May 26, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 19

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    Amoco Award: Herman Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities

    Herman Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities, began teaching at Chicago in 1954 -- seven years after graduating from the College and seven years before receiving his Ph.D. from the University.

    "A few things have changed since then," Sinaiko notes, "but the Common Core is still at the heart of this institution."

    The Amoco Award is the second teaching prize for Sinaiko -- he received the Quantrell Award in 1963 -- and he believes the recognition is a reflection of his love for teaching Core courses.

    "I've taught Greek Thought & Literature for more than 15 years, and I've taught others as well, including Form, Problem, Event and Human Being & Citizen," he said. "My philosophy about teaching Core courses has remained the same -- a Core course is not just an introduction to a body of material, but rather learning the best way to look at literature. And there is a difference."

    Sinaiko calls his approach "sort of old-fashioned," but believes it is the best approach to help students later understand the most modern theoretical approaches to interpreting literature.

    "It is essential that students learn that there are different modes of literature and literary interpretation," he said. "Doing a wide range of reading is important, but there are definite skills and tools that students need to learn to allow them to better interpret whatever it is that they are reading.

    "I'm not committed to a specific view of literary interpretation," he continued, "but I am interested in what might be called subtheoretical skills -- what is needed to do a good reading, whatever theory you decide to finally investigate and use."

    Sinaiko said that while this may seem to cut against the grain of much current theoretical work, it actually aids the theoretical approaches of younger students. "There is a current attitude that faculty must bring a particular attitude to teaching -- whether it be feminism, postmodernism or deconstruction," he said. "I have no quarrel with those interpretations as such. But in the Core, I want students to develop such skills as tact, subtlety and sophistication, so that if a student chooses to be a Marxist at least she or he will be a smart Marxist."

    Sinaiko's freewheeling approach to his classes is part of his method. "In my classes, students feel free to take positions, but they are pressured to articulate them sharply and to make a good case for their positions," Sinaiko said. "You get the experience of reading, then the modalities -- or you can make up your own. You can decide."

    The time required to develop these interpretive and decision-making skills is one of the reasons Sinaiko insists on teaching yearlong sequences -- something not often done in Core courses.

    "I'm deeply devoted to fundamental study of remarkable individuals across a wide range of history. And to do that well you've got to have the time to spend on works as well as the time to work with students. Sometimes issues raised in fall quarter don't get resolved until spring quarter -- and that's a great process to experience," he said.

    Sinaiko is also committed to students' experiences outside of the classroom, particularly in his position as Humanities Collegiate Division senior adviser and as faculty director of University Theater.

    "I'm real interested in activities that are not organized around courses, but in which students use their intellectual skills and training. Students often see courses as jobs. But if education is really to mean something, students must be passionately engaged in their work. This can often happen outside of class, in extracurriculars, and I think that this is a very good thing, and it definitely improves the work that is done inside the classroom," he said.

    While his efforts in and out of the classroom have had an influence on many students, Sinaiko also said his students have deeply influenced him.

    "I'm working on a collection of essays on books like Plato's 'Republic,' and the essays have almost all grown out of teaching these texts, and out of the experience of teaching them," he said. "I'm teaching a course on Hannah Arendt next year, and I know that the place I'll find a lot of ideas for the essay I'll write is in the Core classes I teach. Class is where I think through ideas -- it's in the teaching that something always happens."

    -- Jeff Makos