University of Vermont

The Honors College

Prof. Mark Usher

Mark Usher

To begin, would you say a little bit about your academic background and research interests?

I'm a UVM alumnus (BA, 1992, in Greek and Latin). I took three years off after high school, before coming to UVM, so was a slightly older, non-traditional student of sorts, but not by much. In those intervening years I worked as a carpenter's apprentice in Germany. I received superb training in Classics here at UVM and went on directly to earn my PhD at the University of Chicago, which I did in 1997.

I consider myself a generalist---in the best sense---and am interested in all genres of Greek and Latin literature, though I do tend more toward poetry than prose, and to philosophy more than history. I am also deeply interested in the reception of the Classics in modern literature and art. In addition to publishing academic books and articles in my field (on Homer, Euripides, Plato, Seneca, and other authors), I have collaborated on an opera (I wrote the libretto in Latin, based on the poetry of Vergil) and written children's books. So, I'm all over the place.

What else do you teach? Have you taught in the Honors College before?

I teach Greek and Latin language at all levels, and courses in classical civilization and myth. One of my favorite courses is Comparative Epic, in which we read some of the world's great epics from various cultural areas---the Iliad and Odyssey, of course, but also the Finnish Kalevalathe, West African Sundiata epic, Gilgamesh, the Norse Edda, and portions of the sprawlingMahabharata. I've taught that course as a sophomore seminar in the Honors College. I've also taught an HCOL sophomore seminar on Classical Texts and Transformations (about the reworking of various Classical texts in the modern period). That we read Aristophanes in conjunction with episodes of South Park will perhaps give you an idea of what goes on in that course. It's a lot of fun to teach, and it never ceases to amaze students that so much of what is considered "modern" or "new" or "original" derives in some way from the Classics. Plus ca change . . .

What appealed to you about the prospect of teaching first-year seminar in the Honors College?

In my experience, HCOL students are highly motivated and work hard. For a teacher, a hard-working, conscientious student is its own reward. Also, I liked the idea of being a co-learner along with the students. And that is not just Socratic posturing: all the material on this syllabus is new to me (I had not read any of it before), so the excitement of discovery is as fresh for me as it is for my students. Naturally, like any student, I dislike some of what I've read, or disagree with it, and, for me, that energizes the class. There's nothing better than having a good argument with a text.

You've said that you've come across some remarkable students? What are the characteristics of some of your most memorable students?

The best students are passionate about self-improvement and intellectual growth. They care deeply about the quality of their ideas and the quality of their writing. They're teachable, meaning that they not only accept, but seek out, constructive criticism. And they don't make the same mistake twice. (I'm thinking here of student writing.) Successful students take charge of their intellectual lives. They are intense, but also humble. They are eager to interact with their professors as junior peers. I find my best students are not afraid to strike up conversations with me, and ask me questions about my work, my opinions, pursuits, etc. Too many students, I think, have been habituated in high school to the herd mentality and to observe a rigid dividing line between teacher and student, where the student is primarily a passive recipient of facts or knowledge. The truth is, both student and teacher are part of an intellectual continuum. As soon a student realizes that he or she is on that continuum---and has a rightful place on it---sparks start to fly.

Honors College students come from all seven undergraduate colleges and schools: they have varied backgrounds. What educational paths do you see your seminar students taking after they complete your course? What impact might your course have on their trajectories? And how does the diversity of viewpoints affect your seminar?

Out of a class of twenty, there are only one or two students from my College (Arts and Sciences), and only one who is majoring in the humanities (my own general area). This has been a thrill for me, as I get to see more than I ordinarily do the strengths (and weaknesses) of different casts of mind. The questions posed by biology, engineering, or business majors, for example, are often quite different from those posed by an English major. That said, I believe strongly that there is a general standard of rigor in thought and in written and oral expression---a sine qua non, if you will---that all students, no matter what their specific fields of endeavor, must reach. I think the first-year seminar gets them to that (high) level of basic competence.

My ulterior hope is that this course will also foster a sense of intellectualism in our students. Richard Hofstadter, one of the authors we're reading in this seminar, makes a distinction between intelligence and intellect, as follows: "There is something about intellect, as opposed to professionally trained intelligence, which does not adhere to whole vocations but only to persons." We all know HCOL students are intelligent; I want it to dawn them that they are, or can be---and that it's all right to be---intellectuals. To read widely and engage with ideas throughout your life makes you more interesting to yourself and to others. It is also a buffer against the inevitable psychological and emotional pressures of being alive in the modern world. People who read widely and think critically about things typically don't wake up one fine day in mid-life and have a crisis about the meaning of life. They've been thinking about that sort of thing all along, and have been making career and personal choices based on that kind of reflection. That's a good habit of mind to bring to any profession.

What are some of your current projects and future plans?

In August, I'll be going to Malawi (Africa) to conduct research on a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini that was shot in that area in 1969 ("Notes for an African Oresteia"). While there, I'll be offering a seminar on the Oresteia of Aeschylus for students and faculty in the Classics department at Chancellor College (part of the University of Malawi). Next spring, I'll be at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC finishing a project on pseudo-Seneca's play, Octavia. I've also just finished a reworking of Apuleius' comic novel, The Golden Ass, "for young readers of all ages." That book should be coming out this fall, from David R. Godine, with illustrations by T. Motley.

Last modified March 31 2010 09:18 AM