February 2, 2000
Robyn L. Loda
Six hundred years before the Common Era, metal currency of a style we call coinage appears in Western Anatolia, a place that eventually would become the country of Turkey. Almost 2,600 years later, a little boy named Ken can barely contain himself as he awaits his father at their kitchen table in Long Island, N.Y. Wiggling his feet, he tries to sit still, watching his father bring out long, thin metal boxes filled with tiny paper envelopes lined up in rows.
And like magic, from within each envelope, a heavy brown coin is produced. Sometimes his father pulls out coins of silver and gold, too. And the pictures! Faces that he knows were real, forever immortalized in metal. Touching each face, his young imagination runs wild, dreaming of ancient battles waged in full armor and crimson-cloaked royalty upon golden thrones. Kenneth Harl is 6 years old, but he can already see in coins what others cannot.
His heroes are real ones -- Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and his father. He will not grow up to be the kind of international financier his father is, a man prominent in the workings of corporations and trusts. But Ken will follow in his father's footsteps, becoming a financial genius in his own right as the world's foremost authority on ancient coins and economies. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Turkish -- any coins found in the Mediterranean -- he will be asked to identify them all.
This year, an older but no less imaginative Professor Kenneth W. Harl celebrates his 22nd year in Tulane's history department; he teaches in the classics department as well. And along with his status as a world-renowned numismatist, or person who studies coins, he is proud of his Tulane-renowned status as a one-of-a-kind teacher who gives his students everything he has.
As a student himself, Harl was encouraged and nurtured by some of the finest scholars in history and classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., during his undergraduate years. Still more mentors stoked this fire during his graduate school years at Yale.
When he asked these masters how he could ever repay them for their gifts of support and encouragement, they introduced him to a new kind of currency -- that of concern for students, of passing on the torch of knowledge to each one and developing his or her strengths.
They explained that only when Harl finally "raised" students himself from bright undergraduates to extraordinary scholars would he fully understand what they had given him -- that's when his debt to them would be repaid. And in the past 22 years, Harl has "raised" an extraordinary number of students academically -- enough to pay back each of his mentors tenfold.
They gather in the large lecture hall on the second floor of the Hebert Building in the heart of Tulane's uptown campus. Even the aromas within the old building carry with them reminiscences of scholarly pursuits from days gone by. It is 9 a.m., and the room is filled with bright sunlight. Students in hooded sweatshirts and jeans saunter in and plop into their seats with evident grogginess. Harl enters, wearing a red V-neck sweater, tan pants and boat shoes -- his usual uniform.
Walking briskly to the huge blackboard, he pulls down multiple boards from tracks above it, already peppered with the day's key phrases. The kids get settled, seeming to stoically accept the fact that a tidal wave of information is about to wash over them. They pull out their pens and notebooks, perhaps glancing over a handout Harl has printed. He begins the class. They sit up straighter after his first sentence or two, realizing that he has already drenched them in more ideas than should be allowed at this hour of the morning. But any attachment to sleep has no place here now.
Harl shifts into second gear, and away they go. He rapidly paces back and forth at the front of the room, staring down at the floor in concentration yet projecting his voice at such a commanding level that even the outermost seats are surrounded by his words. He does not look at an outline, though he could just as easily be reading from a textbook full of elaborate names and obscure dates. Harl punctuates almost every idea with extra tidbits, from the Greek roots of words, to anecdotes about imperial families.
In a few minutes, he looks up to reconnect with his students, each of whom he knows by name. He uses those names in scenarios to illustrate dynamics in ancient situations.
"So if Susan here is the coin changer in the marketplace, and Mark is trying to cash in his currency from the next town to get coins to use in this town, she will charge him a service fee...Then she will deliver the foreign currency to David over here...Now he has been instructed by the imperial government to mark each of these particular coins, so he has them struck cold at the local mint by Judy..."
Harl makes jokes about the behaviors of the ancients. But soon he is pacing again, passionately explaining and embellishing at an astonishing rate. Those without tape recorders are surely doomed.
Only the sharpest seem to give an occasional guffaw at his utterly dry wit, or perhaps they are simply the ones least worried about retaining the mass of information that is this man's gift. Harl is like a walking encyclopedia of ancient history. But it is Harl's seminars that students literally fight to get into. Word of mouth travels fast, and the waiting list for his classes do not reflect rumors of an easy A.
Only kids ready for the academic version of "tough love" remain in his courses, which demand around 400 pages of weekly reading. And with a discussion format to follow, it's tough to slip by without keeping up.
"My students really get into this stuff," says Harl. "It's so amazing to find yourself among 19- and 20-year-olds as they argue the finer points of Plato. I'm showing them how they think -- how they're taught to think, to govern, to perceive the world in general. And this kind of understanding aids students in all fields because they can understand the structures we use and what happens within those structures."
Harl's skill and enthusiasm for teaching continue to amaze Jaclyn L. Maxwell (N '95), who can see beyond the divide between teachers and students now that she's about to become a professor herself. Though many of Harl's students experience exceptional careers, Maxwell is Harl's only student to complete her PhD in ancient and medieval history, following closely in Harl's footsteps.
"When too many students signed up for Dr. Harl's classes, which often happened, he chose to teach extra classes rather than turn students away," she says. "He managed to cultivate a large following of undergraduates -- history majors and many others -- who took class after class with him. And this popularity did not come from easy assignments: the weekly reading was demanding, and he still overenrolled classes such as Roman Republic, Athenian Empire and Pagans and Christians."
Clearly, Harl has quite the reputation at Tulane as a top-notch instructor. His multiple teaching awards include the annual Sheldon Hackney Award in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, an honor completely based on student recommendations. It is the most prestigious teaching award at Tulane, and Harl has received it twice. This type of student recognition doesn't go unnoticed by Tulane administrators, either.
"Ken Harl is an extraordinary teacher," says Teresa Soufas, dean of the liberal arts and sciences faculty. "He's careful to make sure that all students, no matter what their background or level of engagement, can seriously benefit from the courses he teaches. He gives a lot of individual attention to his students, and that's so important. It's remarkable to win the Hackney even once."
In 1994, Harl decided to take a group of 20 undergraduates to Turkey for an entire month on a tour of more than 75 ancient sites. It was no easy trip to organize or execute. But ever the monetary wizard in the highest sense of the phrase, Harl found the money to help defray the high costs of transportation, food and lodging. He organized the group to sell T-shirts to pay for their fresh water supply. He applied for grants.
Harl also sold his personal collection of science fiction books to contribute monies of his own, and solicited funds from the many former students with whom he keeps in frequent contact. This last endeavor not only provided the students with the necessary travel money; it set in motion another of the "payback" currencies akin to the one his mentors revealed to him. "Some gave $5; others who were doing well sent larger amounts," Harl remembers.
"But everyone sent something, or wrote their sincere regrets at their financial situations because they would have loved going with me to Turkey and wanted to help those who now could be the ones to go, they said. It was wonderful!" The 1994 trip was a hit, as Harl and the group sped around western Turkey from site to site. "The experience of having a brilliant professor such as Ken while on the site [of ancient monuments and events] was enthralling," says Jason Sanchez (A&S '92), who went on the trip.
"Rather than simply using a textbook to study these ancient civilizations, standing on the ground of an actual society, feeling the air and smelling its essences while remembering your Thucydides or Tacitus, brings the history to life. You can almost smell the sweat of the decurions or the strong aroma of garum in the agora. For me, this trip put a great deal of flesh on the bones of the beast I had studied in school so many years ago."
At the time of the trip, Sanchez was living in Hong Kong and involved in finance; he has traveled with Harl on a number of research occasions as well. But since the excursion to Turkey, he has chosen to pursue an academic career in history, now attending the acclaimed School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Sanchez cites Harl's fame as a world-class numismatist as a major reason the students received such an opportunity to see so many sites in Turkey.
"His reputation on numismatics in Turkey means that doors are opened to him that would be closed to others," explains Sanchez. "Every scholar in the field of Greco-Roman history knows Ken Harl's works on coinage. His ability to explain all manners of social, economic and historic events using coins is a terrific tool to teach students. And even students who have no interest in numismatics per se can understand the cold, hard facts of money -- they understand textbook costs and tuition."
For Sanchez, Harl penetrates the "usual veil" of how far removed this kind of history can seem from students' lives today. He demonstrates, for example, the amount of money it took for a Big Mac and a Coke, and that kind of simplicity truly brings it all home, Sanchez says. Harl plans to take another large group of undergraduates to Turkey for a month this summer. He has affectionately dubbed the trip "Turkey 2000," and is already in the throes of fund raising and organization.
Harl is optimistic that those who embarked on the excursion in 1994 will help support the current one; he is also writing grant proposals and preparing another group T-shirt sale. With any luck, he will not have to sell more personal collections to help pay the expenses but, as always, he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make Turkey 2000 a reality.
Harl teaches with passion anyone who wants to learn what he knows, but he does not dissuade them from their intended careers and try to lure them into becoming ancient historians. First of all, he believes that you either feel it or you don't. "I knew that I wanted to do this at the age of 6, and I understand fully why most people don't want to do this," he admits. He has a laundry list of reasons not to become what he is, and the first one is that even he finds his life eccentric.
"I'm not like other people in my field, I realize this. I'm really a fanatic about ancient history and teaching, so I'm not a good example of what to become." Moments of relaxation are few and far between for Harl. Any time during the academic year not spent teaching and advising is filled with research, writing and publishing, not to mention preparing for speaking engagements and guest lectures.
Summers are booked up, too -- that's when he stays in Turkey for almost four months each year. "And besides, a lot of people want to have families, and I chose not to, so it's hard to show them what it would be like to be that dedicated and still be a scholar of my type," Harl continues. (He does reveal with a shy smile, however, that he's always loved a particular Greco-Syrian woman named Julia Domna, the empress of the Serverus Roman Empire, circa 193. Like true star-crossed lovers, their distance spans more than 1,800 years. Harl must be content to collect coins graced with her image and sigh wistfully as he discusses her beauty.)
When your work is your life, the way you pass on what you are is through the work itself. And Harl has accomplished this, immortalizing himself through his research. But it is Harl's exceptional success in mentoring that allows him to continue his "lineage" in a personal way.
"I feel very parental toward my students -- they're like my kids. They even call students who take a number of my classes 'Harl's Kids.' Of course, real-life parenting is much more difficult -- I'd never pretend to know how hard that is. But I really do feel like I raise these kids in many ways. I try to impart everything I know so I can give them the tools they'll need to make it out there in the world."
Robyn L. Loda is an editor in the Office of University Publications. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Tulanian.
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