of the academy” (p. 96A).  Maybe.  But after more than thirty years and many “comprehensive” reviews, I am less sure of their real value than ever before.  But at least I know that, in the future, when the reminders rain down and the charts are distributed, I am not the one who needs to start thinking about pulling her student evaluations out of a drawer so over-stuffed it’s nearly impossible to open.


I am not the teacher I used to be.  I am still—usually—a fairly good teacher, but I don’t think I’m as effective in the classroom as I was in 2004, at the time of my last review. The last seven years have included a couple of the best courses I’ve taught in the more than thirty years I’ve been at this institution, but also some of the very worst.  Most of you were here in the fall of 2008, when my capstone students presented their research to you and to their friends and families.  That teaching experience is, and will doubtless remain, the highlight of my career, although I don’t have the data to back up such a claim—we were snowed out during finals week, when students were going to fill out the evaluation forms, and the course evaluations were never done.  (Ironically, this is the only class in more than thirty years of teaching for which I do not have evaluations.)  By contrast, in the fall of 2006, JS** regularly discovered me in the hallways of Admin at 5:30 p.m., reduced to tears by my Writing 101 class—a memorably bad course.  Unfortunately, I do have those evaluations.  You can check them for yourself—I don’t have the statistical summary with all the numerical data, and I just don’t have the courage now to calculate the percentages for myself, but the student comments say it all. 

Still, the evidence provided by the evaluations shows a definite decline in the measure of my “effectiveness,” particularly in relationship to the assessments I used to receive.  In many ways I believe I am a better teacher than ever.  I am more practiced in creating a classroom where, as student and teacher, we engage with literature, where knowledge is produced in our reading and discussion rather than transmitted from me to them.  I continue to be invigorated by the openness of courses like English 213, Themes and Authors, which allows opportunity for invention and experiment.  I appreciate our first-year writing seminars, which also allow us to develop new themes and reimagine, refine, and reshape our approaches to teaching writing.  This year, for example, I redesigned my writing seminar, moving away from the topic I’d taught for several years (Women, “Beauty,” and Media Manipulation, aka “the beauty myth” course) to a new one (Barbie, Bratz, and Bella: The Construction of American Girlhood in the Twenty-First Century).  I am also teaching our new special-topics course, English 355, the first time it’s been offered in our newly revised literature curriculum.  I am designing new courses more thoughtfully than ever, and reshaping established courses (like English 351, English Medieval Literature, and English 353, Renaissance Literature) more carefully and creatively.  I devise and sequence assignments more effectively.  In class, I have a firmer grasp of content and a further reach when I need to provide clarification or context.  I am a better reader of my students’ work, more able to guide them as they develop as writers.  But, while my intellectual curiosity, commitment, and hope run high, my confidence and sense of accomplishment seem to be slipping away.

I am less sure than ever what teaching evaluations really measure.  For example, as part of our assessment process, I prepared for the department lengthy evaluations about my two capstone experiences, the first in spring 2005 and the second, mentioned above, in the fall of 2008.  As those documents clearly articulate, the 2005 seminar was a failure—I lay out, in great detail, all the ways that seminar did not work.  Even so, all of the students, “Strongly Agreed” that I was a “very effective” teacher, and the statistical summary shows that 100% of them thought the course was “very good.”  I can take no satisfaction from those assessments or from the students’ glowing comments, since I know the course was a failure on every level. My teaching was not effective, and the course was not good, much less very good.  It was so bad, in fact, that when I taught the seminar again in 2008, it was a total do-over—same theme (Shakespeare’s Dramatic Contemporaries), same syllabus, same textbooks.  I just wanted to redeem myself.

As another example, in one section of Writing 101, taught in 2005, 100% of the students responded “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” to the prompt, “Overall, instructor was very effective.”  But the very next semester, only 41% rated my teaching effectiveness as “Excellent” or “Very Good.”  The rest thought I pretty much sucked.  Same theme, same syllabus, same readings, same assignments, and, let’s face it, the same me.  We were even scheduled in the same room.  In the first of these classes, 91% of the students “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that “Overall, course was very good.”  The next semester, only 38% thought the course was worth their time and money.  Yikes!

And what am I to make of the fall 2010 English 353 evaluations?  Ninety-three percent of the students agreed (strongly or otherwise) that, as an instructor, I was “very effective,” and 87% that the course itself was “very good,” but the instruction was not good, and the course itself was horrible. These students wanted nothing but for me to talk about the readings while they wrote in their notebooks (or slept).  I could hardly get them to open their textbooks.  If I felt as if I’d at least conveyed substantive information successfully, I could take some measure of satisfaction, I guess, but based on the papers and exams from the students who thought their course was so great, there wasn’t much content transferred or retained.  By contrast, my English 351, in the spring of 2007, was a phenomenal teaching/learning experience.  With students like JC, JD, AF, JF, and JP, how could it fail?  I provided the context, gave them a little nudge, and then made sure to stay out of the way.  The classroom was magic—I recognized it, and some of the students did, but many more did not.  Only 61% thought the instruction was effective, an even lower number (58%) that the course itself was good.  (The next iteration of English 351, in spring 2009, was dismal and dull, though the students were dutiful enough—100% of them thought I was “very effective,” 82% that the course was “very good.”)

This fall’s first-year writing seminar evaluations are even more baffling.  Seventy-two percent marked “Strongly Agree” or “Agree” when asked to rate whether I was “very effective,” not a great number, but not awful, while 89% of them thought the course itself was “very good.”  But of this group of fifteen writers, only five chose to fully engage with the process; only five worked seriously on their writing throughout the semester, revising and re-revising their pieces, setting up writing conferences with me and working together on their own with peer review.  The rest accepted their grades, whatever they were (a significant number were Cs and Ds), and moved on, never revising those pieces and never improving on later efforts.  If I couldn’t somehow reach those ten students, I was not very effective, nor was the course “very good.” 

About the value of student evaluations, I feel much as I did in March 2004, when I wrote, “If my numbers are better in a certain course, or for a particular semester, or over the course of a year, am I really a better teacher?  If my numbers plummet, as on occasion they do, does that make me a worse teacher than I have been?  Sometimes I can nearly kill myself in a class, and no matter what I do, the class goes nowhere.  At other times, everything clicks and everything works, almost effortlessly.  What these file folders full of forms reveal most obviously to me is that the pitiful evaluation process we invest with so much significance can in no way assess the alchemy of the classroom—too often the numbers they produce are fool’s gold.”

In the end, my review of myself is mixed.  I can’t seem to accept students’ praise as justified or accurate, but I am haunted by their criticisms.  I am a dream teacher for some, a nightmare come true for others.  I have endless patience for students who are struggling and need constant support and reassurance and who can be real pains in the ass, but no tolerance at all for students who are lazy, who miss class, who don’t turn their work in, and who waste my time, not to mention their own.  I wish I were more understanding and could reach them, but, increasingly, I do not try. 


I have always loved the broad way this institution defined scholarship, and when I first arrived on campus, I felt no pressure at all to “produce.”  I benefited enormously from that freedom.  I fear that, increasingly, scholarship is being more narrowly defined as publication and that younger colleagues are more and more pressured to crank stuff out just to run up the page count.  If so, I count that as a real loss to the institution.

Since my 2004 review, I’ve written for academic audiences, for the university community, and for the general public.  I’ve translated a sixteenth-century text by a Frenchwoman into English for the first time (Anne of France: Lessons for My Daughter, 2004), closely analyzed Giuseppe Passi’s 1599 I donneschi diffetti, a four-hundred page tome enumerating the “defects of women” (in Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe, 2008 ), and compared a seventeenth-century nun’s denunciation of fathers, fatherhood, and patriarchy to Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto (in Reading Women’s Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own, due out in April).  I had a brief piece, “Finding What Was There,” in the Humanities Division’s Prism (2008), and a longer pedagogical piece on teaching and translation in the Department of Languages and Literatures’ Shadows and Echoes (Spring 2010), “Chasing Sappho: Teaching, Translation, and ‘the Text.’”  I’ve written a personal narrative (“Sometimes I blame piecrust for my failed marriage.  I know I shouldn’t, of course—bad pastry wasn’t the reason everything went so wrong.  And yet, even now, I like to think it was involved somehow”) included in Storied Dishes, an anthology of pieces about family and food, and a series of op-ed pieces that ran periodically in the News Tribune from 2004 to 2006.

I loved my sabbatical writing project.  Its breadth was a challenge for me—I was comfortable enough writing about the fifteenth-century Christine de Pizan, the sixteenth-century Moderata Fonte, and even the seventeenth-century Margaret Cavendish.  But Virginia Woolf?  Doris Lessing? Marjane Satrapi and her graphic memoir, Embroideries?  My colleagues were invaluable—J** for encouraging me to teach English 213 with the topic “Reading Women’s Worlds,” L** for her suggestions about Slavenka DrakuliÄ‹’s S. A Novel about the Balkans, A** for listening patiently to me when I was in the throes of my obsession with Sarah Scott’s 1750 novel, Millenium Hall, and T** for convincing me, when I was deep in the Slough of Despond, that I could actually do this—I have repaid him for his encouragement by subjecting him to an endless barrage of commentary about Amber Reeves’s 1915 novel, A Lady and Her Husband, sending him every snarky comment Virginia Woolf ever made about Reeves.  My point here is that, for me, the open flow of ideas between us, as friends and colleagues, has made my work possible.  The University’s broad definition of scholarship has also made this work possible: rather than standard literary criticism, Reading Women’s Worlds is a mix of personal narrative, close reading, feminist approaches to literature, revisionist literary history, and popular culture.  And this project is possible only because of the students I’ve taught; I’ve saved student work over the years, and I drew from papers I had tucked away some of the most challenging, insightful, revelatory comments in this book.  Of the dozens of students I quote, I actually mention two of our recent majors by name—Jake Paikai, on Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, and Chrissy McDaniels, on Arcangela Tarabotti’s Paternal Tyranny.  Their responses represent the two poles in Reading Women’s Worlds: Jake’s observations about Cavendish are academic and theoretically framed, Chrissy’s are personally revealing and deeply felt.


In 2004, I was still reeling from the University’s blatant violation of its non-discrimination policy and its open embrace of militarism.  I am not going to revisit that scene again, which I discussed at length in my 2004 review—that way lies madness.  But I will note that my involvement with the University as an institution ended with the ROTC decision in 2001.  Before that date, I played an active part on campus in a variety of ways: in University governance (chair of EPC, chair of Faculty Affairs, service on standing University committees and on ad hoc committees with special mandates, like revising transfer credit procedures or revising grievance policies and procedures); in University planning and curricular revision (institutional planning committees, ad hoc committees on revising the core, on redesigning the Interim program, on developing what was then called the “first-year experience” program, on a previous iteration of an Honors Program—remember that one, C**?!); in coordinating campus programs (the Presidential Scholars lecture series, the Wednesday noon University Scholars program, the Feminist Scholarship series); . . . well, you get the picture.  I applied for, and received, thousands of dollars’ worth of Regency Advancement awards, Teaching and Learning grants, Faculty Growth awards, Innovative Teaching grants.  In 1996-97, the University recognized my contributions to the University when I received the Faculty Excellence Award, then given annually to one recipient, for outstanding achievements in teaching, scholarship, and service. 

From all those years of dedicated service, I have a sense of lasting accomplishment from only one assignment: in 1999-2000, when D** was faculty president, he asked me to chair a committee charged with studying the issue of domestic partner benefits.  It was a tricky assignment, and bringing a recommendation to the floor of the faculty and gaining faculty approval to extend benefits to domestic partners was clearly not something I accomplished by myself.  But I do think that my role in the process—from holding the committee together and chairing campus-wide forums to researching and writing the committee’s report and gaining faculty approval—was key, in part helped by the role I had played on campus in the preceding twenty years and in part the result of my many personal relationships with colleagues from across the campus community.  This service resulted in a tangible good of which I am extremely proud.

But that was then.  My “service” now, such as it is, is much quieter.  I am happy to be of use when and where possible.  I did junior reviews for J** for several semesters when he was chair.  I “mentored” S** through difficult semesters at the end of her career, meeting with her weekly, working with her to redesign courses, syllabi, and assignments, and helping her, to the extent that I could, meet her departmental obligations.  When M** asked for my help as she prepared for a colloquium presentation (she was worried about her English!), I was happy to listen to her practice and to offer my assistance—though the only thing she really needed was a bit more confidence.  For five years I reserved rooms, arranged catering, and managed the schedule for the department’s capstone presentations.  I am happy to do a workshop, take part in a search committee, be a member of a sub-committee working on the department’s revision of its literature curriculum.  Along with T**, I have, since 2005, produced the Division’s capstone flyer every semester.  I am most happy working with and for students—right now I’m serving as an Achiever Scholar Mentor for a first-year student and as a project mentor for senior working on her Comm Arts capstone.  I am willing to help students long gone from the institution apply to graduate school, reading their statements and sample papers in addition to writing recommendations for them (most recently for AL, SM, and NT).  And between 2005, when the department established its new format for capstone presentations, and the spring of 2009, when I went on sabbatical, I attended virtually every literature capstone presentation.  (That one deserves special commendation—or, at least, an extra slice of carrot cake.)

When I look back at all the service I used to contribute to the institution, all while I was trying to keep a single-parent household running, and when I tally JS** and RB**’s service, as described in their tenure and promotion files (not to mention J**’s promotion file), I can’t tell whether I am more relieved or more ashamed. 

In Sum

In 2004, when I closed my self-evaluation, I cheerily predicted that it was the last one I would have to write.  Well, never say never.  And so I am looking at the Faculty Handbook’s mandate that I specify “priorities” for the coming year and that, “where applicable,” I “describe” my plans “for “self-improvement.” 

My priorities and plans are, as they have been throughout my career, to teach my courses as well as I can and to be a useful and cooperative member of the department.  And let’s hope that I’m not writing another one of these in 2021!