Fresh Faculty of the Week: Christopher van den Berg

How did you begin studying classics and what made you decide to pursue it?

Initially I was interested in 19th and 20th century philosophy and literary theory. It seemed like after I studied these, especially the French and German traditions, it then became necessary to study Greek and Latin. The decision to pursue classics was one I made in graduate school. I was going to do a project on German Romanticism and Neo-classicism. At the last minute I decided to work on a Latin dialogue for my dissertation, which is how I decided to focus on Latin rather than comparative literature, so that was just chance.

Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?

I think that Amherst is, more than any other institution I’ve been at, the one that takes most seriously the simultaneous obligation to both professors and students. That was something that was very important to me — the idea that if you want professors to encourage students to do well, then you need to encourage professors to do well. It’s the message of Amherst to be the best at what it is, even if that message of what it is is always changing and up for debate. It’s something that’s less concrete and more of a feeling and [an] idea of an institution. The colleagues here were accepting, the students were very intelligent and it was very clear that the administration was very interested in faculty governance and the role of faculty in the university — those are all important things. It just had a good feeling. I suppose I could say it had good money and good standing, but places that have those could be bad places to work and bad places to educate students. Amherst had a good standing and was living up to its reputation.

What classes are you teaching this semester?

I’m teaching “Roman Civilization” (Classics 24) and “Catullus and the Lyric Spirit” (Latin 16).

What aspects of Amherst do you like the most so far?

People are very welcoming. There are professional expectations across the board for the College and how it’s run, and for my colleagues, and the students as well tend to take learning seriously. There’s an attitude that you are here to learn, which is very important, and that attitude is reflected in classroom dynamics and in how seriously a lot of students take their courses. The campus is also very beautiful. The outdoor stuff here is fantastic too. I bike a lot, and I just like the Western Massachusetts ethos. It has a good mix of the stereotypical New England vibe and simplicity, in a lot of good ways.

Are you working to publish anything?

I’m currently writing a book. It’s called “The [World of Tacitus’] Dialogue on the Orators”. It’s a dialogue on the state of rhetoric at Rome during the imperial period.

What do you hope to contribute to Amherst in your time here?

I think I’m like a lot of people in my department — I’m very interested in seeing the classics continue to have an important role as a key part of the liberal arts education, but beyond that I also want to expand how classics is viewed, how it can contribute to the sort of general curriculum here and to the intellectual environment at Amherst. This means getting beyond the idea that classics is restricted to a certain period or a set of rules and ideas that are limited in scope. It has much broader implications for anyone who is working in any part of the Western tradition, not only because it has had an influence on this tradition in the past, but also because it is a culture in the Western tradition that is not like the modern culture, that it is a kind of historical diversity. And for that reason I think it’s very important that there is an understanding of how it continues to play a very significant role in a development of a number of different ideas that we either espouse or take for granted without question. Studying the Greco-Roman world is important because it really does reveal a number of blind-spots in how we think about who we are as 21st century individuals.