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:: By Carrie M. Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Photos by Dan Dry

:: Syllabus

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Investigations ::

Coursework - Classic to the core

Herman Sinaiko and his class embark on an odyssey: the Iliad.

It’s 9 a.m. on September 26, the second day of the academic year. The young undergrads in Human Being and Citizen I are in the oldest building on campus—Cobb Hall, completed in 1892—but from inside Room 112, they would never guess. An enormous video monitor fills one corner; four long windows, the energy-efficient kind that don’t open, look north onto tree branches. There is no calendar in the room, no clock.

photo: coursework
Open-book examination: Herman Sinaiko’s classroom copy of the Iliad
offers a record of readings and re-readings.

Professor Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61, bounds in and unseats a few freshmen who have unwittingly taken his preferred place along the rectangle of conference tables: face to the door, back to the board. Sinaiko taught his first class at Chicago in 1954. One of the few remaining links to the famed Hutchins College, he began teaching in Cobb when it still had enormous oval tables and four floors instead of five. Again, the undergraduates would probably never guess. In his maroon knit shirt and large-framed glasses, Sinaiko, 77, looks and acts ten, maybe 20 years younger.

“I’d love you guys to come up to the table,” he says to the late arrivers sitting at desks against the wall. “There’s room.” There isn’t, but the extra freshmen manage to push in anyway.

Sinaiko passes around paper pre-folded table tents and a black marker. “I have a wretched, wretched memory for names,” he explains. “I frequently get my own kids’ names mixed up.” The students print their first names on the cards in neat block letters; the gathering now looks like a cross between a U.N. and an A.A. meeting. “It would also be helpful to come back to more or less the same seat every day.”

Next he passes out syllabi. “This is not a Great Books course,” he says. “It’s not about a bunch of great authors who wrote great books—although they are great authors and they did write great books. It’s not about that. It’s about you.”

Twenty-three pairs of eyes are fixed on Sinaiko. “This is a liberal-arts course,” he continues. “Liberal arts are arts of freedom. Whose freedom? Your freedom. They are freeing arts. That’s the interesting thing, because you don’t think of yourselves as particularly unfree.”

Sinaiko leans forward. “There are deeper levels of freedom than merely not being in bondage or debt,” he says. “There are kinds of bondage which go deeper than chains. The bondage of being ignorant. Ignorant of what?” Recognizing a rhetorical question when they hear one, the students say nothing. “The ignorance that keeps you in deepest bondage is the ignorance about yourself. Who you are. What you can do. What are your capacities, what are your limitations. What are the things that make you who and what you are. If you don’t know, then you can be controlled by ideas that are not yours.

“We want to free you,” he promises. “And the freedom we want you to get is an internal, intrinsic freedom, which brings you into contact with who and what you are.” He moves to the board, where he writes three words: read, talk, and write. “This course in the humanities is going to focus sharply on what it means to be human,” he says. “These things,” he points to the board, “add up to a capacity to do one thing: to think. Thinking is, in some sense, the fundamental human activity.

“We’re going to ask you to read books really well, because we think they are worth reading really well,” he says. Nimita, dark-haired with dangling earrings, nods solemnly. Another student, nametag obscured, spins his ballpoint pen.

“The Iliad is a tough book, particularly when you read it the way I want you to read it,” Sinaiko says. “I want you to read it more than once. Read it aloud to each other—your roommate, somebody in the class. Listen to the other person read, and don’t follow along with the text. Listen with your ears, not your eyes. Take notes for yourself, book by book. Keep a journal if you want.” He stops and smiles. “If you would prefer to go to another section, be my guest.”

photo: coursework
Herman Sinaiko

Having covered reading, Sinaiko moves on to talking. When making a point in class, “if you realize you were wrong,” he says,  “that doesn’t mean I won and you lost. It means we both won, because you now know something you didn’t know before.” Sinaiko’s teaching assistant, Jeff Rufo, snickers softly. The undergrads do not.

“Now, part of the problem with discussion is that you never get to make your full statement,” Sinaiko says. “So every once in a while, we’re going to ask you to stand up and say, ‘OK everybody, shut up and listen. I’m going to talk for 15 minutes, and nobody’s going to interrupt, because I have a complicated statement to make.’” Several students look puzzled. “Only you’re not going to do it verbally,” Sinaiko says. “You’re going to do it in writing. You’re going to write essays.”

Rufo, a graduate student in comparative literature, clambers to his feet. He has an easy smile, gnawed fingernails, and a sardonic air that contrasts nicely with Sinaiko’s unfettered enthusiasm. “My job is to teach you how to write,” he says. “That might strike you as a little bit ridiculous, because it strikes me as ridiculous. All of you know how to write. The question is, do you know how to write in the way we’re asking you to write.”

After a quick overview of writing workshops, assignments, and grades, Sinaiko passes out a photocopy of the first two pages of the Iliad. About a third of the class doesn’t need it, having already bought the book. Their copies gleam shiny black and perfect, with uncracked spines, uncreased pages, and a redesigned cover. Rufo’s book is the previous edition; its pages are slightly dog-eared, with a line or two underscored here, a comment scribbled there. Then there is Sinaiko’s copy: indexed with curling Post-it notes, pages pulling loose from the binding, at least half of each page underlined, margins completely filled.

Sinaiko reads the selection aloud. “‘Sing, goddess.’ Who’s talking?”

“Homer,” says Elliot, a clean-cut guy in a V-neck sweater over a white button-down.

“Homer. The poet. The bard. What’s he mean, ‘Sing, goddess’? Who’s the goddess?”

“Hera?” ventures one of two Katies, who are sitting side by side.

“The muse,” says Michael, a jockish-looking man in a C-logo baseball cap.

“The muse! This is a divine story, told by a goddess. What do you make of that?”

“It adds an unbiased credit to the story,” Nimita says.

“That’s an interesting idea,” Sinaiko says. “It’s possible.”

“I think Mike had his hand up,” Rufo points out.

Mike, an even more jockish-looking guy wearing a “Bleed Maroon” T-shirt, says, “If you say a god is telling a story, but two pages into the story there’s a different god who’s clearly playing sides, then I feel like the first god loses credibility too. Maybe the whole thing is biased.”

“The question of bias is immediately raised,” Sinaiko says. “You’re quite right.”

“If the goddess is telling the story,” adds Michael, “it doesn’t necessarily give it more credibility, but more importance.”

Hands are up all over the room. By the end of the class, nearly every student has spoken at least once. “Our time is up,” Sinaiko says with a final exhortation: “Read on, keep on reading, get through it.”


Herman Sinaiko has taught Human Being and Citizen, a three-quarter sequence, since it was first offered in the mid-1970s. The course title comes from Socrates’s question, “Who is a knower of such excellence, of a human being and of a citizen?” The course was originally team-taught by a humanities professor (who taught the “human” part) and a sociology professor (who taught the “citizen” part).

Sinaiko’s syllabus, which he refers to as the “calendar of readings, discussions, and papers,” lists four texts: Homer’s Iliad (translated by Richmond Lattimore), Genesis (translated by Robert Alter), and Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Euthyphro (translator not given). It also includes one lecture, The Euthyphro, by classics professor James Redfield, AB’54, PhD’61, in mid-November.

Students write three papers: two short ones (three to five pages), each counting for 25 percent of their grade, and a longer essay (seven pages minimum), counting for 50 percent.

“I hate grading,” Sinaiko says. “It’s crude and even vulgar, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” Sinaiko’s strategy is to grade the papers “by University of Chicago standards,” so students know what to expect in other courses. But for students who attend regularly, participate in class, and turn in their papers on time, he disregards any poor grades: “Do your work, keep your nose clean, you get a B minus.”