Dr. Alden SmithClassics
[Story and photo courtesy of Baylor Magazine.]
Have you heard the one about the professor who did suicide Latin drills, waved a "magic" turkey bone over his head to improve students' Latin translations and taught "fun" parts of verbs instead of principal parts "because 'principal' just sounds so stern?" If you have, then you've probably had a class taught by Dr. Alden Smith, a man who makes the dead languages come alive.
Energetic and expressive - in the classroom and in his office - Dr. Smith can tell story after story of strangers meeting in a restaurant or on the Internet, one talking about a professor he once had who did this or that strange thing. And each time, the other person, says, "Wait a minute, you had my professor," and it's Dr. Smith, now chair of the classics department and director of the University Scholars Program.
"I love teaching, I love it," he says. "It's what keeps me going." He compares scholarship and teaching to a can of soda: Scholarship is what's inside, but teaching is opening the can after it's been shaken: "It's a little messy, but it's fun," he laughs.
Former student Angeline Chiu is working on her doctorate in classics at Princeton University, but as an undergraduate at Baylor, she had no desire to even take a classics course. "I had always thought that Latin was dull and dead; certainly in high school, it was so boring I swiftly turned elsewhere. But that all changed when I took Alden's classes," she says.
This past year, Dr. Smith received the prestigious Excellence in the Teaching of Classics Award presented by the American Philological Association at its annual meeting - the third undergraduate from Dickinson College to be so honored. At least part of the reason for that threesome, according to Dr. Smith, is another Baylor graduate, Dr. Leon Fitts, a 30-year classics faculty member at the Pennsylvania college.
"The common denominators are two professors there: Leon Fitts and Phil Lockhart. They were the two inspirations for my teaching style. It's the enthusiasm they had," Dr. Smith says. In his freshman year, "these two professors set me on this path of thinking about the life of the mind, which would ultimately, within about a year, lead me to know that I wanted to teach," he says.
Dr. Fitts was an undergraduate student of another Baylor legend, Professor Robert Reid, whom Dr. Smith calls his "grandfather in the classics." Dr. Fitts encouraged Dr. Smith to come to Baylor as well as another classics scholar, Antonios Augoustakis, who now is an assistant professor at Baylor. "He's shaped the Baylor program well beyond his years at Baylor," Dr. Smith says.
The summer before his junior year in college, Dr. Smith studied overseas. It was in Rome that the young man made two of the most important discoveries of his life: he found the woman he later would marry, and he found God. He had been in a Bible study with the students, one of whom was Diane Law, his future bride, and had been struggling with faith issues. "I was starting to see how the intellect and faith are not incompatible," he says. "I thought it was impossible to be a person of faith and a true intellectual, so I had just ruled that out."
One evening, walking down a street in Rome, he realized that "the life of the mind could easily be part and parcel of a life of faith," he says. He returned to that street 12 years later, now literate in Italian, and was shocked to see that the name of the street - via della conciliazione - in English means "reconciliation." Upon that realization, "It was like becoming a Christian twice," he laughs.
At the University of Vermont, where Dr. Smith earned his MA, he first stood in front of a class of students as a teacher's assistant. "I was nervous as a kitten, my knees were literally knocking," he says. Most of the students were close to his age, some even older. "Within a class or two, I knew definitely this was what I was supposed to be doing. A lot of the stuff I use to this very day, I developed that first semester of teaching," he says.
Today, he might show up to teach in a pith helmet or carrying a whip - "the whole Indiana Jones thing," he says - or, on a beautiful day, take his students outside under the oak trees on the Burleson Quad to recite their Latin. That zest for teaching fits hand-in-glove with his zest for life. He bicycles to and from work most days (a six- to seven-mile trip each way) and plays pick-up games of basketball with other faculty a couple of days each week over lunch.
"Great teaching, like great living, is realizing that you're only a part of something much more profound, more cosmic," he says. "Whatever you do should reflect that. You don't remember that every second that you're teaching, but you do remember it every day that you teach."
In his office sits a statue of Artemis, frequently adorned by students with any one of Dr. Smith's numerous and colorful ties, a raccoon hat or some piece of Baylor attire. His office, and the classics lounge down the hall, always are open. Friday afternoons, most of his students gather in the lounge for pizza and conversation, often staying as late as 6 p.m.
"He never secludes himself from his students," former student Chiu says. "Everyone had a place and everyone was welcome. He created community when none had existed. Some of us used to call his office 'the black hole,' because once you sat down and joined the conversation, it was very hard to leave."
That ongoing conversation, in and outside of the classroom, is reflected in the classics department's motto: educare liberaliter et liberare educatione - "to educate liberally and to liberate by education."
"For me, the mission of teaching is about encouraging students to ask the questions they need to ask to make their lives worth living, the questions that will lead them to truth, and all truth is God-s truth," he says.
Since Dr. Smith came to Baylor in 1994, the classics faculty has tripled and student enrollment has grown. He began and often leads the department's Baylor in Italy program, which has taken as many as 35 students abroad in one summer.
Dr. Smith came to Waco before Baylor 2012 and its more stringent levels of faculty research and publication were launched, but he has no problem with Baylor's goals.
"It's a great experiment that we're doing here and part of my excitement in being here," he says. "Even before I came, this was my own personal mission - to show in my small, little world that the life of faith is not incompatible with the intellectual life." The author of one book and deep into writing another, this one on Virgil's Aeneid, he has several published articles in his research areas of Latin, Greek and Augustan poetry and Hellenistic and Roman art.
"If you're going to be a scholar, you've got to be a scholar," he says. "Having a PhD is just a given. The life of the mind means you need to be engaged in these activities that, on a professional level, are glorifying to God. I can't even imagine thinking that I didn't want to do the best that I could do."
Dr. Smith unabashedly professes his love for Baylor and what prompts it. "It has to do with the atmosphere of concern for students. There is a great deal of thoughtfulness about the student's experience and a desire for everyone who goes here to come away enriched. It's like nothing I've ever seen anywhere else in academia."