The Retirement of Prof. Deborah Roberts

Comments deliverred by Prof. Matt Farmer to the assembled Haverford faculty on May 26th, 2021

Deborah H. Roberts is retiring this year from her position as the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature.

Deborah began her long association with the TriCo when she graduated from Swarthmore in 1971. After taking her MA from Stanford in 1974 and PhD from Yale in 1979, she came to Haverford as an instructor in 1977, becoming Assistant a few years later, earning tenure and promotion to Associate in 1985, and rising to full Professor in 1996, before becoming first the Barbara Riley Levin Professor and now the Kenan Professor.

Deborah’s research has been extraordinarily wide ranging. Her early work focused on Greek tragedy, with a monograph on Apollo and His Oracle in the Oresteia, followed by a series of articles focused on the notoriously puzzling and even alienating endings of Greek tragedies; these articles remain foundational, and are widely cited to this day. Deborah’s interest in “endings” culminated in her co-editorship of the volume Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature. Readers of ancient literature to this day turn to this volume when they wish to know why the final words of the Iliad, a poem supposedly about the rage of Achilles, are “thus they buried Hector, breaker of horses.” Perhaps more importantly, though, this volume marked a turning point in the field of Classics; though the discipline had long remained insulated from the world of literary critical theory, Classical Closure demonstrated that these new methodologies could produce important new readings of canonical Greek and Roman literature.

Classical Closure presents us with two of the striking themes of the second half of Deborah Roberts’ research career: theoretically-informed criticism in the mode of what we might call comparative literature; and collaboration. Her co-editors to this volume, Francis Dunn and Don Fowler, were two of the guiding lights of Classics’ late but crucial turn to theory. In subsequent years, her foremost collaborator was her close friend, Main Line neighbor, and Penn colleague, Sheila “Bridget” Murnaghan. In the mid-2000s, Deborah and Bridget turned their attention to the reception of classical culture and mythology in children’s literature, with regular presentations at the Warsaw-based “Our Mythical Childhood” conference, articles like the forthcoming “New Hope for Old Stories: Yiyun Li’s Gilgamesh and Ali Smith’s Antigone,” and the co-authored volume Classics and Childhood: Britain and America, 1850-1965 (Oxford UP 2018).

Many students of the Classics may know Deborah best as a translator. Her translations of Greek tragedies, including Prometheus Bound, Euripides’ Andromache, and Euripides Ion are widely read and regularly assigned by me and, frankly, everybody else who teaches these texts in English. She is also a prominent theorist of translation, with a particularly notable series of publications on the translation of obscenity, colloquialism, anachronism, and “the forbidden.”

Her scholarship is very much ongoing; we await the publication of a chapter on the translation of The Persians for the Blackwell Companion to Aeschylus, as well as, sensibly enough, Deborah’s own translation of The Persians, forthcoming from Hackett; she’s currently completing her contribution to a new, collaborative translation of Nonnus’ monumental Dionysiaca; and has forthcoming articles including “Translating Homosexuality: Jack Lindsay and His Illustrators,” and a review of Emily Wilson’s celebrated new translation of the Odyssey.

Deborah has taught, if I’m doing the math correctly, every course the Haverford Classics department has ever come up with, in Greek, Latin, or Classical Studies. Her best-loved courses have often been those that drew on her research, including the much-sought-after pair “Translation and Other Transformations: Theory and Practice,” and “Refashioning the Classics: Voicing Myth.” Her teaching has repeatedly been recognized, including with the Lindback Teaching Award here in 1986. In fact she can boast a recognition of her teaching which as far as I am aware is almost unparalleled: even as a graduate student her teaching was so inspirational that Yale now awards annually the Deborah H. Roberts Teaching Prize to its best graduate instructor.

Deborah’s mark on Haverford’s curriculum really cannot be overstated: among many other achievements, she engineered the new era of collaboration between Haverford and Bryn Mawr’s classics departments which has become so essential to both departments’ success and identity; and she was a founding member of the program in Comparative Literature, the college’s first interdisciplinary major.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah’s unequalled contributions to the running of this institution. Over the course of four terms she served as clerk of the faculty for more than a decade; she has chaired both Classics and Comparative literature numerous times; she has joined and indeed chaired untold search committees; and most recently she served as Director of the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, helping oversee the rebirth of the Center in its new home in VCAM.

Deborah’s kindness and generosity are, I suspect, well known to each of you, particularly the many people who have experienced the profound hospitality of a meal or a drink at Aryeh and Deborah’s home, in the various incarnations that home has taken around this campus over the decades. As my colleague Bret Mulligan put it, “one would hard-pressed to think of any request that she’s ever declined from students or colleagues;” she has a sense of “compassion born from a deep desire to do good by everyone in her orbit.”

I first met Deborah as a result of one such act of kindness, when I was a graduate student at Bryn Mawr writing on the Prometheus Bound and she volunteered, for no particular recompense, to serve on my MA thesis committee. In an off-hand way, she remarked at my thesis defense that she thought the word I had been searching for in an awkward methodological passage of the thesis was “intertextuality,” a topic which became in that moment and has remained since the central subject of my research career. Many of you have known Deborah much longer than I have, and I trust to your memory and to your esteem for her to fill in the many undoubted gaps this brief survey of her career has left. But as her former student and now colleague, it is with a deep sense of gratitude and honor that I ask you, if only for a moment, to unmute yourselves and join me in offering applause and congratulations on the retirement of Professor Deborah Roberts.

2 thoughts on “The Retirement of Prof. Deborah Roberts

  1. Professor Roberts was my Comp Lit rock! She taught me how to write and also question writing. How to disassemble literary theory and see beyond just the written words. And she did all this with a smile in an authentic, kind manner. Congrats on retirement!!

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