You are here

Rhymes for the Times

November 24, 2014

The sight of a limerick here
Will alert you that Nicholson's near:
Late Antiquity's Ages
Latin literature's pages
He distils into dactyls bright, clear.
Oliver Nicholson

Portrait: Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson

Most college professors have a few specialized tricks that help their students comprehend complex ideas--grasp a language concept, say, or memorize foundational facts of history. Professor Oliver Nicholson has a veritable goldmine of these mnemonics, the most notable being his limericks. His enthusiasm for his subjects and ability to make Latin and Late Antiquity come to life has made him one of the most popular professors in the College of Liberal Arts. As a result, his students and colleagues joined together to nominate him for an Arthur "Red" Motley Exemplary Teaching Award in 2009.

A professor of classical and Near Eastern studies, Nicholson specializes in the late antique Mediterranean world, roughly 250 - 700 C.E. Late Antiquity was a period of rapid change that shaped many of the cultural and political realities we experience today. Learning about the Persian empire in that era, for example, leads to deeper understanding of today's political landscape in that region. Late Antiquity saw the birth of Islam, the twilight of the Roman Empire, and the writings of Augustine. It was an era of profound change and unprecedented realignments in what millions of people felt was the meaning of life itself.

Nicholson's expertise in Late Antiquity is so highly regarded that he recently signed on as general editor of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, the first-ever encyclopedic dictionary of this era of European history. Only a handful of scholars have the expertise that spans so broad a culture and chronological landscape; Minnesota's students are especially fortunate to have such an authority introduce them to this period.

He does not simply relate information; he tells stories and "...the material takes on a sort of life and relevance that captivates the imagination of the listeners."
- former student

His students uniformly rave about Nicholson's humor and generosity. He's a natural teacher and storyteller whose jingles and puns, parables and limericks ("There was an old man called Plotinus, Who labored in vain to refine us...") help his students memorize items ranging from the genders of Latin nouns to historical facts about Roman emperors. And Nicholson's teaching has created its own legacy; as one former student says, "I continue to use many of these [mnemonics], much to the delight of my own Latin students. They are quite handy."

"He really is unstinting in his intellectual outpouring; he never censors the sophistication of his speech, but trusts the intelligence of the students and their desire for learning."
- former student

Nicholson's esteem for his students is clearly as high as theirs is for him. "I never forget that I am talking to a collection of individuals," Nicholson says. "It is a privilege to be allowed to affect, one hopes for good, so many lives."