Prof. Sue Collins on new book, identifying with her students
The first time she heard about it, Sue Collins hated the idea of her most recent book. “I originally said that I hate translations, because they take too long, and if you’re fastidious at all, you’ll never be wholly satisfied with your choices for different terms,” she says.
Dr. Collins eventually changed her mind, and scholars of Aristotle are now richer for it: her co-translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was published in June. The project, completed over several years with her friend Robert Bartlett of Boston College, led to some unique challenges.
“Especially with Aristotle’s Greek, which is so terse, it’s very difficult to render that into any kind of graceful English—I felt like my English was getting worse during the six or seven years that I was working on it!” she says, laughing.
To clean up the messy prose that a strictly literal translation produces, Dr. Collins spent hours simply reading the translation aloud. That technique is one that she also uses to critique and improve her own writing, she says. “I always read things out loud, just to get a better sense of how it will sound, because that always shows whether something will be readable.”
The slow, agonizing progression from Aristotle’s terse Greek to a readable, clear, precise, consistent, and philosophically compelling English translation of Nicomachean Ethics required time, more than anything else. But those weeks spent puzzling over just the right word are not a result of a fussy or pedantic mind: they demonstrate just how much thinking is required to produce good writing.
“I think that things become clearer to you if you can write something precisely, whether it’s analyzing a problem, or laying out claims logically,” Dr. Collins says. “In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to write; but the very act of writing forces me to understand a problem further, in a way that doesn’t happen if you’re just sitting and thinking about it.”
Those words might sound rather applicable to the situation of Honors students, struggling to write university-level essays. But Dr. Collins has more in common with Honors students than you might think: like the many Honors students who have not arrived fresh from high school, Dr. Collins didn’t go immediately to college after graduation, either.
“I didn’t go straight to a university because I didn’t yet know what I wanted out of it—I didn’t know what I would study, and I needed to understand myself better,” she says.
She started at the University of Alberta, in Canada, but dropped out after a semester. She travelled, worked odd jobs, and travelled some more—until her parents convinced her that a degree was the only way she would ever get a good job. And when she returned to university, she found, in a course on the history of political thought, what she had been looking for all along.
“This huge American guy stood up—his name was Leon Craig—and began to talk about Plato,” Dr. Collins recalls. “And I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Now I’m being educated.’”
That course opened up a world that Dr. Collins is still exploring today, even after covering much of its terrain. She has authored or edited three books in ancient political philosophy: Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship, Action and Contemplation: Studies in the Moral and Political Thought of Aristotle, and Empire and the Ends of Politics: Plato’s Menexenus and Pericles’ Funeral Oration.
Her expertise is part of what also makes Dr. Collins well-suited to direct one of the College’s most popular minors—Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics. But her own experience as an undergraduate also helped her to form a program that would have appealed to students like herself.
“We started Phronesis as a way to capture the students who were set on fire by Human Sit,” Dr. Collins says. “What we really want to do is give them an education—make them better thinkers and give them a capacity to reflect on the events and political arguments of the day, by bringing to bear a whole universe of thinkers that they’ve studied with care.”
Dr. Collins clearly knows her stuff—but she also knows what it’s like for Honors students, wandering innocently into their first encounters with the challenging works and daunting assignments of Human Sit.
“I think students don’t realize that their professors understand them, and are usually more sympathetic than they think they are,” she says. “I’m not unfriendly or uncongenial to the situation they find themselves in as young people—it’s a very wonderful time, but very anxious, too.”
As she sees it, her role as a teacher is to capitalize on and direct that anxious energy that young, inquisitive students—like herself as an undergraduate—have always brought to university classrooms. “Part of my job as a teacher is to help them understand what it means to be an independent adult,” Dr. Collins says. “You want to bring students into the worlds that these books open up and guide them as well as you can—but eventually, you have to let them walk around in them on their own.”