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. 

Five Notes on Classics

The past couple of months have been pretty intense for my colleagues in Classics. The field is undergoing a very public debate over its future and its values. The willingness of some of my colleagues (in the broadest sense), to speak out in favor of more inclusive, more expansive, and more critical futures for Classics is profoundly heartening. That they have attracted so much negative attention for their efforts — not simply from the usual brigade of internet trolls or media snarks, but from within their professional organization —  makes me sad. I am amazed by the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Donna Zuckerberg and the Eidolon project (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my good friend Dimitri Nakassis to the list) and so many other folks who have come out to support them and to work along side with them to make Classics different.   

I have very little to add to their work, but it did make me think. So over the last couple of months I’ve been compiling littles notes on Classics. They’re assorted, almost random, largely personal, and invariably contradictory, but maybe they’ll do something to support their larger cause or more likely to demonstrate that people are listening and thinking about what they have to say far beyond the limits of their discipline.

Note One

I am not a Classicist. I wasn’t even a Classics major. I was a Latin major. My Greek in college was mediocre and suffered from my tendency to be distracted by shinny objects ranging from Biblical Hebrew to upper level math classes and the history of the American Civil War. I went to graduate school to study Ancient History, and when I could have hunkered down and really worked seriously on my languages, I lurked around the Classics department, took classes that I liked, and most focused on work in History and Architectural History. When I went on the job market, I didn’t apply to Classics jobs because I was intimidated by the prospect of teaching languages. I’ve never attended the SCS (or, as it was called back in the day, the APA). In short, I’ve never identified as a Classicist and, I’m partly embarrassed to say this, I’ve occasionally chafed at being called a “Classical History.” I mostly study the Post-Classical or Late Roman/Late Antique period and most do archaeology. I’m re-reading Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution these days, and it’s as foreign to me as Tolkein’s world of Larry Potter.

These reasons should be enough to take whatever I offer here cum grano salis, as the kidz say.

Note Two

Over the last decade, I have taught the basic undergraduate historical methods class for the History Department at the University of North Dakota. I affectionately call this class “The Historians Crap” (aka “The Historians Craft”). This past year History merged with American Indian Studies, and to boost enrollments and to balance the teaching load in our newly integrated department, we combined our required methods class with the required methods class in Indian Studies.  As a result, I suddenly have Indian Studies students in that class.

This is great, of course, but their presence in the class and the ongoing debate around Classics has made me realize how much my class focuses on the work of dead, white, dudes. Starting with Herodotus and Thucydides, I think talk about Livy and Tacitus, then Eusebius and Bede, then Valla, Vico, and Voltaire, then Kant, Herder, Hegel, and finally, Ranke, Michellet, Bury, and Beard, before arriving at Focault, a bit of Bhabha, a smattering of Joan Wallach Scott, and a hat tip to Nellie Nelson and John Hope Franklin.

Not only does my class focus narrowly on the development of history as a discipline and then as a profession in an American and Western European context, it is also, despite my efforts, a brutally linear narrative of ideas, works, methods, and individuals which gives the impression not just of change, but of refinement, development, and even – to my horror – evolution. The class appears to culminate in a professionalized present as it shoves our aspiring historians out the door and into the archives, the secondary literature, and the work of writing and thinking seriously about the past. This not only excludes perspectives offered by non-Western, non-linear views of the past, but my insistence of linearity and even progress must be alienating to Native American students who see the emergence of history as a discipline as part of larger colonial narrative that so often worked to suppress their views of their past as well as the values that contribute to the sense of pride, cohesion, and belonging among their communities.

In short, I’m horrified at what my class has become. 

Note Three

Classics has always struck me as a happy anachronism. I try to embrace some of that spirit by making sure that my students know that the “Historians’ Craft”  evokes an older tradition of pre-professional knowledge making that looks beyond the industrial framework the modern university for its practices. Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the idea of craft in archaeology as well and found inspiration in the classic work of Randal McGuire and Michael Shanks as well as the British Marxists historians of the mid-20th century.

In this context, Classics seemed to do even more to celebrate its pre-professional roots. Whatever the linear, almost assembly-line, foundations to teaching the basics of ancient languages (manifest in the ordered sequence of 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year courses), most Classicists whom I know only achieved mastery of Greek and Latin through hours of unstructured personal commitment to reading and understanding these languages. Once you understood the basics, the ordered succession of classes gave way and expertise was personal and hard won. 

More than that, expertise was uneven and deep knowledge of a particular language or body of texts complemented an often expansive familiarity with other texts. I remember vividly the remarkable ability of certain colleagues in graduate school to move from across the entire corpus of ancient texts with relative ease. In this way, the seem to embody both the hedgehog and the fox. As wondrous hybrids, Classicists also drew from archaeology, art history, historical work, plus the staggeringly expansive amount of scholarly rumination in their field from Silver Age grammarians to 19th century Germans.

This hybridity made a mockery of impulse toward specialization in American higher education.  The assembly line of the modern university struggled to pigeon hole Classics as it was neither a true discipline with a limited and defined method nor did it offer the kind of narrow specialization that reinforced particular “threshold concepts” that could be aligned with easily assessable learning goals, course objectives, or educational outcomes. A Classics student – much less faculty – seemed to be able to do a bit of everything and embody a pre-modern kind of generalized knowledge. At its best, it felt like WISDOM and seemed to contradict the prevailing approach to academic knowledge making which focused so intently on EXPERTISE.

Note Four

This is related to Note Three. I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussions of professionalization in Classics and the role of language knowledge in disciplinary definition. There’s the idea that a Classicist should be able to teach languages “at all levels” and a growing realization that language knowledge prior to graduate school in Classics represents a limiting factor in diversifying field. As a result, Classics programs have take steps to manage the uneven distribution of language knowledge among otherwise qualified candidates for graduate study in the field. At the same time, there’s been an effort to question whether the ability to teach Latin and Greek at all levels is evening meaningful or realistic especially for individuals who also specialized in ancient history, archaeology, or other fields that live happily in the big tent of Classics. This seems to get into the messy world of expertise and its place within academic notions of merit and the meritocracy. 

This semester my colleagues in the History Department have had a rather intense conversation related to evaluating faculty output. As you might guess from someone who regularly spends hours writing a blog that very few people read, I tend to favor broad definitions of successful and meritorious faculty work which can range from traditional peer reviewed work to innovative efforts at outreach, public facing history, and other less conventional expressions of historical knowledge. Other colleagues have rightly pointed out that less conventional outputs tend to harder to assess and evaluate and giving “formal credit” to that kind of work effectively combines apples with oranges and devalues the traditional works of peer reviewed scholarship.  

Peer review, to my mind, rewards expertise in a particular area and while it doesn’t penalize general knowledge, many of the basic outlets for peer reviewed work have narrow remits that reward specialization. More general works, of course, do get published, but these are as often distinguished from academic monographs on the basis of genre as in how they’re published, marketed, and reviewed. In history, at least, expertise and specialization tend to remain the basis for promotion and merit.  

On the one hand, this is fair. The goal line is well known and established. Graduate education in history tends to focus on the production of specialized knowledge (whatever other impulses also exist) and clarity of expectations ensures that professional advancement is not contingent on a scholar’s identity, on personal whim, or on any number of poorly defined criteria that, in the past, limited the advancement of women, individuals of color, and other minorities in our fields. Well-defined standards are part of professionalization. These, in turn, structure higher education where a series of well-defined specialists communicate their knowledge to students who received whatever breadth of training is still expected across the curriculum. Job ads for history rarely seek candidates who can teach “American and European History at all levels.”

Part of the charm of Classics is that there appears to be a disjunction between professional expectations of expertise and the tradition in the field of a general knowledge of antiquity. This hybridity is exciting largely because it makes it hard to define what a “good Classicist” looks like (inasmuch as we can define what a good historian looks link on the basis of their professional accomplishments alone because they synchronize better with expectations in hiring and general status within the field). In sum, Classics short-circuits the professional university.

Recent battles over the future of Classics are, whatever else they might be, critiques of whether the meritocracy established within professional higher education will produce a meaningful discipline. Classics seems to ask: what does this meritocracy represent? If the attacks on the professional accomplishments of outspoken members of the discipline, the tendency to question the role of engagement and outreach, and the failure of the SCS, the professional organization of Classical scholars, to support these embattled members are any indication, then I get the feeling that the meritocracy has either failed, been hijacked, or always served to advance entrenched interests rather than the promote a dynamic discipline.

The hybridity, the generalized knowledge, and the resistance of Classics to becoming fully professionalized within the standard of contemporary higher education is its strength, at least to my mind. 

Note Five     

I wonder whether Classics is a mole or a bomb nestled within the bosom of the academy. It not only resists professional expectations of higher education but also critiques them and provides an alternate model. I’ve been thinking about how linear and progressive my Historians’ Craft class has become and how awkwardly and painfully that must appear to students with a background in American Indian Studies. Many Classicists seem to struggle with the same realization that their discipline, whatever it does in the present, has a complicated past filled with privilege both in terms of what it studies and how it approaches knowledge making. Just because craft practices may be better than the professionalized expectations of the assessocracy doesn’t mean that their innocent and, as many in the field realize, have their own methods of exclusion and marginalization. 

Those of us who admire Classics admire the genuinely expansive knowledge individuals in this discipline acquire and cultivate. The field has the ability to speak to the present and to the past without resorting to such simplistic ideas as the universal wisdom of the ancients or anachronistic readings of the past that turn Augustus into another modern dictator. Classicists regularly break down the notions of development, evolution, and progress by showing the recursive variation of seasonal, situational, and positional knowledge. 

Sometimes I think and maybe even hope that Classics is how the university ends. It reveals the meritocracy as just another repressive regime designed to justify Eurocentrism, colonialism, austerity, neoliberalism, and whatever other elitist pabulum that keeps the masses striving. It undermines the humanities and liberal arts as complicit in these regimes of power. It sends history scurrying for the social sciences. 

It’d be fine with this, in some ways, and it would be nice to think that the recent tremors in Classics are the first signs of the great unraveling. I have confidence in the world too. I think that when it all comes apart, the same people who unraveled it will still be there doing their best to make the world good. 

Classics as the Canary for the End of the Humanities

There’s been a ton of buzz lately about the role of Classics in the larger curriculum of the humanities and in higher education (or any education really) today. Most of the debate has been ongoing for decades and emphasizes the problematic history of Classics and its close association with the “Western Tradition.”

Many of the recent posts on Classics have a certain degree of urgency owing, perhaps, to a renewed sense of crisis in the field, some recent curricular decisions in higher education, and some flashpoint discussions involving Classics and gender, race, and class. Popular web publications like SCS blog, Eidolon, and well-regarded bloggers have framed these conversations in subtle and intriguing ways. Most would agree that Classics has a role in the modern university and in our cultural world, but most would also agree that the discipline requires ongoing critique to continue to contribute in a positive and productive way to our society.

Go read this stuff here, here, and here.

It’s hard to disagree with any of the recent critiques of the discipline which address the discipline’s tradition of exclusivity and elitism, ongoing disciplinary and professional concerns, and are appropriately tinged with a kind of anxiety about the future of Classics as a project. As I’ve read these critiques, I’ve become more and more interested in their limits. In particular, I’m trying to figure out how far Classics can be separated in formulating our “classical” definition of the “Western tradition,” and whether this entire conversation is essentially re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In other words, it’s easy enough to understand the problems with “Western” thinking – from colonialism to capitalism – and to recognize the role that certain readings of the Classical Canon and Classics as a discipline (in the 19th and 20th centuries) played in this past. What seems to me to be more challenging (and maybe more significant in the 21st century) is the role of Classics within the larger critique of humanism which, at its worst is the “Western Tradition” by another name, and at its best, the essential organizing concept in, say, the Liberal Arts tradition. This isn’t to say that humanism and the liberal arts don’t have a potentially productive role in any useful understanding of the world, but the line between a kind celebratory (or anxious) appreciation of humanism (and the weekly article reminding us all in various insipid ways that we really need the humanities!), and some of the more brutal and crass defenses of Classics is not a difficult one. We can, perhaps, extend Arum Park’s note that white supremacy and Classics (as traditionally construed) exist on the same spectrum: it is probably worth recognizing in these discussions that this spectrum also involves so many of our basic epistemological practices and assumptions which draw from the same “Western Tradition.”

It’s interesting to wonder whether (and would love to see more about) how this crisis in Classics is really the canary in the coal mine for the growing recognition that a simplistic view of Western Civilization (or the Classical canon) isn’t the issue. The real challenge is deeply nested within the fundamental organization of higher education, the liberal arts, and the humanities.

In particular, the question that I’ve been turning over and over in my head is whether the humanities and liberal arts can cope with the most pressing global problems. From global warming to the relentless advance of capital, the destruction of indigenous societies, and the celebration of “development” (however construed), the long reach of Western thought at the core of the modern academy, the humanities, and, Classics requires critical engagement that seems almost in a different universe from adding a “module” on “Mexico City” and “Harlem” to a humanities course at a liberal arts college.

When I step back and think of how I view the world, how I was trained, and what I value, I can’t help feel like the problems facing the world today remain particularly resistant to my intellectual tool kit. While I’m sure that some of this reflects the limits to my own abilities and background, I also suspect that it reflects (as many scholars have pointed out) the limits of the intellectual traditions in which I work.

I’ve started to even play with an old idea that Richard Rothaus and I become fascinated by, the suicide gene. The concept is that certain genetic experiments would have some kind of genetic modification that would make the organism die before it could promulgate out of control or cause harm. I started to wonder whether Classics could be the suicide gene not just for an outmoded and stodgy view of the Western Tradition, but for the entire tradition of the humanities in the West. For the longest time, Classics imagined itself as fundamental to understanding the West. We can roll our eyes at such an assertion, of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that it had some currency throughout the modern era. One the most simple level, we can displace Classics and dislocate the idea that certain concepts, ways of thinking, and ideas developed in a linear or even historical way, as a way to introduce ways of thinking about time, causality, and progress that stand outside of Western traditions. 

As Classics looks to complicate its place in how we think about the West – in good and positive ways – maybe the result of this isn’t a renegotiated Western tradition constructed around new assumptions and expectations, but the complete unraveling of the Western tradition entirely. (Perhaps we are witnessing an important step in the provincializing of Western thinking.)  Maybe Classics needs to assume its old place at the foundation of the West to undermine once-and-for-all the long shadow of the Western traditions in the most profound way. This might mean the end of the humanities, of the liberal arts, of “higher education,” and even such sacred concepts as “rationalism,” “critical thinking,” and historicism. By stepping away from our expectations of what the West is and means and does and did, we’re not going to save Classics or higher education or literature or whatever, but we might actually save the world.