In his day, some 400 years B.C., Socrates was known as a great teacher. An Athenian citizen who lived when Athens was the intellectual centre of the Greek world, he revolutionized the way people thought about themselves and the world.
These days, Peter OÕBrien, an assistant professor in the Classics department, is known as a great teacher, too. But thereÕs nothing particularly revolutionary about his teaching Ñ itÕs based on knowing his subject area inside and out and telling students about it.
ÒI just try to exude the atmosphere of a conversation in the classroom,” says Dr. OÕBrien, this yearÕs winner of the Dalhousie Alumni Award for Excellence for Teaching. ÒI get up there and talk. I try to circulate among the desks. I ask questions and I listen to responses.”
His students say they learn so much in his classes because he clearly loves what heÕs teaching. He teaches first- and second-year classes in Epic, Drama and Philosophy,” hard-core” language classes in Latin, The Roman World and graduate seminars in Roman poetry. In the fall, he takes on Introductory Greek.
ÒMore than anything, heÕs a really exciting lecturer,” says Emily Cohen-Gallant, Classics major who just finished her third year. ÒHeÕs passionate and itÕs just so easy to listen to him.
ÒHe keeps you hanging onto every word he says.”
But heÕs no pushover, adds Kate Allen, who graduates this spring with a BA, majoring in Classics and Contemporary Studies.
ÒHe is so brutally rigorous Ñ you canÕt get away with anything with him,” she says. ÒEvery other class goes on the backburner, because if you donÕt get his work done, youÕre in trouble.
Born and raised in Halifax, Dr. OÕBrien thought heÕd take the Foundation Year Programme at the University of KingÕs College and then go to school somewhere Ñ anywhere Ñ else. The program introduces students to some of the great texts of Western Civilization, starting with the ancients, including Homer, Plato and Virgil, and progressing through to the contemporary world.
ÒWhat struck me so profoundly was that I was still thinking about the ancient authors that I read at the beginning of the year at the end of the year,” says Dr. OÕBrien, 38, who finished his BA at KingÕs (1990) and his MA at Dalhousie (1992) before embarking on doctoral studies at Boston University. It was in Boston that he got his first taste of teaching; he taught compulsory Latin to teenagers at a private high school.
But in that foundation year, a passion was ignited and a stereotype was exploded Ñ the study of Classics isnÕt about verb charts or lists of dates, itÕs about what ancient civilizations can teach us about our own times. ItÕs a lesson he tries to impart to his students, too.
ÒIÕm not interested in Classics because I want to sequester myself in the ancient world. IÕm interested in Classics because it helps me find my way in the here and now.”
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