Sept. 26, 1996

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    Profile: Herman Sinaiko

    Herman Sinaiko's faculty appointment in the College fits him as comfortably as his trademark turtlenecks and old Army jacket -- and appropriately so. Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities Division and the College, began teaching at Chicago in 1954, seven years after graduating from the College and seven years before receiving his Ph.D. from the University.

    His commitment to the College is legendary: He has taught Greek Thought & Literature as a Common Core course for the last 15 years, he serves as Humanities Collegiate Division senior adviser, and he is the faculty director of University Theater. He also is an advocate for the expansion of resources on campus for student filmmakers.

    In 1994 he won the Amoco Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching, which recognizes special and distinctive achievement in the College over an extended period. The Amoco Award was the second major University teaching prize for Sinaiko -- in 1963 he received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. How have you reconciled your love of teaching in the College with the professional need to do research?

    I feel I have done my research in the process of teaching. The ideas and issues on which I focus when explicating a text have always been best explored during the interchanges and pressures of a teaching situation. Students here in the College are serious about what they do. They all have a great sense of humor, but they ask the best questions, the most probing questions, and often ask just the right question that I wouldn't have thought of myself. My work with students was the basis for my essay collection Reclaiming the Canon, which Yale Press will publish next year. What is the most pressure that you have ever felt in a class?

    I was teaching Aristotle's Poetics, and I was arguing that it was a response to Plato's view of artists in his Republic. It was a fairly detailed argument, and one of the students in the class -- who was a real expert in Aristotle -- simply said, "Are you serious, Mr. Sinaiko?" It was such a nonspecific question that it forced me to re-enunciate the whole argument for him. Chicago students are great at asking the finely detailed questions about texts, but this was the kind of simple, massive question that really breaks through, that forces you to re-evaluate what you have just said in a class. I thought it was a great, great moment. Were you serious, Mr. Sinaiko?

    Absolutely. But you know that I had to nail that argument the second time around. Any other memorable moments?

    I was teaching the Phaedrus, which concerns the relationship between a lover and a beloved. And, of course, both the lover and the beloved are males, so I told the class that if it helped them understand the work, they could consider it a conversation between a man and a woman. A student raised his hand and said, "I'm gay and I think that's insulting." He felt that I was dismissing the whole issue of gender identity. Ultimately both of us, and the class, decided that gender didn't matter in this case -- that it was wrong to obscure the homosexuality of the people in the text, but that it could still be seen as a universal statement about love. And from that moment on, we always used "he and he," not "he and she." It's in the text. Why avoid it? Again, it was a great moment.

    What student activity or group would you join if you were a College student today?

    I loved intramural sports when I was in the College and I know that I would play baseball and basketball. But I definitely would be involved in the volunteer opportunities that exist now, like teaching and outreach programs. Those things didn't exist when I was a student, and I always wanted to do them. In fact, I argued then -- and I'd argue now -- that volunteerism should be a noncredit requirement in the College, just like physical education. Fortunately, there are so many College students currently doing volunteer work that it almost is like fulfilling a noncredit requirement. What is the best classroom in which you have taught on campus?

    In the old Cobb Hall, before it was first renovated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Cobb used to be only four stories, with all wooden floors and some great, old furnished rooms with huge oval tables for discussion. I mean, you sat down at that big, old table and you knew you were in a seminar. Cobb now has movable tables in a square, so people still face each other in class -- that's really important. But those ovals were the real thing! I miss those tables. What is your favorite place to get coffee on campus?

    Swift Hall. Before it opened, you couldn't get good, cheap coffee anywhere. Maybe in the hospital, but while it was cheap, it wasn't good. Last question -- Plato or Aristotle, who would you rather be?

    (After a big laugh) Plato, no question. In Florence, in the bell tower of the cathedral, there are seven wonderful images made in the Middle Ages by Luca della Robbia. One of them shows an old, bearded Plato face-to-face in argument with a beardless young Aristotle. I mean, they are really going at it, they are so close that their feet are touching. Aristotle is pointing at a book, as if to say, "What the hell are all these errors and contradictions in your writings, old man?" And Plato is pointing to the sky, and yelling right back at him, "Forget the damn text, man, think about the big picture, think about the big questions!" I love that image, it's all about passionate argument. And it sums up for me what I love about teaching at Chicago -- passionate argument.

    -- Jeff Makos