By Shawn Kim || Staff Writer
Professor Dean Hammer is a Professor of Classics and Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College.
In one of the first classes of “Mortality and Meaning”, I found myself watching a clip from 8 Mile where Eminem lyrically deconstructs an opposing rapper in an underground rap battle. I knew this scene very well and found myself rapping along to the lyrics but also found myself surprised to be watching this clip in my college connections course. After the clip, the professor for the course, Professor Dean Hammer, explained that The Iliad was similar to this scene from 8 Mile in that Homer was boasting of his poetic skills and storytelling ability through The Iliad . I knew then that the class would definitely be an interesting one.
And I wasn’t wrong. In Mortality and Meaning, I read and analyzed texts such as The Iliad , “The Myth of Sisyphus”, “The Gay Science”, The City of God , and The Human Condition to name a few. I didn’t realize how monumental all of these texts were until I started seeing references to The Iliad all the time as well as references to the philosophers and authors we had read in class. The class was the perfect intersection of literature, faith, philosophy, and art, and how all of them interpreted the meaning of life in different ways. We got to examine paintings such as “The Scream”, “Guernica”, and “The Crucifixion” and listen to songs such as “Them Bones” by Alice and Chains, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, and “Done Got Old” by Buddy Guy. The discussion based class was always stimulating and pushed me to learn more about certain texts, authors, or movements. The class involved a lot of reading, but the texts were all engaging and pushed me to broaden my perspective.
So when given the chance to interview a professor, I chose to interview Professor Dean Hammer who is also the Don of my house, New College House.
How long have you been teaching at Franklin and Marshall College?
I’ve been teaching since 1994 as a Professor of Government. So that’s 24 years now.
What are some of the courses you are teaching now?
I’m currently teaching “Mortality and Meaning”, “Classical and Political Theory”, and when I return from sabbatical I will be teaching “American Political Tradition” and a seminar on Hannah Arendt.
What brought you into teaching government?
I’ve always been interested in politics even though it wasn’t what I was originally thinking of doing. As I was in grad school, I became more interested in some of the very basic motivations that bring us together into communities.
Of the courses you have taught, which ones have been the most interesting to you?
I love “Mortality and Meaning” because there’s nothing better than the Iliad. The class introduces students to seeing the world in ways they haven’t encountered before. This is also the course that most students talk to me about after they graduate.
What is one thing you like about academics at F&M?
I really like the students. I like when they discover something, particularly when they discover something about themselves- they discover what they can say, what they can think, and that they have something to contribute.
What is one thing you dislike about academics at F&M? One thing F&M can improve on?
I think the thing I like least is that the students identify themselves on being busy- they wear themselves out very quickly. I wish they had a greater sense of how to prioritize what was important to them and understand why it’s important to them. But that’s just how this generation was raised. I worry about students at times because I never know whether they’re happy, and I don’t think they ask themselves that question.
How else are you involved with the community at F&M?
I’m involved as the Don of New College House, a position which opened up the world of student life to me. It gave me a new perspective of students outside the classroom. I got to see what moved them, rather than only seeing them in the classroom where they would respond to an assignment or read a particular text. As the Don of NCH, I get to see students grow up for four years.
Since this is your last semester as a Don, and you’ve been a Don since NCH was founded, what is the thing you’ll miss the most/what is the most memorable event you’ve coordinated?
I’ll miss watching the students grow up. There have been so many memorable events, but what’s most memorable to me isn’t an event but is the creation of a mentoring program in NCH. The mentoring program allowed our sophomores and upperclassmen to be a part of every new class that came in, and it’s especially valuable knowing how much that mattered to everyone that was a part of the program. It’s memorable to me when a student, who on the first day felt like a stranger, feels completely at home and wants to contribute to the community by day 5 or month 2 or by the second semester.
What is your favorite topic amongst all of your classes to study?
My favorite topic is human frailty. Human frailty is the nagging sense that, no matter how powerful we are in a moment or how strong we are or how much wealth we have, everything can come crashing down. It’s interesting to see how you can make sense of that frailty and how everything can end- that’s what we do by studying The Iliad , Hannah Arendt, and the Romans.
What are some of the books you’ve written?
I’ve written The Iliad as Politics , two books on the Romans- Roman Political Thought: From Cicero to Augustine and Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination, and a book on the Puritans. I’ve also edited a volume on Greek Democracy and the Roman republic.
What is The Iliad as Politics about?
The Iliad as Politics makes an argument that the Iliad is actually engaged in thinking about a political community, and it discusses what it means to be a political community. The book raises questions of authority, reciprocity, and justice, and it also ultimately raises larger ethical questions about how we, as a society, care about each other.
What are some of your hobbies?
I love cooking (instagram is dean.hammer)- I love all different types of cooking, and I love learning about cooking and all different types of eating. I also run, which keeps me from thinking about the fact that my body is decaying and perpetuates the deception that I will stay forever young.
What’s the most difficult dish you’ve made?
Every once in a while, I’ll try to duplicate some of the dishes of the Michelin 3 star restaurants I’ve been to. They take days with all the different sauces and techniques.
What inspires you?
Music inspires me; in particular, the music of Miles Davis and jazz inspires me. I think that music explores the boundaries of our experiences in a way that isn’t verbal- it explores the pain we might be experiencing, and moments of euphoria to moments of doubt. All of these emotions are conveyed as the musicians communicate to one another on stage. Music is a communication of something invisible, of something you just can’t put words on; it’s an outpouring of spirit.
What do you think is the biggest problem in the world right now? The biggest problem in the world right now is that we hate each other. We don’t listen to each other, we don’t care about each other, and we don’t trust each other. I don’t know how long communities can survive with those feelings. We’re facing so much political division, social division, and cultural division.
Which text is the most important or interesting to you?
The Iliad. Absolutely love the text.
This is Professor Hammer’s last semester as a Don and his last semester teaching before his sabbatical. If you’re a NCH resident or a student of his, please make sure to let him know how his advising, mentoring, and teaching have impacted your development as a student and as an individual. I thoroughly enjoyed his course, Mortality and Meaning, and I highly recommend students to take any class that he teaches. Professor Hammer’s lessons are more than “interesting”- his teachings have been integral in my intellectual development and have fueled my fervor for learning.
First-year Shawn Kim is a staff writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.