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Week of May 21, 2012

Faculty Spotlight

Professor’s path runs from Harvard to the History Channel

Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography.

David Potter, a Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, has a full resume — ranging from Harvard to the History Channel.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard before completing his graduate studies at Oxford University in England. He studied ancient history, and his graduate thesis became his first book.

Potter, who also is a professor of Greek and Latin, says his graduate work was especially beneficial, as he is able to draw on his experience to help advise graduate students today.

“I loved graduate school,” he says. “Mostly because I had the freedom to develop my own research interests and had intelligent people to talk to about it.” He hopes that his students — he’s directed more than 40 dissertations — feel the same way, and emphasizes the importance of helping them find their own topics instead of pushing them down some pre-determined path.

Potter teaches both undergraduates and graduate students, in topics such as ancient sport, emperors, classical warfare as well as Latin and Greek. In mentioning his work as a Latin professor, he raves about how much he is impressed by U-M students.

“We’re very lucky at Michigan,” he says. “We have extraordinarily able students coming through.”

He mentions the ancient historians Thucydides (Greece) and Tacitus (Rome) as two of his main inspirations in his studies, and how one’s memory potentially can impact the reporting of history.

“They both look at the way that reportage (accurate or otherwise — and it is usually otherwise) creates its own reality. These are central themes, I think, for people at any time and any place, whether in the way they look at the big events of their time or moments in their own lives,” he says.

Out of departmental need, Potter began teaching a course on ancient sport when he arrived at U-M as an assistant professor. Initially, it wasn’t his area of expertise, but he learned to appreciate the topic.

“Once I started teaching the course, I saw how the study of sport offers a wonderful way to look at what excites people, ancient or modern,” he says. “(What fascinates me) are how different sports developed, the role of fans and athletes in shaping events (and the economic aspects of sport), why people went to the games and what they expected to take away and how sports reflect the attitudes current in a society.”

He began writing about gladiators and entertainment associated with sports, and was asked to appear on The History Channel as an expert in some of its programming. His goal when doing interviews for television is to try to show people how studying ancient history is relevant.

“It’s sort of an extension of teaching,” he says. “You’re reaching out to a different audience and I think it’s important to reach as many people as you can.”

And his opinion on athletics in Ann Arbor?

“Boy, how Caesar would’ve loved to be in Michigan Stadium on a Saturday afternoon,” he says, adding that the renovations to the Big House make it resemble the Roman Coliseum.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



David Potter, Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History, on loving graduate school: “Mostly because I had the freedom to develop my own research interests and had intelligent people to talk to about it.”


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