My dad, Ken Bratt, is retiring this year. He’s been a Classics professor and director of the Honors program at Calvin College for decades, so I thought I’d ask him to share a bit with The Twelve. I wish I could be on campus for his retirement reception this afternoon; if any of you are around, please stop by!
Thank you, Dad, for cooperating with this request! And thank you for all that you’ve taught and shared with so many over the years. Sending love from Nashville, the “Athens of the South”!
Jessica: When did you start teaching at Calvin? (You had an offer from Hope at the same time, correct?)
Ken: 1977; yes, and Jack Nyenhuis (the chair at Hope) was also a good friend, so it was hard to disappoint him.
J: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at Calvin over the years?
K: Demographically, the student body is much less CRC and more ecumenical; we have more ethnic and international diversity, more women on the faculty. Pedagogically, the communication revolution has had profound effects on teaching and learning. I’ve gone from the mimeo machine (what’s that?) to computers on every desk and smart phones in almost every pocket. It allows students to be “connected” to the world and disconnected from what’s happening in their presence simultaneously. It prioritizes digital and visual information over printed books and contributes to the dominance of a youth culture — the last trip to Greece was the first time I’ve seen most students internationally wired. It no longer seems possible to experience genuine culture shock in a short visit.
Another big change: increasing pragmatism among our students (and their parents), who don’t seem to value college for the old reasons (a time to expand horizons, discover gifts, explore possibilities, read and think), but instead have their eye on jobs and potential income.
J: What has been one of your favorite courses to teach and why?
K: Classical art and architecture – because the “material culture” is a window into the past that often raises questions about the literary evidence, and gives a voice to all the silent actors of the past, including those of the biblical world. Plus, the monuments of Greece and Rome are not just trophies of the past, but part of the present living cultures of the Mediterranean.
J: What are some of your favorite New Testament passages to read in Greek?
K: Acts 17, Philippians 2, Revelation 22 – one of my best classes ever was an advanced Greek seminar in which we read Revelation 22 on the last day of the last semester for three seniors in the group.
J: When you teach Greek or Latin, what are you hoping your students will take from it into their vocational lives?
K: Love of language and the intricacy of grammar, awareness of how it shapes thought and imagination, delight in good writing, sensitivity to what doesn’t translate from one time or language to another.
J: How many years have you directed the Honors program? What have been your hopes for the Honors program as it has evolved and grown over the years?
K: 20 years. Wanted (and largely achieved) full participation by departments, intentional institutional support and celebration of our best student scholars, making academic achievement more prominent on the local map.
J: Why do you suppose there have been so many teachers in the Bratt family?
K: What’s the old saying – “those who can’t do, teach?” No, I think it’s because we’ve had great models and can’t imagine anything more fun than reading, writing, discussing, and helping others explore the wonders of the world for life.
J: We joke about it, but really, how many slides and photographs of ancient sites and art DO you really have?
K: At least 40,000 from 20 trips, but half of them are obsolete slides, so I still have to take thousands more digital images! Only took 3,700 on my last trip to Greece.
J: Tell us about the interim trips to Greece and Italy you’ve led over the years, and any highlights or funny moments that stand out. You could even tell the story about having to talk your young female student out of marrying the Greek tour bus driver she’d fallen in love with.
K: 17 trips to Italy, Greece, and Turkey with at least 400 students, plus a wonderful semester in Britain with Laurel and 27 students. Most vivid memories (other than rescuing 4 students from unpromising romantic encounters) are leaving students behind at rest stops – twice! The daughter of one of them is a current student and tells me her father remembers – and is glad I still feel guilty.
J: I hear my fellow The Twelve writer Jennifer Holberg may be “roasting” you this afternoon at the reception. Want to get in the first word? Perhaps a pre-emptive rebuttal?
K: Everyone should remember that my friend Jennifer specializes in fiction. “Verbum sapientibus sat” (a word to the wise is sufficient).
J: I’m finishing up my first year of a PhD program. Definitely a different era than when you were at that stage – tell us what had happened by the end of your first year of doctoral work at Princeton and how that changed things for the next few years.
K: I was drafted during my first semester of grad school, which (in retrospect) was God’s good timing. The interlude gave me a chance to teach at the Army Chaplain School (Fort Hamilton, NY). It taught me patience, how diverse the church of Christ is, and how much I really did want to live an academic life. When I got back to grad school, I was better prepared and motivated for the rest of the challenge.
J: How many CRC (and other) pastors out there do you think you’ve taught Greek to?
K: I didn’t teach Greek every year and not all Greek students became pastors, but there have to be at least 500 of them out there, and every now and then they write to say thanks – which is very gratifying.