“On Being a Gentleman Scholar”: A Personal and Professional Appreciation

Deborah Beck
I joined the Classical Philology Ph.D. program at Harvard University in 1992, in preference to the other programs to which I had been admitted, largely because everyone I talked to told me how hard Greg Nagy worked for his students. This turned out to be much more true than I could possibly have imagined. Twenty years later, Greg is as much my teacher – in all the best senses of that word – and I am as much his student as I was when I nervously rejoined the academy after three years away from Classics, confident that I would be asked to leave the program once someone figured out that the only Greek I remembered from my undergraduate days was ἐστί. I will still be Greg’s student when I am 85 and he is 110. At every stage of my career, from student to first job and article to mid-career issues of various kinds, Greg has been a steadfast source of advice, of support, and – at least as valuable to me – of personal warmth and kindness. Greatly though I have always valued Greg’s intellectual gifts and his scholarly feedback, I felt that for me, the most appropriate way to honor him on his big birthday would to speak about how much I have learned and benefited from his Menschlichkeit.
Throughout our long association, Greg has offered advice in a way that somehow cast us as colleagues, even when in fact, I was more like Telemachus in Odyssey 3 and he was Athena. His gift for making clueless and timid graduate students feel they have something to offer to the scholarly world came to my rescue time and again when I became daunted by the apparently unbridgeable gulf between my little crumbs of knowledge and the cumulative weight of 2500 years of Homeric scholarship. I will never forget his face, wreathed in delighted smiles, as I tottered nervously into his office in 1996 to give him a draft of my very first dissertation chapter, as pleased as if I had brought him an Olympic gold medal and a large bouquet of flowers. I remember that around the same time, the graduate school newsletter published an article comprised of horror stories about indifferent, unresponsive, and otherwise unsatisfying advisers; I wrote an indignant reply that the newsletter published on its back page in a subsequent issue, denouncing these people and describing my own very different experience as a counter-weight. I don’t know if Greg read this, or if he knew that I wrote it, but somewhat belatedly, I offer this token of appreciation for his guidance during the time that he was officially responsible for my education. Greg has remained a trusted teacher and adviser and a dear friend in the years since my time in Boylston Hall, and I have learned at least as much from him during my doctor-hood as I did while I was taking Greek K and struggling through the terrifying and rewarding process of dissertating.
In one sentence, Greg’s advice and his demeanor in giving advice taught me how to connect in a warm and collegial way with other Classicists in a wide variety of situations. One of the main ways he did that, needless to say, was in how he himself interacted with me. I reread the emails he wrote to me in the last fourteen years in preparation for writing this appreciation, and I was simply dumbfounded by the prompt good will with which he sent advice on a truly staggering array of questions: What should my dissertation summary say? What do I use for a writing sample? Who should write my letters of recommendation? Should I apply for this job/fellowship? What is the linguistic origin of Greek future deponent verbs? Will you please read this article/book chapter (approximately a million times)? Where should I submit this manuscript? Is it appropriate to speak from notes rather than a prepared text when giving a talk? What should I ask for in my hiring package? Rereading these emails, it seems to me that there is no question too silly, or too anxious, or too obvious not to deserve Greg’s unique blend of good cheer and shrewd professionalism. I benefited at least as much from knowing that he always took my questions seriously as I did from the specific answers to my questions, especially in my early years on the job market when I sometimes despaired of finding a tenure track job. “Courage!” he wrote in 1998. “I know it’s hard. You will always have me as a sympathetic listener. Your fan, Greg.” I always have, in both good times and bad. Greg’s sympathetic ear has lessened the challenges of the difficult moments and increased the satisfactions of the more positive ones.
Indeed, Greg has been a wonderful cheerleader on happy occasions. He has lavished praise and affection on me for all manner of things, some fairly modest (“take credit for your terminology,” reads one message) and others more important: being told that my first offprint was available, he said, “I can hardly wait to see it!” This excitement greets virtually any news either of new publications or of a chance to get together for coffee or a meal. Even though – or perhaps because – Greg’s enthusiasm and praise are so generously and consistently offered, fifteen years after my Ph.D. was granted, this reaction remains a cherished part of any new accomplishment. Moreover, he works incredibly hard at staying in touch: I did not notice this in the early years of my career when my own inbox was not a particularly busy place, but now that I am constantly fighting a losing battle against email clutter and feeling guilty about the Very Important Messages I have not (yet) answered, my admiration for his punctuality verges on awe. At one point, a two-day lag time between my message and his reply prompted him to say, “I am becoming a slowpoke”; a particularly memorable note in this respect was sent from the Mediterranean, with poor Internet access. It said, “I just wanted to send to you my feelings of solidarity and good hope.” What other adviser goes to that kind of trouble to write an email about nothing particular to a student who had graduated years earlier?
At the University of Texas at Austin, for the first time I have graduate students of my own, and I keep in mind the model that Greg set as I do my best to bring up new Classicists who have the personal and professional tools to do the work that we all love so much. My first book was dedicated to my teachers, for teaching me “the pleasures and privileges as well as the methods and responsibilities of scholarship,” and now I see my own students as a different kind of dedication to my teachers. I recently advised an excellent master’s report that was written by a student who can be very tentative and critical about her own performance. Whenever she sent me a new chunk of material, I felt that I was channeling Greg when I would end my emails acknowledging receipt of it by saying, “I look forward to reading it!” I saw in the student’s demeanor during our in-person meetings that this kind of cheerleading, which I do not think I would have done if I had not learned it at Greg’s knee, made a big difference to how she felt about her own work and the process of writing her master’s report. In seminars, I make it a priority to talk explicitly with students about the skills they will need as professionals but that do not always come up as part of the graduate curriculum, such as how to answer a hostile question after you give a talk. Whenever we discuss such issues, I am trying to emulate both Greg’s ability to treat students like colleagues while still teaching them, and also his insistence on the importance of being gentlemanly and collegial. To a true gentleman, and a towering scholar, this appreciation is dedicated with the warmest respect and the deepest affection.