Paula Debnar

Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

In spring 2020 Paula Debnar convened an advanced Greek tutorial on Thucydides—an author whose style and thought are so challenging that he is rarely read at the undergraduate level. That there were Mount Holyoke students willing and able to accept such a challenge is testament to Paula’s commitment to the teaching and learning of ancient Greek at Mount Holyoke. This commitment was apparent when Paula arrived at the College almost 30 years ago and she set out to change the way we teach ancient Greek. She proposed starting with Homeric Greek, the dialect of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and progressing through the later Attic Greek. As our students learn ancient Greek they also see how the language evolved over time. Greek makes a lot more sense when it is learned in this way. An added attraction is that students taking ancient Greek at Mount Holyoke begin reading passages from the Iliad by the middle of the fall semester.

Since the standard textbook for Homeric Greek was significantly out of date, Paula wrote a supplement (initially in a three-ringed binder), with explanations designed to aid students whose native language, in grammar and morphology, is far different from ancient Greek. Paula’s supplement became an integral part of the standard textbook (Pharr’s Homeric Greek) when the University of Oklahoma Press asked Paula to revise it. The revised Pharr (now Pharr, Wright and Debnar) was published in 2012. Paula’s supplement and her later revisions to the textbook have improved students’ understanding not only of Homeric Greek but also of language more broadly.

The revised textbook on Homeric Greek is only one example of the pedagogical tools Paula has developed over the years. In the Thucydides tutorial mentioned earlier, Paula used her own commentary on the Melian Dialogue to guide students through the dense thicket of Thucydidean prose. Paula’s use of technology in the classroom ranges from an old Mac PowerBook (a relic of the 1990s) that includes a program to help students learn dactylic hexameter (the meter of the Iliad and the Odyssey) to a more recently developed website with online exercises to help students parse grammatical forms, drill on verb and noun morphology, and memorize vocabulary—all with the goal of learning ancient Greek in a fully flipped classroom.

Paula is a dynamic and versatile teacher, whose portfolio includes a broad range of courses in both ancient Greek and Latin, as well as those focusing solely on literature in translation. Her courses are known for their academic rigor and she has exacting standards, whether she is guiding students through the dense and intricate language of Sophocles or Thucydides, or leading a discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In her teaching evaluations students routinely praise the various aids Paula has developed to facilitate their learning as well as her love of language and passion for all things Greek. One student declared, “Paula is a goddess!” Thus, her apotheosis is complete.

Paula’s scholarship, which focuses on language and rhetoric, especially in Thucydides, often informs her teaching. By the same token, an advanced Latin course she developed was the genesis for an article on the Roman poet and Epicurean Lucretius. This demonstrates not only the broad range of, but also the dynamic between, her teaching and scholarship. Paula is the kind of teacher-scholar that Mount Holyoke is known for.

Paula has developed a pedagogy in ancient Greek that is innovative, demanding and rigorous. Her profound commitment to her students, her discipline, her department, and the College is worthy of recognition. We are delighted to present her with the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching.