I was incredibly surprised when I heard! While I’ve often received positive feedback from students in my classes, I never imagined they would nominate me for this award, especially as my official teaching duties will soon be over. Actually that makes it all the more satisfying – the “message” is evidently getting through.
I think the most important thing is that the teacher has the feu sacré, that we as academics are passionate about the treasures we have to impart so that sparks from our fire ignite the interest and intellectual curiosity of our students. For me, that’s easy – the treasures of the ancient world, my subject, are today more relevant than ever.
Humboldt’s ideal of a community of teachers and learners continues to guide me, although over time I have also come to believe more and more in the concept of collective intelligence. Plato speaks of the importance of “intensively being together and living together around the thing”. In seminars particularly, we can learn from each other; the shared debate and critical questioning of our own and others’ opinions (or prejudices) can suddenly lead to flashes of insight and comprehension.
I think the students’ enthusiasm grows partly out of this sense of community. It also comes from the exhilarating experience of seeing how the enormous efforts they put into philologically exploring these ancient texts can lead to a huge widening of their intellectual horizons. Understanding the texts, without doubt a dauntingly difficult proposition, can give us insights into our own deepest natures and an orientation point with regard to the upheaval and crises of the present.
The longer I study it, the more fascinated I am with how currently relevant it is, for example the political philosophy of antiquity and more generally the reflections on the conditio humana found in even the oldest Greek literature. Harnessing this critical reflective potential of antiquity to look at the problems of today is also one of the main goals of the Zurich Center for the Study of the Ancient World (ZAZH – in operation since 2019), which has been particularly close to my heart over the last years. In addition, Greek scholars have a veritable embarras de richesses, and can choose from a multitude of areas in which to specialize.
The breadth of topics ranges from the well-known and lesser known classics of all literary genres. The Greek Old and New Testament and pagan or early-Christian texts which reveal a kind of "clash of civilizations" in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ are also part of Greek studies. One person is only able to study a tiny fraction of this plethora of options, and every day you stumble across inspiring words of wisdom in the inexhaustible treasure trove of the ancient Greeks.
The best thing about teaching is without a doubt the lively interaction with highly intelligent young people. We have relatively few students in Greek philology, but those that choose it do so because of their passion rather than the employability prospects. It’s not exactly the easiest of subjects either, and most students are therefore extraordinarily motivated and engaged. It’s a genuine pleasure to accompany them on this intellectual voyage of discovery. I find the current generation of students to be very hard-working and have great intellectual curiosity. Interest among students in societal and political issues has also grown markedly in recent years.
In Zurich we were very fortunate to have the world-class Greek scholar Walter Burkert on the teaching staff. Although it was initially challenging to follow his classes, he immediately captivated all his students with the stupendous depth and breadth of his knowledge and the breathtaking range of his interdisciplinary associations. Later in Munich, the great historian of philosophy Werner Beierwaltes became a role model for me in terms of how he led the advanced seminars. The liberal culture of discussion, his patience and openness for critical objections from the students, together with his human warmth, were exemplary and to my mind corresponded to the Platonic ideal of “being together around the thing”, with as little hierarchy as possible.
The question is reminiscent of the discussion about the relationship between nature and nurture, which goes back to the Greek sophistic movement. And as there, I think both are in fact equally necessary. On the one hand, the teacher needs to have an innate ability to communicate and also a natural affinity with the subject matter. On the other hand, not only the transformation of intellectually complex issues into didactically convincing learning units requires hard work. Rather, endurance is the basic prerequisite for acquiring professional competence, which unquestionably ranks first when it comes to university teaching: Without exceptional commitment and utmost concentration one will never become an expert in any field of knowledge, integrated into the international scientific community. In this respect, the academic path is certainly also characterised by sacrifices. However, these are more than counterbalanced by the feeling of happiness that intellectual insight – according to Plato and Aristotle, human being’s highest pleasure of all – triggers. Beside that, it is a unique opportunity when you can turn your hobby into a profession, so to speak.
Experiences during the pandemic have, in my opinion, shown us both the opportunities and the limits of digital teaching and learning. Thanks to the quick reaction of the university administration, we were able to continue delivering classes virtually even during the lockdown – for me, despite the extra work involved and the increasing “Zoom fatigue” we all felt, it was a great privilege that we could carry on teaching in this way. And of course, complementing live classes with podcasts, for example, gives students much more flexibility in planning their studies, that’s clear.
On the other hand, only the less interactive teaching formats such as lectures are suitable as video podcasts, and even then students lose out on an important element of university life. Lack of direct contact with peers, as we saw, led to increased loneliness and mental health problems for some students. The superiority of – in Plato’s terms – “animate speech” (empsychos logos) in physical encounters between human beings is also clearly evident in seminars, which depend on spontaneous interactions and group learning. That doesn’t mean well-conceived hybrid formats have no place, but they’re probably most suitable for introductory and practical courses in which imparting basic knowledge is more important than exploring and discovering new territory.
It seems to me that we need to strike the right balance between school-like regimentation and curricular autonomy for students. With student numbers growing steadily as professor numbers stagnate, that is no small challenge, and in recent years the pendulum has, perhaps unsurprisingly, swung in the direction of more structure. But if the core purpose of a university is to provide a space for critical reflection and to make students intellectually and emotionally more perceptive and curious thanks to consistent questioning of alleged certainties, then the time has surely come to turn the rudder firmly in the other direction and to create more space for individual study combinations and elements of general studies once again.