We asked classical studies professor Benjamin Stevens a few questions to get to know him better.
by Susie P. Gonzalez
Benjamin Stevens, a visiting assistant professor of classical studies, says Trinity University helps students “discover their capacities to discover,” despite a popular culture that trains many people to be superficial consumers. He loves many sounds—music, French or Latin phrases, or the wind riffling through pine trees—but his favorite sound is when a class begins to focus so intensely on an assignment that their collective breathing becomes synchronous. To learn more, keep reading.
What do you like most about teaching Trinity students?
I've taught at other small liberal arts colleges,both coed and women's, big research universities, and even five semesters in a maximum-security men's prison. Each has its own atmosphere, and each student body its own culture, offering particular challenges and opportunities. What distinguishes Trinity students is their earnest surprise at intellectual adventure, as they discover their own capacities to discover and their special energy for collaboration. Although nobody always loves small-group work, Trinity students are quick to help each other, and—building on that—create a community spirit that combines a sense of Texas and Trinity pride with a growing global awareness. Trinity Tigers have a very strong sense of place, but also of how this place can fit into a larger, very diverse world.
How do you motivate your students?
By modeling what it looks like when you let yourself fall in love with literally everything, all the time! This includes making it clear that “to fall in love” with subject-matter means reaching for a level of mastery that the public culture, sadly, often rejects. Indeed, very often public culture trains people to say “love” or “obsessed with” or “here for it” (vel sim) when they mean no more than “like a whole lot,” and even that feeling is supposed to stay shallow enough not to be disturbed when the next “likable” thing comes along. We're all trained, all the time, to be superficial consumers. In that context, my job is continuously to remind everybody that far deeper feelings are possible on the basis of far more detailed knowledge--and holding open the possibility that a given text or film could be the thing you fall in love with next!
What are some of your pre-class rituals?
Not so much pre-class as pre-workday, I spend time warming up my voice. My classes are discussion-centered, with a lot of reading aloud from texts, and although I've been told I have a warm and versatile voice, it's also relatively thin and can get tired quickly. So I get ready every morning by drinking a lot of water, going through some basic vocal exercises (vocalese), and singing a few songs that put my voice where it needs to be. Especially good are pieces with fluid lines over my tenor-alto passaggio, like "I Know Him So Well," "Defying Gravity," or "She Used to Be Mine" from musicals, and 80s New Wave and rock ballads. Once I've got to belting, I'll dial it back and rehearse aloud some phrases that I know will play crucial roles in classes that day. This is also helpful in case of storytime.
How did you get involved in your field of study?
When I first got to college I thought I would major in mathematics: I'd enjoyed it for years and had been a tutor in high school. And all through my first year I had excellent math professors, Rao Potluri for calculus, with wonderful emphasis on deriving the fundamental theorem, and Tom Wieting for multivariable calculus, which he taught excitingly via differential geometry. Their love of the subject and elegant teaching styles have inspired me to this day. But that same first year also featured the only course required of all students: called Hum 110, it was like Trinity's FYE HUMA but lasting the entire year, covering ancient Greece in the fall and then Rome and early Christianity in the spring. Something about the material, and even more, something about how we were encouraged to engage with it—my seminar instructor was a classicist, Dave Silverman—sparked a slow-burning fire inside me. By the second semester of my sophomore year, I enrolled in an accelerated graduate introduction to Latin, and the rest is ... ancient history.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?
I love introducing a text or film: something about getting to negotiate that first contact, especially when the material is new to most of the students, always feels so refreshing and inspiring. A smaller thing: I'm delighted when blank spaces on the board get filled in perfectly, as if by a kind of quietly agreed-upon magic, or a plan working backwards in time.
You have facilitated campus events involving students, such as the Classical Receptions Film Series and the Solidarity Vigil to show support for victims of racial hate crimes. Why?
I think it's important to emphasize that learning, and love of learning, continues outside the classroom, even outside of academic settings, and that as members of the community we can be here for each other in times of crisis that outstrip any individual's expertise. So recurrent events like the Film Series offer students the chance to keep learning together in a low-stakes setting that is informative but also fun (I love movies!), while events like the Solidarity Vigil, obviously in response to acute crises, are ways of acknowledging that our lives are impacted from outside the classroom
Who inspires you? Why?
I draw inspiration from anyone who has developed a kind of easy expertise, no matter their field. Writers and filmmakers, of course, but I also do a lot of work in the world of a cappella music and get to be inspired by absolutely amazing singers and other musicians. On the weekends I like doing my work at cafes, near to the bariste, so I can keep lightly in mind their easy motions with the espresso machine: an inspiration to letting even mechanical, repetitive work produce beautiful results.
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Why?
I’ve thought seriously about pediatric emergency medicine. I'm naturally good with kids and think quickly on my feet. But on reflection I figured that the lack of long-term contact with any patient could be dispiriting. So, if not language and literature, then I think either veterinary medicine (animals, kids: basically the same) or something hands-on, like gardening or a skilled trade like carpentry.
What is your favorite sound? Least favorite sound?
I love music, and a cappella music usually most of all, so my first instinct is to name some great groups, like ARORA, Honey Whiskey Trio, Take 6. And if I can count languages, then fixed phrases from many languages, like rosaces yeux in French, sub umbras in Latin, abre los ojos in Spanish, etc.. But if "sound," then I'd say the wind in the pines back where I grew up in Colorado (matsukaze no ochiba, says Basho about different pines, beautifully), or thunderstorms rolling in from off the Plains near where I was born, in Nebraska. In teaching, the sound of concentration when an entire class has sunk so deeply into focused writing that you can hear breathing start to sync around the room. Least favorite, deep directionless bass at night.
Where would you like to retire?
I'd hope to maintain in retirement what I've happened to have while working: a sort of seasonal migration amongst various places, visiting friends and family, Nebraska and Colorado in summers and winters, North Carolina and Tennessee for music festivals in fall and spring, NYC as often as I can manage it ... but "retirement"? Perhaps no longer working, but no longer working on literature, languages, film, music? That's hard to imagine!