Classics and the Disciplines

I was pretty interested to read second installment in Sarah Bond’s series “Addressing the Divide” on the Society for Classical Studies blog. It reflects on the division between Classics and Archaeology and ponders the borders of Classics as a field. Classics has always been a bit odd in that – from an outsiders perspective – it appears to lack the methodological definition of so many 20th century academic disciplines. In practice, this means departments that have traditional textual philologists, historians, religious studies scholars, archaeologists, and art historians. In her post, Bond quotes James Newhard who noted that Classics is a three-legged stool with legs of philology, history, and archaeology. In short, Classics embodies pre-modern transdisciplinary practices, but also offer a way to think about the future of the university.

It goes without saying that negotiating the relationship between Classics and more conventional disciplines is fraught. In fact, this post evoked some well-considered concerns from Art Historians who feared that this specific reading of Classics marginalized their contributions to the project.

Taking nothing away from their critique, I think the tensions between disciplinary practices and fields like Classics speak to changing nature of the university. Today more than ever, academics are looking toward their disciplines as counterweights to the growing tendency for universities to break down the traditional organizational and institutional structures that provided a framework for professional autonomy and shared governance. They have also served to establish standards of competence and expertise through formal procedures such as accreditation as well as less formal means such as the publication of academic journals, the hosting of annual meetings, and dissemination of guidelines and recommendations for institutions and individuals. 

At the same time, there’s a growing suspicion that disciplinary definitions – as they now exist – may not provide a framework for addressing the most challenging problems facing our world. More than that, most of us – in almost every academic field – happily stray from our narrow disciplinary preferences to dance in other people’s gardens. We rely on the work of other specialists to support our arguments and to correct us when we stumble over intellectual or discursive pitfalls.

Because I don’t associate strongly with Classics (although I would admit to being “Classics Adjacent”), I’m reluctant to weigh in on these debates, but I am fascinated and optimistic that negotiating the relationship between disciplines and the field of Classics will offer a template for understanding how disciplines will fit into an increasingly trans- and interdisciplinary university. 

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