After two false starts in 2020 and 2021 thanks to the pandemic, we are looking forward to finally welcoming Dr Susan Brockman to our expert team of tutors with her brand-new courses, A Deep Dive into the Roots of our Language, Homer's Odyssey: More than Men, Monsters, Witches and Gods and Why Visit the Dead? Trips to the Underworld in Classical Literature.
Yet, Susan is certainly no stranger to Summer School…
MCSS: Susan, we're honoured you're joining us all the way from New York this summer! How did you first discover Marlborough College Summer School?
SB: It's my honour as well to join you in the UK! I learned about MCSS from a friend of my older sister, a work colleague of hers who also loves to travel. I was looking for somewhere I could rest and have fun and meet people after I had been on one of my long solo walks around the UK, which I first did in 2016.I love the solitude of the English countryside, but then I needed to do something both restful and more social, and my sister's friend passed along the word about MCSS. The brochure had so many interesting courses that I knew it was perfect for what I needed.
MCSS: America is famous for its Summer Camps! How is Summer School different from what's on offer in the States?
SB: "Summer Camp" in the US is usually not for grown-ups. In fact, as much as I enjoyed going to "sleep-away camp" as a kid, summer camps are notorious in the US for being full of homesick kids whose parents have dropped them off so that they can take vacations without children. I honestly don't know of any place in the US (which doesn't mean it doesn't exist) with the formula that MCSS has of fun for all ages. Happy kids; parents able to have a good time with other adults; and seniors also finding great things to do, people to meet, and everyone enjoying the excellent food and meeting up in the evenings in the bar or at a concert or lecture. It's just fabulous fun!
MCSS: What inspired you to reverse roles from Summer School student to Summer School tutor? What are you most looking forward to about teaching at MCSS?
SB: That's a good question. And I'm even a little torn, because I really have enjoyed letting other people do the work while I am a sort of "lazy student." This was especially so while I was coming to Summer School while working full-time, teaching at least 150 Latin students in grades 9-12 ten months a year! But I knew I was heading into retirement, and that I was really going to miss teaching, and I do. For many teachers, teaching is more than a "job". For me, it's a wonderful conversation and a way of relating to people, which is usually so enriching for me, and hopefully for my students. The "inspiration" (or guts, perhaps?) to try to offer courses at MCSS, really, I confess, came from friends whom I met during my first summer, when some classmates thought I might have interesting things to offer, and perhaps even being an American (which I don't usually see as an advantage!) might make my perspective intriguing to people here in the UK. Certainly, it was always a kind of dream of mine to work abroad; and as a lifelong New Yorker, I grew up with an international group of family and personal friends from literally everywhere.
MCSS: Can you tell us a bit about you, your academic interests and how you spend your time in New York?
SB: Well, my doctorate is in Comparative Literature and if anyone knows what that discipline is, would they please let me know?!I think of it as sort of a general degree in "Literature," but the discipline can cross whatever languages it feels like crossing, and some Comparatists (yes, that's a term) don't even stay within literature, but do dissertations involving visual arts, music or architecture as well. So, is it a Ph.D. in being a dilettante? A generalist? Sometimes I do think that; sort of the discipline for the undisciplined; or, perhaps, for the eternally curious and overly bold? Or those who can't choose? It's mushy, but rather fun, and it allows you to open all kinds of doors and drop in on other people's specializations.
I grew up with extremely intellectual parents; everyone in my family read constantly for fun; we all studied languages and various musical instruments, and we were just a deeply Humanities oriented family. Oddly, my father wondered why he couldn't convince any of his children to become scientists! I started studying Greek at age 14; it was offered at the somewhat experimental High School I was attending, and one other student and I ended up being the only two in Classics for the next four years - no Latin however!? Latin, as a secondary school subject, hadn't survived the 60s in the US, and I already had quite a lot of French (my parents were pretty fluent - my father had most of a Ph.D. in Romance Linguistics.)
It was pretty ironic that I ended up teaching Latin for 23 years, a language I had never particularly wanted to learn, but I was extremely happy to do it, and certainly have no regrets. I spent nearly 20 years teaching incredibly brilliant students at the top Public secondary school in NYC; and despite their youth, they were truly among the most impressive and interesting people I've ever met. It really was a sheer delight every day sharing thoughts and ideas with them, and I miss them very much. But one needs to move on at some point, and I am enjoying having unlimited amounts of my own time, a luxury we really don't have except as children, most of us. There's a lot to do!
MCSS: What can our students expect from your courses?
SB: I truly hope that students will find themselves intrigued and delighted with an array of new ways of looking at things. More specifics on this below.
MCSS: "Why Visit the Dead? Trips to the Underworld in Classical Literature” sounds an interesting course! Is it as dark as the title suggests?
SB: I don't plan for "Why Visit the Dead?" to be a dark course at all, really. The answer to the question is obvious, isn't it? To talk to them, of course, why else! It seems to be a universal longing (see: Harry Potter VII, or recently, Picard, the latest Star Trek!), and it's quite personal for me. I doubt I know anyone near my age bracket - younger or older - who doesn't have things they wish they could share, questions they'd like answered, news they are wanting to tell someone they can no longer call or write to. As I taught Aeneid VI (the journey to the Underworld) last year for the last time to my wonderful teenage students heading off to College, it was so poignant, seeing their faces in a Zoom call, separated from each other and from me, all of them dealing with the losses Covid had caused. There are stories there on multiple levels and literature which, quite frankly "talks to the dead" throughout the history of our shared culture, and the course just seemed apt for these times especially. It's not at all morbid, and although some of the stories are a bit sad, many are also wonderful and can make you smile, even through a couple of tears; nothing wrong with that!
MCSS: Which aspect of the course are you most looking forward to sharing with Summer School students?
SB: My father was reading Dante when he died and his bi-lingual edition was face down on a table in his apartment where he knew I would find it, turned to a page he had called and discussed with me a few weeks before. There's a story there with ripples in all directions, and I've shared it with students for years and hope to keep on doing so; it resonates with people and it illuminates whatever and whomever it touches - not my personal story, but the dialogue between poets.
MCSS: Can you give us a surprising fact about Dante and Homer?
SB: The Odyssey is very close to my heart; my mother read it aloud to my sisters and me as little kids, and then it was the foundation of my doctoral dissertation and I taught the poem in translation at University level for many, many years. It's so phenomenally modern once you get past knowing that it's one of the oldest works of Western Literature. The narrative, besides being emotionally satisfying (bad guys get what's coming to them and the protagonist triumphs -finally!), is brilliantly constructed and as baroque and self-reflective in its way as anything by Cervantes or Borges. I suppose that students might be surprised to consider Homer not as the "first author" in the Western Canon but rather as "the last author" in an oral tradition, which pre-dated him by many centuries and even today, no one can quite agree on how many! As for Dante, well, it may not be surprising, but reading anything of him changes my life every single time. Pretty much without fail.
MCSS: Do you have a personal favourite classical author/text?
SB: Well, as you can probably tell, reading Homer is what convinced me a very long time ago that it was worth learning a difficult ancient language to have that much fun reading anything! As for a Latin author, I'm awfully glad to have been able to meet Catullus in is his own language. He's just a marvellous voice, not "ancient" at all, but totally human and real; smart, angry, passionate and brilliant. His poems never fail to leave you thoughtful and pleased, with a slight smile, always worth the trouble.
Find out more and book Susan's courses here:
All courses run for 5 days
WK 1 11 Jul - 15 Jul
WK 2 18 Jul - 22 Jul
WK 3 25 Jul - 29 Jul
WK 4 1 Aug - 5 Aug
9.15AM to 12.15PM
1.45PM to 4.30PM
All Day Courses
9.15AM to 4.30PM