Three Things Thursday: Art, Books, and Classics

I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above the whelming tide these days, but fortunately the incoming deluge seems to be those plastic balls rather than the roiling surf. As a result, there are dozens of things jostling for my attention and it seems best to tame three of them with a “three things Thursday post.” A few of these things might grow up to 

Thing the First

I just posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a gaggle of prints by artist Marco Hernandez. They’re really pretty great. I love how he not only uses contemporary media to illustrate the complexities of Mexican identity and his experiences as a Mexican-American in the US. We published his prints in grey scale in the Quarterly, but he generously allowed us to post them in color on the NDQ website. The appearance of color is particularly compelling as Hernandez used it to add an edge to his often incisive cultural critiques.

Anyway, the prints are pretty great and if you don’t feel like reading my solipsistic ramblings this morning, please go and check them out.

Thing the Second

The History Department is being moved from its offices in the University of North Dakota’s O’Kelly Hall while our floor is being renovated. We’ve also been asked to downsize into smaller offices with less bookshelf and file space. This seemed like a good opportunity to go through the books that I have collected over the past two decades and determine which are worth keeping (and moving!) and which I could afford to give away or discard.

Going through the books has been a pretty interesting (and somewhat sobering) experience. First, my book collection has a clear stratigraphy with clear layers of book collected during particular periods in my academic life. For example, I still have dozens of books on the Roman Republic from my graduate school days before I drifted towardLate Antiquity. I also have a layer of books that reflect that interest and my growing interest in field archaeology. Finally, I have a clear break between my graduate school days and my days as a professor and the books that I collected to support the classes that I was teaching with a particular emphasis on books that deal with historical methods and major trends in historiography. Most recently levels reveal my drift toward historical archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world.

More sobering was the prevalence of white, male authors throughout my collection. It is really depressing to realize that amid my hundreds of books, I probably have fewer than 50 books by women and people of color. Part of this might reflect a bias in my book buying habits in that for my recent research I have relied more heavily on digital resources and library subscriptions. Thus the most recent levels in my library’s stratigraphy are less representative of the earlier levels. Anyone who reads this blog know that I continue to lag behind on the wokeness scale, but I hope that over the five years or so I have shown some signs of progress toward a more diverse reading list. On the opposite end of the chronological spectrum are a few books that date to my undergraduate days whose yellowing paged and faded spines form a small, but distinct residual assemblage. 

Finally, going through my collection has made me think about which books I want to keep and are worth keeping. Which books are classics that might draw my attention in the future and which are books that I consumed and can be more profitably passed onto a more interested and welcoming student. There are a few books – desk copies of textbooks, trade novels bought for travel, and books grabbed on a whim from used book sales – that I can just discard. But there remains a distinct handful of books that I’ll probably never read again, but have sentimental value. It’ll be nice seeing them on the shelves of my home office.

Thing the Third

There’s been a good bit of thoughtful conversation about the future of Classics prompted in no small part by the recent New York Times magazine article on whether Classics can survive and a few “burn it down” threads on Twitter. I’ve appreciated the discussion, but have also felt further from the core of academia more than ever.

My university doesn’t have a Classics Department. In fact, the two or three of us who could be loosely considered Classicists teach in languages, history, and Philosophy and Religion. We do not really collaborate for many reasons including our different career paths and priorities, departmental territorialism, and general ambivalence toward building something (or anything) on the shifting sands of our institutional budget, priorities, and leadership.

What the conversation revealed to me, however, its that many places retain a sense of agency in the future of Classics and continue to have the administrative, disciplinary, and institutional support to grow, revise, and transform that discipline. On the one hand, this means the future of Classics – to some extent – remains in the hands of Classicists. On the other hand, it made even more apparent that Classics has really become a discipline –  in the formal sense – that is restricted to only the top (say 100?) universities and liberal arts colleges in the U.S. I wonder how much this institutional reality will impact the future of the field.    

It seems to me as long as the top schools view themselves as leaders in the field, then they will continue under the assumption that changes to Classics as a discipline have transformative potential. 

It also seems, however, that with the dissipation of Classics at lower tier and smaller schools, that there is another locus for changes to the study of Greek and Roman antiquity. I can only speak for my fairly narrow experience, but being at an institution that does not explicitly support Classics qua Classics has led me to think about my discipline (which to be fair, is Ancient History) in new ways. In fact, my stretch into historical archaeology and the archaeology and history of North Dakota has come because I’m part of a history department and my colleagues are interested in local history, archaeology, and material culture.

What I’m playing with here is that people trained as Classicists (Ancient Historians or whatever) who get jobs outside the top tier of institutions seem as likely transform Classics as those who are working at the top. I wonder whether a model for understanding change in Classics might involve imagining greater permeability between lower tier institutions and those at the top. The Classics diaspora might offer some post-disciplinary wisdom to departments who are working to transform the fields in a different institutional context.   

3 Comments

  1. What you say is fascinating about the Classics diaspora. Reading that article from a huge land grant R1 that cut Classics but kept the Spartan mascot, I felt very distant from my alma mater. What you say is hopeful, too, though the territoriality on campus is sadly familiar. Dealing with a dispute now over a Byzantine history class is digital humanities that seems rooted in use if term “material culture.” I would love to see some links to discussion of that article. Burn it down sounds so 1968 to me, such a privilege. I still see myself as a steward of a tradition, which to me is more important than combatting neo-fascistic misappropriation if Classics. Those fools will be gone one day, but will these traditions of scholarship also be gone?

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  2. Hi Bill, I just wanted to say that your Thing the Third really resonated with me. I’m in a History and Archaeology Department — I’m working alongside scholars with extremely diverse interests – ancient and modern. And I too have become part of a project working on local historical archaeology (putting those survey techniques to work on 19th-century mining camps). This is really exciting to me. And collaboration is very much encouraged and happening in many fruitful ways. It’s all seen as interwoven – each part affects the others, and it’s all important. Well, that’s my way of looking at it!

    Reply

    1. I agree. I am in a history department in at an R1, though, which is somehow eliminating medieval history, leaving myself and an early-modernist or two as the only people among 40 working pre-1800, or even later. It’s definitely harder to make these connections in history, I find. Archaeology seems like a winner, though, and Susan, very curious about the mining camps. In Turkish academia I have noticed, there are huge ties between the actual mining people and the archaeo-metallurgists (! development econ. and archaeology!). For Classics, historical archaeology programs on campus are great, to get students thinking archaeologically more immediately.

      Reply

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