Published: Oct. 30, 2020

Elspeth Dusinberre, new college professor of distinction, discusses the joy and relevance of the discipline

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre has racked up more than a dozen awards for teaching and research, so it should surprise no one that she’d garner another. She, herself, however, is surprised.

Dusinberre, a professor of classics at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been named a 2020 Professor of Distinction in the College of Arts and Sciences, an honor she says she still can’t believe. 

Elspeth Dusinberre

At the top of the page: Students in an Arts and Sciences History 1509 class at the Eaton Humanities Building. This photo was taking in early 2019 and does not represent current campus COVID-19 protocols. Above: Elspeth Dusinberre

Dusinberre is one of four professors to win this honorific this year. The others are Michelle Ellsworth of theatre and dance and Pieter Johnson, and Katharine N. Suding of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Dusinberre is interested in cultural interactions in Anatolia, particularly in the time of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE). Her first book, Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis (Cambridge 2003), focuses on the Lydian capital. 

Her second book is a diachronic excavation monograph, Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individuals and Society (Philadelphia 2005). Her third book, Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge 2013), won the 2015 Wiseman Award, proposes a new model for understanding imperialism. 

Among her other distinctions, Dusinberre has been named a President’s Teaching Scholar and a Distinguished Research Lecturer.

Dusinberre answered three questions from the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine recently, and her responses follow:

Question: Much of your scholarly focus has been on cultural interactions in Anatolia; if you were to briefly tell an audience of high-school students why they should study the ancient world, and specifically the Achaemenid Persian Empire, what would you say?

Answer: Imperialism is something that defines many aspects of the modern world, our human interactions, various features of geopolitical systems, economics, communication and propaganda. This was true in antiquity as well as today. 

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE) was the largest sociopolitical entity the world had yet seen, incorporating vast areas and widely disparate peoples within its bounds. Yet it remained remarkably stable and productive for 200 years, a timeframe that is about average for empires in human history—including ones much smaller and less complex than the Achaemenid Empire. 

Studying how imperialism worked in antiquity can provide real insights into how humans have found different kinds of answers to fairly consistent problems throughout history. As well as being intrinsically interesting in its own right, it can also help us think more productively about what kinds of approaches might work best now. 

Q: 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 uses the tremendous diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world to consider a huge array of really important subjects and ideas."

A: Classics is the most useful thing anyone can study! And it is one of the most fun and rewarding areas of study, as well. Classics uses the tremendous diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world to consider a huge array of really important subjects and ideas. 

It combines thinking about some of the world’s most beautiful and interesting literature with a careful study of language, philosophy, rhetoric, history, economics, law, religion, art, architecture, archaeology, trade, engineering, politics, gender, power structures and more. 

Classics broadens our horizons, deepens our thinking, and provides us with language to be able to talk about ideas. It trains people in all kinds of disciplinary pursuits and skills, so that we can learn how to use many different kinds of evidence to think about a single problem. It requires us to analyze that evidence thoughtfully to develop valid interpretations. It requires us to grapple with the very stuff that makes us human. And it is deeply, utterly, fascinating and fun. 

Q: The title “professor of distinction” is an honor reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent; what is your reaction to winning this award?

A: I am flabbergasted and thrilled by the honor of being named a college professor of distinction! To be honest, I still can’t really believe it. I am also overwhelmed with gratitude to my colleagues, here at CU and elsewhere, who nominated me. It was a colossal amount of work on their part, and I am deeply moved and honored that they would invest such time and effort. 

I feel incredibly fortunate to have the chance to be here at CU, to work with our outstanding students, and to share in the generosity as well as the brilliance of my extraordinary colleagues.

The newly named professors of distinction will give presentations on their research and scholarly work in spring 2021. Details about those presentations are coming.