Peter Machinist

Although this is not the first reunion our class has had, somehow the hard work that Tom Tobey and John Tarbell, in particular, have put into rediscovering us and persuading us to reassemble in Byfield - this makes it seem like our first real get-together, our first chance to reckon with ourselves individually and as a group... So here are a few words about my own adventures over the last forty years, which serve to reformulate and extend the more formal bio of mine that has been on our GDA Web.

I guess I never wanted to leave school, fortified by my experiences at Governor Dummer and then in college at Harvard. I discovered already at Governor Dummer what became and remains my profession, ancient history, more specifically the study of ancient Israel, Mesopotamia, and other cultures of the ancient Near East, together with some glances at ancient Greece and Rome. (Governor Dummer also made it clear to me that I did not have the talent to realize an earlier hope to make a career in science.) I worked in the ancient history fields at Harvard, for my A.B., and then at Yale, where I took my M. Phil. and Ph.D., concluding this apprenticeship, after much too long a time, in 1978. By then, I had already been teaching for some years, starting as a temporary instructor at Connecticut College and a graduate assistant at Yale, then moving on to Case Western Reserve University and the University of Arizona, Tucson. I remained in Tucson from 1977 through 1986, before going on to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (1986-1990), and finally coming back to New England in 1991 as full professor at Harvard to succeed my teacher there, Frank Moore Cross. I was named Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages in 1992 on his retirement, and like him work in both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in the Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and the Harvard Divinity School. In the course of this peripatetic existence, I was lucky to have a couple of opportunities for foreign study: in Israel, at the Hebrew University (1980-81), and in West Berlin, Germany, i.e., before the Fall of the Wall, at the Wissenschaftskolleg (1984-85); I will return to Israel in the spring of 2003 as visiting professor at the Hebrew University.

My academic career has entailed the usual amount of scholarly meetings and associations, faculty committees, and publishing - in my instance, never enough, I am well aware. But as I think about it, my greatest satisfaction has been in teaching. I have learned that you can't be too greedy in such business. If you connect with just a handful of students in the course of a year or two, you are lucky. And by that measure, I have been, with various doctoral students now finished and mostly placed in good jobs, who have taught me easily more that I have given them. I also have had a number of undergraduate students, although less than in earlier years. In some ways the undergraduates are even more rewarding than the graduates, because less socialized in the ways of academic behavior and so freer to range and speak their minds. I remember in particular a freshman seminar I taught a few years ago at Harvard, in which the very first assignment elicited from one of the students an essay that I thought was close to being publishable. To be faced with such talent was scary, and yet cheering, all the more so as the writer was no brat, but a sweet, unassuming kid, who could still face the world with open wonder. It's experiences like this that carry you through the darker moments.

College had another special benefit beyond the professional academic one. My roommate eventually became my brother-in-law: his sister Alice and I were married in 1974. After a number of years in the field of public health nutrition and hospital dietetics, Alice decided to retrain as a public school teacher, and since our arrival in the Boston area, has been teaching middle school science, thus building on her nutritional experience. She clearly has found her metier, and offers a rigorous and imaginative adventure in science to her sixth and seventh grade classes, despite the very real difficulties of more than her share of at risk students and, not occasionally, an unresponsive administration. Our two children are making their way, happily, very nicely. The older, Edith, just graduated with an honors B.A. from New York University in linguistics, and has opened up a store with a colleague in lower Manhattan, selling their own designs in women's fashions. Our son, David, is about to complete his sophomore year in high school, with a strong interest, among other things, in history, especially the American Civil War (Mr. Sperry, take notice).

As I look back over these many years, Governor Dummer comes to have an even more important place in my perspective than I could have realized when we were graduated in 1962. Indeed, I would regard it as the defining period in my rather extended, and still continuing, education. Thanks to the constant discussions you and I as classmates had in and out of the classroom, and the impact of such teachers as Bill Sperry, David Williams, Roy Ohrn, MacDonald Murphy, and Buster Navins, I not only found my own professional interest, as I have indicated; I learned what the life of the mind was all about, and its special, unique pleasures, rewards - and, yes at times, terrors. The challenge of writing the large senior historical essay for Bill Sperry, for example, and the meticulous way in which he organized the whole process for us, have stayed with me and become the model by which I craft the assignments in my own classes. Even long after graduation, and when I was in the early stages of my own teaching career, the timely intervention of Peter Bragdon helped me get over a serious crisis that otherwise might have marked the end of any teaching possibilities for me. I thus feel especially grateful at this time of our fortieth reunion to all that the Academy has meant and done for me.