By Published: Sept. 12, 2019

Carole Newlands talks about being named a Distinguished Professor, why to study classics and how Ovid matters today

Carole Newlands began learning Latin at the age of 11 as a schoolgirl in Scotland. As a university student, she discovered the poetry of Ovid and, later, the joy of teaching. She is one of seven faculty members in the University of Colorado system to be named a Distinguished Professor this year. 


Carole Newlands

Today, the CU Board of Regents bestowed this honor on Newlands and three other members of the CU Boulder faculty: Mark Serreze of geography, Min Han of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and David Korevaar of music.

At CU Boulder since 2009, Newlands is a scholar of Latin literature and culture whose sophisticated, creative and pioneering explorations and interpretations have established her as one of the world’s finest Latinists. 

With a research focus on imperial Latin literature and reception studies, Newlands has revealed important elements of Flavian and Augustan culture that had been misunderstood and underappreciated. 

She has received many prestigious teaching appointments, including the Visiting NEH Professor of Classics at the University of Richmond, and the Fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. 

Through her scholarship, books and mentorship, Newlands’ impact has been recognized as being central in the shaping of a rising generation of Latinists.

She recently fielded five questions about her scholarship and life, and these are her answers:

As you know, the title “distinguished professor” is an honor that recognizes distinguished scholarship, excellent teaching and outstanding teaching and service; what reaction do you have to receiving this honor?

My reaction: deeply honored. And very grateful to the colleagues and former students who wrote and spoke on my behalf; to my mentors, teachers and family who supported and encouraged my career; and to my current students at CU Boulder who continue to inspire me.  

The majority of my career has been spent at public research universities. The students I have taught, including at Colorado, have been from all walks of life; and have given me a rich and diverse experience of teaching. And I have benefited greatly also from the research support that public research universities have generously given me.

Much of your scholarly focus has been on Ovid; if you were to briefly tell an audience of high-school students why they should read Ovid, what would you say?

As my own students have commented, if you read all the stories ever told in the whole world, you will find that Ovid told most of them first or best in the Metamorphoses, his great poem about metamorphosis, the change of one life form into another. 

They should read him for his stories because they will come back and back to them in different forms throughout their whole life. High schoolers are not often exposed to authors who dare to treat their source material so irreverently and who demonstrably have so much fun with writing. 

Ovid wrote 2,000 years ago ... and yet he is astoundingly modern, a writer for all time whose characters live on in modern dress in film and TV today.  

In the last decade, enrollment in disciplines in the arts and humanities has dropped nationwide; assuming you would like to reverse that trend, what argument would you make to prospective students about the value of a degree in classics?

Classics is an interdisciplinary field that studies the multicultural Mediterranean world through literature, art, archaeology and history. The classical world permeates today’s legal and political thought; it shapes our buildings; its words are stamped on American coins; campus itself is a Latin word in daily use; we follow the Roman calendar and Roman time. 

By understanding such an influential ancient civilization, we can better understand the society in which we live now. 

Classics majors learn marketable skills that are highly prized by employers in today's volatile job market: how to read critically, think analytically, and communicate articulately. An education in classics also expands students’ knowledge and experience of the world and helps them develop important moral virtues such as empathy and tolerance."

Classics majors learn marketable skills that are highly prized by employers in today's volatile job market: how to read critically, think analytically, and communicate articulately. An education in classics also expands students’ knowledge and experience of the world and helps them develop important moral virtues such as empathy and tolerance. 

Classics helps us understand who and why we are, and where we might or should be going. And the study of this vast, complex ancient civilization is endlessly fascinating.

Your CV says your next book is to be titled Scotland and the Classics: Poetics, Translation, and Cultural Identity. Would you like to share your goals for this work?

My new project contributes to the current interest in the regional literatures of the British Isles. It is timely as Britain is currently plunged into crisis about its political and cultural identity, and the break-up of the United Kingdom is certainly now a possibility.  

My goals are, first, to explore a largely overlooked aspect of Scottish literature and of the history of classics in Scotland, namely how Scottish writers, especially poets, from the 16th century onhave used translation of classical literature to shape a distinctive cultural identity that is not narrow or parochial but outward-looking.  

Second, I wish to emphasize that Scotland has its own distinctive literature; too often Scottish literature is subsumed in “English literature” and the richness of the Scottish dialect and the distinct historical and cultural experience of Northern people goes unrecognized.  

Translation of authoritative classical texts into the Scottish tongue have been particularly important in helping foster a sense of collective identity and confidence in the contributions Scots have made, and continue to make, to the diverse cultures of the British Isles. 

When did you know you would devote your career to classics?

I started Latin at high school in Scotland when I was 11. I was fascinated by learning a new language that expanded my small world.  

But by age 16, I was getting bored; we were reading a book about Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps and it should have been exciting but the pace of translation in the class that year was so slow that the elephants never did get over those mountains. 

But in university (at St. Andrews in Scotland) I was introduced to Roman poetry and to great poets like Ovid; I also had marvelous and eccentric teachers. But it wasn’t till I had a postgraduate one-year fellowship at the University of California that I realized I loved teaching; it gave me joy to communicate my love of literature to the students, and to learn from them in return. 

So I decided to do a PhD in comparative literature. And it was in the USA that I was able to pursue such a program of study with wonderful teachers who were passionate about research and teaching. 

In a field too where there were not many women professors, and even fewer with children, I was grateful to find some important female role models, one in particular who encouraged my career and helped open doors for me as I was starting out as a professor and struggling to balance the roles of parent and academic.