Denis Boyles on teaching literature at Chavagnes Studium

Here, extracted from the December issue of Eloquentia (due out this week) is an interview with Denis Boyles, one of our faculty at CHAVAGNES STUDIUM

1. Professor Boyles, could you explain how you came to get involved with the work of Chavagnes International College?

denis.boylesThe opportunity to work alongside professionals dedicated to teaching in tutorial settings is a rare one, and this is the strength of the Chavagnes Studium and the upper-level courses at Chavagnes International College. Teaching small groups of students affords not only the opportunity for students to learn material in a meaningful way, but also gives those who teach in this fashion a wonderful, rewarding collegial experience, one that is very far removed from the templated, institutional approach used generally in higher education.

I have taught in universities in the US and Europe and I am currently teaching students at a private French university. In none of these places is it possible to give such narrowly focussed instruction to a small number of students. It’s a remarkable experience for both students and teacher. The only equivalent I can think of is writing, a process that takes you very deep into a carefully constructed line of enquiry in pursuit of a useful goal, one that can be shared easily and effectively with others. I have written more than 15 books in various genres. Teaching one course in the Studium yields the same amazing result.

2. You have been teaching Homer, Euripides and Sophocles this term at the Studium. What approach have you been taking, and how does the study of ancient Greek literature respond to the needs of modern students?

We’ve been looking at these as examples of literature not as standalone “classics” but as work contextualised to the “world” in which they were created. The result is a very intensive examination of literature as an expression of social, political and cultural assumptions. Learning to read in this way is essential to an understanding of any historical period, certainly including our own. As an experienced journalist and editor at the New York Times Magazine and many other publications, and as the editor of many nonfiction books, I understand how a powerful set of assumptions can be used to explain and instruct. This mechanism would not be unfamiliar to any of the classical writers we study.

3. How do Homer and Greek tragedy fit into the wider vision of liberal arts study?

Homer and the others we study demonstrate the ways in which the strength of an idea can trump character, setting and plot as the most important element of a literature. The Greeks’ genius for representation is foundational to an epistemological understanding of art and philosophy and for all that follows from a study of them.
4. What would you hope that your students would gain from study of this course?

How to read closely and wisely.

5. How does the Studium environment compare to other college and university experiences?

The Studium provides an extremely luxurious approach to education. Where else can a student command the extended attention of a professor who works hard to help a student achieve a shared goal? It’s a venerable approach to instruction, but one perfectly suited to the modern world.