By Courtesy of Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Fifteen Questions: David F. Elmer on Test Anxiety, ‘Percy Jackson,’ and His Favorite Harvard House

The Classics Chair and incoming Eliot House Dean sat down with FM to discuss ancient Greek literature, South Slavic oral traditions, and why he hasn’t read the bestselling Rick Riordan series.
By Adelaide E. Parker

Chair of the Classics department and incoming Eliot House Faculty Dean David F. Elmer ’98 specializes in Ancient Greek poetry and South Slavic oral traditions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: How did you first become interested in the classics?

DFE: I went to a Jesuit high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where taking Latin and Greek was an option. I took both Latin and Greek, and I was immediately fascinated by the intellectual process of putting together this fragmentary record of a distant, and, to me, very mysterious and intriguing world. I fell in love with the subject as a puzzle-solving enterprise.

Another origin story I sometimes tell myself is that I remember when I was very young, eight or nine or 10 years old, I really wanted to be an archaeologist. I think that had to do with seeing, I hate to say, the first Indiana Jones movie — which is problematic in a number of ways as a representation of archaeology and as a representation of cultures in contact — but it really made me interested in it. It really infused me with a sense that the past is a place of mysterious treasures to be discovered.

FM: You’ve studied the intersection of philosophy and ancient Greek literature. How are the moral lessons contained in ancient Greek stories relevant to us today?

DFE: One of my favorite books from Greek and Roman antiquity — and it’s a book that I teach in Hum 10 — is called “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius.

It’s a novel that really delights in presenting the reader with naughty people doing naughty things.

One of the most interesting things about this book is that Apuleius, the writer of the book — he was famous in antiquity as a Platonic philosopher. He’s actually engaging quite seriously with the tradition of Platonic philosophy in this comic novel.

The reader is challenged to decide whether you’re going to read this book purely for the naughty pleasure of reading it, or whether you’re going to read this book for the serious things that it can have to say about the soul and its pursuit of truth. That makes it, for me, a timelessly relevant book.

FM: Jumping off that, based on your experiences teaching as a professor in Hum 10, what is one book that you think everyone should read?

DFE: It’s so hard to pick just one.

I kind of have to say “The Iliad,” because I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing about “The Iliad. And I think everybody should read “The Golden Ass” actually — but with some professional guidance, because otherwise you might read it the wrong way.

FM: You’ve studied how political decision-making in “The Iliad” can be applied to political decision-making in modern times. Is there anything you think that we can take and learn from “The Iliad” going into the 2024 election this fall?

DFE: The big lesson for me from the early work I did on “The Iliad” was that even when individual leaders have the apparent option of exercising autocratic decision-making power, they can’t hope or expect their decisions to have lasting effects if they don’t have consensus. This, I take, is a warning to would-be autocrats.

With regard to the 2024 election, I think Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War” is also a good text to be reading, because Thucydides is very interested in misinformation and the way that political speech can distort our understanding of facts. I think this is really relevant these days.

FM: Getting broader, what is your favorite Greek myth or story?

DFE: It’s hard not to be totally taken by the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops and their interaction. It’s just such a beautiful and complicated and multi-layered contest of wits. Although the wits are mostly on one side — the Cyclops is not the most clever opponent.

FM: I have some little siblings, and they’ve recently become obsessed with the Disney+ “Percy Jackson” TV show. Have you seen the TV show? And if you have, what are your thoughts?

DFE: I’m afraid I have not seen the “Percy Jackson” TV show. I’m also ashamed to say I have not read the “Percy Jackson” books, although I’ve tried to get my own kids to take an interest in them just so I could read them. I’m still working on that.

FM: Even though you haven’t seen “Percy Jackson,” if you were a demigod, who do you think your godly parent would be?

DFE: Hermes. I think Hermes has a good sense of humor.

FM: I’m currently taking a course on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and my friends always make fun of me by saying it’ll never be useful in daily life. Have you had any day-to-day instances when your knowledge of ancient languages has come in handy?

DFE: Oh my God, all the time, every day. My daughter is very annoyed because I’m always telling her what words really mean on the basis of their etymologies. I say to her, “Oh, you know what that word really means?” She says, “Oh, it’s Greek, right?” in a very unimpressed tone of voice. But I certainly feel that knowing something about the history of the English language through Latin and Greek helps me — certainly as a reader and in daily life — make better sense of the world through the language I am able to use to describe it.

Now, I’m trying to think of a more practical case in which all of this might be useful. There was one time I was traveling.

I was having lunch with an Italian Albanian Catholic priest, and our only common language was Latin. It turns out I’m not very good at speaking Latin, so it was a very awkward conversation. But at least there was some practical utility there.

FM: I know you spent a year as a fellow in Croatia. Can you tell me about that experience?

DFE: My senior year of college, I was really set on going to graduate school in classics the following year. But I was also, like many college seniors, very anxious and really struggling with anxiety, with sleeplessness, with depression on and off.

I had signed up to take the GRE exam on the last possible day that I could take it in order to submit the score with my applications, which was required. I couldn’t sleep at all the night before.

Somewhere around question 15 or 16, in the first of six sections on this exam, there was a typo in the question. In my completely stressed out and sleep-deprived mind, I could not get past this typo in the question. I became so fixated on it that I simply couldn’t proceed with it. So I got up in the middle of the test and I just left — which meant that I wasn’t going to have a score, which meant that I couldn’t apply to graduate school.

I recalled walking out into a cold but sunny morning and thinking, “Oh my gosh, my entire plan for the next six years of my life has now evaporated.” It was a little bit scary, but also tremendously liberating.

Then I started trying to figure out what else I was going to do. I applied for one of the Harvard traveling fellowships and got it, then I spent that year in Croatia.

It was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I traveled around the country of Croatia, which is a small country, so it’s easy to do. I met lots of scholars — I mean, I took it seriously as a scholarly pursuit. I met a lot of ethnographers and anthropologists. But I also met a lot of other young people who were also trying to figure out their lives.

FM: You’ve done a good amount of work with South Slavic oral traditions. What do you love about South Slavic oral tradition?

DFE: The stories themselves are exciting stories — the stories of this South Slavic oral epic tradition are epic tales of heroism and adventure and so on. Anybody who loves Homer is going to find all of those same qualities in these Slavic epic songs. There’s actually a significant scholarly tradition rooted at Harvard in studying those oral epics from Southeast Europe as a point of comparison for Homeric poetry.

Harvard has one of the best collections of recordings of these songs in the world. They’re not particularly fun to listen to — they’re songs, but they’re not very musical. So when I play recordings of these things for people, they’re like, “Oh, my God, how can you listen to that?” Because they’re hours and hours long. But it’s more about the storytelling — the unfolding of the story.

FM: How do you think now, in the modern day, the rise of video and audio-centric social media like TikTok is shaping modern oral traditions?

DFE: One thing we certainly see globally is that forms of oral poetry that were previously disseminated via live performance are now disseminated via digital recordings.

This is really significant, for example, for diasporic communities. It does have an impact, in many contexts, on traditional techniques of composition and read performance. If something is transmitted only in performance, typically we see a lot more fluidity in the text. Whereas once it becomes recorded and documented, then texts tend to become fixed.

FM: Speaking of music and performance, I heard that when you were in college, you were a jazz DJ for Harvard Radio Broadcasting. Who is your favorite jazz musician?

DFE: This is one of those questions where it’s really hard to give just one answer. Clifford Brown, a trumpet player, is probably my favorite. But I could name others that are equally amazing.

FM: What are you most looking forward to about being Eliot Faculty Dean?

DFE: We are looking forward to being part of the Eliot community. In the application process for the position, we got a sense of how closely knit the community is and what a cohesive, supportive spirit there is in the house.

Both of us feel very passionately about a liberal arts orientation in undergraduate education. We think one of the unique things about Harvard is the way the houses provide the setting where all the pieces of the liberal arts ideal come together. You have students literally bringing to the table over meals their intellectual experiences, their extracurricular experiences, their artistic practices, their athletic skills, and so on. It all comes together and becomes part of the conversation there in the houses.

FM: Were you in Eliot when you were an undergrad?

DFE: I was in Dunster.

FM: Which house do you prefer?

DFE: I can’t answer that question. Actually, Eliot. I think I’m obliged to say Eliot.

— Associate Magazine Editor Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at