Teaching the Humanities Is My Livelihood
From as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer. Only in the second semester of my senior year as an undergraduate did my resolve begin to waiver.
I had applied to law schools and to graduate schools in the classics, which was my major. I was fortunate: I got into almost all of the schools (law and graduate) to which I applied.
But I was also, much to my surprise, the recipient of a number of scholarships for those intending to do graduate work in the humanities. Among these honors were a Fulbright Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and a Danforth Fellowship.
I took this as a sort of “sign” as to which path I should take. And I’ve never looked back or engaged in “what-if” hypothesizing.
When I first arrived at Harvard University for graduate school, in August 1970, I planned to continue studying the classics. But then I discovered—and transferred to—the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where I could combine my enthusiasm for ancient languages (Semitic and classical) with my growing interest in the academic study of religion.
This combination of languages and religion has been the focal point of my teaching, research, and publications ever since. Within the academic world, I feel myself most alive when a group of students and I can investigate a text—with a view toward discerning the original intentions of its authors, discovering the many ways later audiences interpreted it, and deciding how we might apply this text to our lives today. Is there anything better?
I have spent my entire adult life in higher education—first at Clemson, now at Creighton, with many stops along the way (among them, Santa Barbara, Oxford, New York City, Bucharest, and Jerusalem). I would not have had it any other way.
I know that many people imagine that professors occupy a lofty place in the ivory towers of academe, far from the “real world.” I’m here to say that there is, at least so far as I see it, nothing “realer” than life at a major American university or college.
It is true that most students fit into a rather specific and narrow demographic niche, from age 18 to 22. But each student has a unique past, a self-defined present, and a personal vision for her/his future. As a professor, I get to share in all of this and, when possible, to have a role in helping to shape these students’ aspirations, expectations, and values.
This sounds like a lofty goal, and it is. This also sounds as if it involves interaction outside of the formal setting of the classroom. And it does. Creighton University speaks of this as cura personalis; that is, concern for the whole person. And that’s the business I think that I, as a professor, am in.
When I first started teaching in the mid-70s, I remember hearing a pedagogical “expert” opine that the professor should not stand between the students and the blackboard. I understood this to mean that I should teach the facts, just the facts, without introducing my own judgments or experiences into the classroom.
I tried that for a couple of years. In one respect, it worked: after a semester, the students didn’t know a thing about me. But it didn’t seem right, and in retrospect it wasn’t.
So, I’ve thrown myself, my whole self, into teaching. Almost all of my classes involve religion—not as indoctrination, but as an important, perhaps crucial factor in human existence. My students have learned that there is no single or simple answer to many of life’s most significant questions: How did we get here? What’s our purpose in being here? Where do we go after we leave the here-and-now? Through exposure to the views of many thinkers, and of each other, my students learn that many options are available—and I hope they select one, or perhaps concoct their own, as a result.
At one time, I thought that there was only one correct way to teach. Now I know that isn’t true. Each professor must arrive at an approach and a method that is true to who he/she is and to the subject being taught. I have adopted what might be termed an informal, sometimes non-linear approach to teaching, based on my own experience that I learn best in a comfortable and supportive environment.
When I taught at Oxford University and at the University of Bucharest, my approach differed considerably from what the students there were used to. I’d like to think that they got used to the relatively relaxed environment I established and perhaps even thrived in it. It wasn’t—and isn’t—for everyone, but, as I’ve learned, students are almost infinitely adaptable. As I hope is also true of us faculty.
Teaching in the humanities has been a source of enormous enjoyment for me; it has also given me a purpose. I admit it: I’m passionate about what I do, and I intend to keep on doing it for as long as I can.
Leonard Greenspoon was born in Richmond, VA. He received his BA and MA , both in classical studies, from the University of Richmond. He earned his PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Greenspoon was on the faculty at Clemson University for twenty years before coming in 1996 to Creighton University, where he holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization and is also Professor of Classical & Near Eastern Studies and of Theology. Greenspoon has edited or authored two dozen volumes and two hundred journal articles or book chapters.
His current research specialties are Bible translations and religion (especially the Bible) in popular culture. He also writes and speaks about Jews and Judaism.