Page title

Ecocriticism, Ovid, and RPGs: An Interview with Peter Kelly

Main page content

Published Date

February 2, 2024


Already a familiar name in conference programs and grant announcements, Peter Kelly is now well into his second year with Princeton Classics. We figured it was high time we sat down with Prof. Kelly for a wide-ranging conversation on his (many) projects, his teaching methods, and his experience as a new faculty member at Princeton:

First off, I should say congratulations! You’ve recently received a grant for a workshop series on ekphrasis in the modern imagination, so shall we start there? Why ekphrasis?

Well, the short answer is I’m interested in far too many things, and ekphrasis is one that connects many of my research areas. These workshops are an extension of a project I’m doing with the Greek poet Yiannis Doukas; we are currently creating a volume, bringing together contemporary poets who use ekphrasis in their work, as well as more academic essays that look at ekphrasis between modern and ancient literature, especially Ovid. And it was going down that avenue, bringing the academic and creative into conversation, that I started to see that the major force of Ovid in that context was environmentalism, which is another book I’m working on.

I remember last fall you presented on ecocritical readings of Ovid. Can I ask, have you always had that impulse, this drive toward the interdisciplinary?

I guess so, but in Galway where I started, the department was so small you almost had to be. My doctoral supervisor was an expert on Homer and Gilgamesh, but he was more than willing to supervise a PhD on Ovid—I mean, it's all epic literature after all! So the lines there between disciplines or within the discipline felt very open. And now at Princeton, both within Classics and in the university at large, the sheer number of people I can collaborate with, develop projects with—that's a huge advantage for somebody "with a lot of different interests.” I hope the ekphrasis workshops will include many of our grad students and undergrads. And I have another project with Environmental Humanities and the High Meadows Institute, which will be focused on ideas of exile, but the plan is also to include the creative side, so we get artists involved, we get poets involved, and we get them into discussion with people doing fantastic things in the Department here. And the reality is that Princeton sees value, and the Department sees value, in those kinds of activities and supports them to no end. It’s one of the fabulous things about being here, to get that kind of support.

That’s excellent to hear. But I feel like I already need a recap: you have the ekphrasis volume, the ecocritical reading of Ovid, the Princeton-Humboldt workshops, and the environmental exile project. I know you’re a working poet as well, and I do want to talk about your teaching. But have I missed anything?

Working poet… that depends on who’s asking—I’m working on a small collection. But I’ve also just finished a book on the influence of Plato on Ovid [forthcoming from Cambrige University Press], which is, in a general sense, about the meeting of poetry and philosophy, and how the borders between what we consider to be natural philosophy, science, and poetry were much more open in the ancient world. Ovid’s worldview is much more complex than was once realized, and he can provide us insights that get to the heart of how we're interconnected with the world we occupy, what human identity is, if we can conceive of it, and how the formation of the world occurred. So I hope to get that out soon.

More congratulations! And again, the interdisciplinarity, which I wonder how much plays into your teaching. You taught LAT 210 last semester, right?

“Invective,” yes. And also a freshman seminar called “Reenacting the Scientific Revolution: RPGs in the Ancient and Early Modern Worlds.” We put Galileo on trial.

In an RPG, a role-playing game? How did that happen?

Back when I was teaching at Oregon State, the Vice Dean of the Honors College was doing very innovative teaching at the time, using established role-playing games. And during a meeting with her I saw a copy of “The Trial of Galileo” on her desk. I thought, this is fascinating, and I don't know very much about Galileo, but I'm kind of interested. And I’m also interested (see, far too many things) in the early modern reception of ancient literature. I have an article hopefully nobody can find on reception of Lucretius in Galileo—

I'll put up a link.

Oh, no. But this class was eye-opening, it completely shifted my thinking about what teaching can be and what creativity within the classroom can look like. Because it empowers students to take charge of their learning experience. It's one of these—to use a buzzword—experiential opportunities, right? But it really is very genuinely powerful. I start out teaching them, give them the whole historical backdrop, we dive into some texts, do a bit of close reading, and then I distribute roles to each student. And they take over. They hold debates in the Vatican over whether Galileo should be found guilty of heresy, whether he should be allowed to publish, whether he should be put under house arrest—whether he should be burnt at the stake! And they forget that they're in a classroom. They embody the imagined space so much that they forget about their grades. They're concerned about winning the game at all costs.

Even if the cost is an enormous amount of educational research?

Exactly. Because they have to ground their ideas in the literature. And they will push themselves to no end in terms of additional research. It's fantastic. Also, it allows students who have skills from a vast range of disciplines to bring them into the classroom. So I can have, let's say, mathematics students demonstrating stellar parallax by drawing diagrams on the board. And a history student who will go into the finer details of canon law at the time period. Or a philosophy student doing a deep dive into the ethical significance of some of the ideas being expressed, etc, etc.

Really wonderful. But I’m curious, since you also taught LAT 210, can you teach a course like that the same way?

It’s a good question. In this case, the last part of the Galileo class we switched things up and had the students design a new game, which was on whether Lucretius's De Rerum Natura should be put on the index of forbidden books in that period. And I do plan on using that game when I teach Lucretius this semester. That said, some of the most positive experiences I've had as a learner have been language courses where you spend a lot of time very carefully working your way through a text. Obviously there's significant linguistic value in that, but also for establishing research skills, analytical skills, and reading things in real fine grain so you can draw connections with the other things you're working on. Those traditional methods can be extremely enriching even for creative work, where you have to really know stuff inside and out. And so, you know, the two have to go hand in hand and reinforce each other. It's about finding the appropriate way to introduce those elements to language teaching.

Makes sense to me. Just to conclude then, I wondered if, from one year in, you have any reflections to share on your time so far at Princeton.

Sure, sure. I've tended to shy away from the personal when operating in the academic world, but I’m becoming more aware all the time that what empowers us is being able to recognize that what happens in our daily lives directly affects how we work. So it’s been a difficult year because I lost my mother and that made the move to Princeton very difficult. However, throughout that, I have received ongoing support from everybody within this department, and I am extremely grateful for that. I don't know if that's too on the nose, but it’s an honest answer.

Well, we thank you for it. And, as part of the department and as the person asking the question, I'm respectively sorry and delighted to hear that. And I very much look forward to these many, many projects coming to fruition.

Believe me, so am I.