Herman Sinaiko is a rock star

“Sure I'll be a model,” Herman Sinaiko, beloved professor of humanities, e-mailed back when I asked if we could photograph him for a Core article on University of Chicago T-shirts. “But I need assurance that I will not be held financially responsible for any camera lenses that break taking my picture.”

No replacement lenses were necessary, and Sinaiko was just as charming in front of a camera as he is at the front of a classroom. But the Library's Special Collections Research Center has a small and rather random group of T-shirts, so unfortunately he ended up wearing a shirt that had nothing to do with him or his field of study. If only he had known, he said, he would have brought a shirt that some students had made a few years before.

“Herman Sinaiko is a Rock Star” began as a Facebook group set up by Rita Koganzon, AB’07, in 2005. At the time Koganzon was enrolled in the humanities sequence Greek Thought and Literature. The class was “incredible,” she says, “a demonstration of how to read texts closely and seriously by someone who also exemplified what it might be like to live a scholarly and thoughtful life.

“Sinaiko went very slowly and focused on the first chapter, or even the first lines, of whatever text we were reading—he said he had ‘a passion for beginnings,’” she says. “For instance, why does it matter that Herodotus is from Halicarnassus? What does it mean that he will record the great deeds of Greeks and barbarians alike? I was grateful to have been shaken out of my high school stupor and shown how to ask and answer such questions.”

Koganzon and another student in the class, David Kaye, AB’08, set up "Herman Sinaiko is a Rock Star" “around the time that Facebook fan groups for actual celebrities were proliferating,” she says. “We liked the idea of framing Sinaiko's awesomeness in celebrity terms.”

An early member was Anne Heminger, AB’08, who had chosen Sinaiko’s Greek Thought because it fit her schedule. Only later did she discover that Sinaiko, who has taught at Chicago since 1954, had been her mother’s master’s thesis adviser and that her step-grandmother had taken a class from him while studying for her doctorate.

Sinaiko is notorious for asking his students to think about topics that might or might not seem relevant to the text being discussed: “They weren’t crazy exactly,” says Kaye, “but definitely unpredictable.” During one class on Aristophenes’ The Clouds, Heminger and her neighbor Caitrin Nicol, AB’08, compiled a list of everything Sinaiko mentioned, from elephants and cell phones to dirty tricks and revenge. “This morning, I’m pretty sure he said, ‘What I’m asking you to think about is’ about 23 times,” Nicol wrote on the Facebook group’s discussion board.

"Feeling nostalgic” the following fall, Nicol says, she decided to make a T-shirt. “It’s certainly the case that all of us were in love with him,” says Kaye. He persuaded the News Office to lend him a high-resolution photograph for the front; for the back, Nichol and Heminger added a few of their all-time favorites to the Aristophenes topics list, such as “if dogs could vote.”

When the shirts arrived, Kaye, Nichol, Heminger and a few other students formed a phalanx outside Sinaiko’s new Greek Thought course. As it happened, says Nichol, “the day we crashed the class, the subject of discussion was a story from Herodotus on what it means to honor someone.”

“Sinaiko came rushing past us out of the Cobb elevator and into the classroom,” says Kaye. “He was completely oblivious to the students standing there with a huge picture of him on our T-shirts.”

“It was supposed to be such an epic moment, and it was so anticlimactic,” says Nichol. “But then he came back out and said, ‘Oh, it’s you guys!’ He was never very good with names. ‘You’re wearing my shirt! You’re wearing my face!’ It was classic Herman from start to finish.”

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

July 9, 2009