May 24, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 17

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    Danielle Allen, Associate Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Danielle Allen
    “I don’t usually think of myself as teaching knowledge,” said Danielle Allen, the Humanities Division’s recipient of the 2001 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. “I like to think of myself as teaching a way to ask questions and advance conversations.

    “The idea of friendship in conversation matters to me, so I like to make it explicit that we’re having the conversation as friends,” she continued. “To me, it doesn’t matter where we come out at the end of the day, as long as we’ve learned to talk with the honesty and directness of friends and peers.”

    Since joining the Classics department in 1997, Allen, Associate Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures, has taught courses in introductory and advanced Greek, political theory and core sequences in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition to pursuing her own research, she also coordinates an ongoing series in contemporary poetry, “Poem Present.”

    Her fascination with the classics began as an undergraduate at Princeton, where she studied with Josiah Ober. “He was my first classics professor and definitely ranks as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” she recalled. “There’s no question––I’m in the field because of his teaching.”

    She said she admired Ober’s animation and sense of humor. “I think I look to him as a model of a certain kind of enthusiasm,” she said of his influence. “I can’t jump all over the room as he did, but I’ve realized how important his enthusiasm was to mine, so I try to convey that.”

    While other teachers have inspired Allen, her greatest pedagogical lessons came from a particular group of students on Chicago’s West Side. In addition to teaching in the College this year, Allen taught students in the Illinois Humanities Council’s Odyssey Project, a one-year course in the humanities for people between the ages of 18 and 35 who live at or below a poverty income.

    Allen described them as the frankest group of students she has ever taught. “They gave me back a certain directness that I had lost,” she said. “They would tell me if they thought something was just hogwash, or if they were completely dissatisfied by an answer––or even by a question.”

    She said she tried to bring the straightforward approach to inquiry she learned from her students on the West Side to her classes at the University. “I really felt like it worked, and it really did feel like a different thing,” she said.

    “One of the College classes I enjoyed teaching most this year was a core class––the Classics of Social and Political Thought. I was frank and direct with them, and through that, I think we developed an open-spirited approach to the material and to each other.”

    Her students in the course were immediately receptive. “On the first day of class, a student asked me, ëfirst of all, why should we be taking the Social Sciences core?’ and then, ëwhat do you think society is, anyway?’ The mere fact that I walked out of that class alive counts as a victory,” she added, smiling.