Q&A with postdoctoral fellow Suzanne Lye

by Jennie Rhodes | 2/6/18 2:00am

Postdoctoral fellow Suzanne Lye specializes in classical literature and mythology. However, her journey to becoming a classics professor was a “long, winding road,” according to Lye. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry from Harvard University, Lye pursued web design. During her honeymoon in Greece several years ago, as she was walking through the Akrotiri archaeological site, Lye had an epiphany — studying Greek and Roman classics was her calling. She then obtained a graduate degree in classics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016. Afterward, Lye came to Dartmouth for her postdoctoral fellowship, which is currently in its second and final year. Lye is currently teaching Classical Studies 10.07, also cross-listed as Religion 19.24, “Ancient Magic and Religion.”

As a postdoctoral fellow, what is your role on campus?

SL: It is a mixed role, mainly research positions. I teach one of my own classes each year. Last year, I taught Latin I, and that was really fun. It is a course I have taught a lot even though I am mostly a Hellenist, which means I mostly study Greek literature. As a classicist, you study everything and usually end up teaching in an area that is not specifically your area. This year I am teaching a new course in the Classics department.

How did you decide to teach a class on magic and religion?

SL: Well, it relates to my research. My research focuses on the underworld and ancient literature, mostly Greek literature. There are a lot of magical elements and a lot of rituals that are associated with the underworld. I’m thinking that my next project, after my underworld project, will be something on magic. I thought I would bring that to Dartmouth.

How did you become interested in the underworld?

SL: Who isn’t interested in the underworld? I also like to travel a lot. Usually when you talk to people about their lives, you can find out a lot about different cultures by their death rituals. One of the ways I like to learn about the ancient world is by thinking about where people thought they would go or what would happen when they died. Often that leads them to decide what life means to them. For me, it was to find out about a culture and learn how they treat the dead, the sick and those in different levels of society. The underworld scenes are really just ghost stories. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

Going back to your class on magic and religion, what is the difference between the two in the ancient world?

SL: What is really interesting is that they operated symbiotically in the ancient world. You could practice state religion, civil religion, the general polis religion or general religion with everybody else, while also seeing a magical practitioner. In the modern day, you would see a Western doctor, but you might also see an Eastern doctor, getting acupuncture or a massage. That does not contradict that you also got a prescription from your Western doctor. Basically, both religion and magic are ways for humans to solve problems in their lives and to explain or control the unexplainable. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw that different situations call for different actions using a scale of what we, in modern day, may call religion or magic or superstition.

Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing or majoring in the classics?

SL: I have general advice for students pursuing any major. What you do in college is not what you’ll do for the rest of your life. You have to take a multi-prong approach where you do the things you are passionate about and take the classes that you are really interested in. Through that, you develop real skills. The way I teach my classes is, I work on specific skills. I tell [my students], “I’m going to help you develop skills you can use throughout the rest of your life.” You can develop your skills even while pursuing what you are really interested in. In my class, we do group projects, presentations and written assignments. I’m very explicit as to why I’m doing these things. For example, I have my class divided into sections and every section has to produce an executive memo describing what happened in their hour-long meetings. It is a great skill to have to be able to sit in an hour-long meeting and come away with the five most important things from the meeting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.