Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

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.   

Disjointing Time: Ancient Texts and Science Fiction

This weekend, the last weekend before the 2020 Spring Semester Party gets started, I spent a few hours finishing Brett M. Rodger’s and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s Once and Future Antiquities in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2019). It’s not really what I should have been doing, but it’s what I did. So, whatever.

To be honest, I was drawn to the book as much by its cover as my own casual reading interest in science fiction. Readers of this blog, I realize that a little bit of science fiction usually appears in my summer reading list (last summer it was Octavia Butler, the summer before Ursala K. Le Guin, the summer before that Isaac Asimov, and Neil Stephenson before that). I also wrote a paper considering the influence of Philip K. Dick on archaeologies of the future.  I also mention the influence several science fiction authors in a recent article in the European Journal of Archaeology:

“While the general absence of an intellectual framework for punk archaeology and its questioning of disciplinary practices and expertise invited useful criticism (Mullins, 2015; Richardson, 2017), its emphasis on the do-it-yourself and low-fi character of punk shaped my view of technology in archaeology with the (proto-) cyberpunk dystopias of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and John Shirley providing an anxious backdrop.” 

Rodger’s and Stevens’s book, then, while not a pressing read, did fit into a larger, if poorly defined, pattern in my work. (I feel the need to justify this because I have too many other things to do than to spend time reading random books because I like their covers).

Once and Future Antiquities does a nice job of showing how Classical texts and usually Homer shaped particular works of science fiction and fantasy ranging from Dr. Who and Rocky Horror to Hayao Miyazaki, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jack McDevitt. These articles embrace the patient rewards of a close reading of both modern and ancient texts. There is a hat tip to methodology throughout, especially in Tom Keen’s article, which also gives this branch of the study of the intersection of ancient texts and science fiction a point of origin in a blog post from 2006. I’ve tended to think about archaeology and science fiction in terms Frederic Jameson’s 2007 book, Archaeologies of the Future which I encountered Bill Brown’s recent-ish book, Other Things (2015), but the way archaeologists think about antiquities and Classicists do, is obvious somewhat different.

While the detailed description of how ancient and modern texts intermingle was fascinating, the most intriguing thing about these articles is that they often go beyond a sort of linear understanding of how an earlier texts influence a later texts. As any number of recent scholars have shown, this kind of “common sense” approach reflects the strong grasp that narratives of progress hold over scholarship over the last two centuries. Needless to say, this way of reading history and texts is problematic particularly in its tendency to normalize a continuum with more and less developed societies on a global scale. More recently, as folks like Rebecca Futo-Kennedy have shown, these models of progress (which likewise influence the shape of archaeological time as well) often have served to inform narratives of Western Civilization that reify the dominance of particular national and racial groups. Needless to say, modern ways of thinking have often served to reinforce the place of Classical antiquity as a key influence over modern “Western” society and, consequently, as a superior form of culture in the so-called marketplace of ideas. 

Science fiction and fantasy with its more fluid and discontinuous views of time (from Dr. Who’s TARDIS, to the Dick’s Time Out of Joint and the complicated meditations on time in The Watchmen) offers an ideal platform to disrupt these kind of linear, historicized, readings of influencing and influenced texts. What is clear in Rodger’s and Stevens’s volume is that modern texts have shaped our reading of ancient texts in every bit as a profound a way as the latter have shaped the former. Reading Homer as shaped by the work of Miyazaki and Oyeyemi reminds us of the power of creative texts to rewrite and re-authorize the past.  

As Donna Zuckerberg has pointed out, the complication of historicist readings of texts isn’t always inherently benevolent. Ancient texts can as easily find themselves appropriated by people with misogynistic, racist, or nationalist agendas. The main difference, I’d contend, is that many of these readings – particularly those of the “Red Pill” variety – rely on arguments for the historical primacy, authority, and time-tested superiority of ancient texts. The more disruptive readings offered in Rogers and Stevens offer us a way to escape from the burden of historicizing, modern, and often positivist analysis and to use speculative futures (and alternative pasts) as a way to claim meaning for ancient texts in the present.

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.