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PeopleHop: Celebrating The Twentieth Anniversary of Nancy Workman Teaching LitHum

While sipping on apple cider in Professor Nancy Workman’s office, Bwogger Donna Qi engaged in a symposium with her professor on all things LitHum!

Bwog: The reason why we’re drinking apple cider right now is because we held a symposium in class to discuss Symposium! What is your favorite classroom tradition?

Workman: I started having people talk to their neighbors at the beginning of class ten years ago because I taught early in the morning and it was a chance for people to filter in and wake up. My favorite feature that comes out of that is watching people become friends in class. I ran into one of my students from seven years ago on the subway and he said “There’s a group of four of us from your class that are still really tight,” and he sent me pictures. So my favorite classroom tradition is watching new Columbia students making connections to each other and laughing and having fun together while talking about Greek tragedy or Achilles.

Bwog: You’ve mentioned that you reread all the books with your students. Why do you do that?

Workman: I think that if I stopped doing that then I don’t have a right to get up in front of you in the classroom and talk about these books. Sometimes people say “The tiny details in Homer couldn’t possibly have registered with his audience who was just hearing it fly past them.” Who did it register with? The people who recited them hundreds of times. For me, it’s a connection to the people whose life’s work was to present Homer (and make modifications to it), and if they knew those texts so inside out in that way, then I feel justified in drawing attention to small details. It’s also very rewarding to notice something that flew past me the last nineteen times.

Bwog: What has been your favorite text throughout the years?

Workman: The only book I have any level of expertise in is Crime and Punishment because my degree is in Russian. In fact, it was my gateway drug to Russian Literature. I read it when I was twelve because I liked detective stories and I just never looked back. Symposium, The Bacchae, Dante’s Divine Comedy are also texts I really love, but I find LitHum really difficult to teach without The Bacchae. I always put it on the syllabus because it’s fun and horrifying and unexpected.

Bwog: The books we read have a lot of iconic characters within them. Who do you most resonate with?

Workman: My facetious answer would be Mary Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, who’s the sister that’s just a nerd. Nobody wants to listen to her. She’s kind of always wanting to play the piano for people but nobody’s at all interested in what she’s playing. Mary’s the one who’s always solemnly analyzing things, while the more likable sisters are just living their lives. On the other hand, a character I’m nothing like but speaks to me is Alcibiades in Symposium. His sheer level of charisma is corrupting and he just wants to be applauded all the time. He puts Socrates on trial in a very sophisticated way and comes really close to hijacking the whole dialogue. I love that Plato wasn’t afraid to let him come in and make his very compelling and attractive speech about being in love with an individual.

Bwog: The Core is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year and you’re celebrating your twentieth year teaching it. Literature Humanities, specifically, will probably always be controversial. What do you think about the new additions to the syllabus that have been meant to increase the diversity of what we read? 

Workman: I think that Father Comes Home from the Wars is incredible and perfect and works beautifully on the syllabus. It is both really drawing from Ancient Greek literature and it’s also its own animal, using the techniques of Ancient Greek literature as a tool, not as a way of venerating some classical heritage. Also, every time we add a new text to the syllabus, everything around that text looks a little bit different. I love the way adding Father Comes Home from the Wars makes the slavery in other texts stand out in a different way. If I’m hired next year, it will definitely impact the way I teach characters like Eurycleia and Eumaeus. I think it’s great that we don’t have to tell students “Oh, you want to read women? You want to read people of color? Just wait until the Spring! Just be patient.” Toni Morrison is also an amazing example of someone who draws from the so-called canon when it suits her purposes and diverges from it with a lot of intention. She devoted her career as an editor to expanding the literary market for women of color. She’s somebody who is both connected to the texts that we read earlier and really invested in expanding who we think is important and significant, so I’m thrilled to have Song of Solomon as the last text in the syllabus.

Bwog: If you could add a text to the syllabus, what would it be and why?

Workman: This is a bit of a cop-out because it’s been on and off the syllabus, but I would add Boccacio’s The Decameron. It’s hilarious and full of raucous sex scenes and a description of the black plague in Florence. It is full of both humor and a deeper philosophical meaning that is a lot of fun to get at. I also think comedy is really understudied in the canon and that it’s edged out in the syllabus by all the epics.

Bwog: What is your favorite text to teach?

Workman: I really love teaching The Bacchae because most people have never seen anything like it. My least favorite thing to teach is Confessions by Saint Augustine.

Bwog: We can agree that having Lit Hum in a Pupin classroom is hardly the most inspiring place. In an ideal world, where would we be discussing Lit Hum texts? 

Workman: In my ideal world, there would be a secret backroom in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and that’s where we would have the class.

Bwog: What’s your advice to the average Lit Hum student? How do they get the most out of this course?

Workman: Do the reading! The reading is the point. It’s ironic to me that students sometimes will do anything to avoid the reading when doing the reading is dessert! That’s the good part. Do the readings and talk about it with your friends and make friends with your LitHum classmates by discussing what you’re doing in class.

Bwog: Columbia students like complaining about the Core and what the relevance of reading these thousand-year-old texts is. Why do you think the class is worthwhile for the vast majority of Columbia undergraduate students to go through?

Workman: I think it is hugely enriching to encounter thinkers whose assumptions about the world are incredibly different from ours and to start to realize that our own time is like other times. Like them in the sense that someday people will look at our time and be baffled by it and say “Why am I reading 21st-century literature? It’s not relevant to my experience.” As I’ve often said in LitHum, if you were in a GS section of LitHum with veterans, The Iliad would not be irrelevant. But I would also say that if you’re a mortal, texts that wrestle with questions like mortality and the worth of a human life, texts that wrestle with issues of identity, how can they not be relevant? Making an effort to see the relevance in a text that feels unfamiliar is part of intellectual growth. In my personal opinion, the effort involved is worthwhile.

Also, let me bring up The Iliad again because people take against it in particular. If only our society were as open to seeing people we think of as our enemies with as much humanity as The Iliad depicts the Trojans, we’d be living in a paradise compared to now, right? If only our society thought about other cultures with as much openness as Herodotus does, we’d be living in a paradise. But it takes some effort to see that about those texts. There’s so much to reward your attention in every single one of these texts, and it makes me sad to see people dismiss them.

Bwog: What do you want to impress upon your students after they take your class?

Workman: What I want is that ten years down the line, students think “I should reread Book X,” either because they really loved it or because they didn’t get it and suddenly it occurs to them that “Hey, there’s something in that. I think I’d want to look at it again.” That’s what I want. That at least some students will come back to these texts later on, read them again, and see that they’re a completely different book ten years down the line. That they see that these texts grow together with them. Not that they remember what I said in class but that they have their own relationship with at least one text that really means something to them.

Image via National Geographic

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