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How Professors and Other Scholars are Screwing Their Own Field

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Death of Classics? Self-inflicted Wounds.

Let’s get one thing straight; professors are necessary for preserving and improving our knowledge of the ancient world. Let’s get another thing straight; they are pretty much useless for anything else. Tenure is evaporating at an alarming pace, and the rise (and fall) of for-profit colleges is hitting headlines. Tuition is increasingly prohibitive, and student loans are becoming an unwelcome reality and worry for potential students. All of this means decreasing funds and interest for studying Latin and Greek, fewer Classics professors, and fewer Classics majors. While I don’t buy the doom and gloom scenario that Classics is going the way of the Dodo and Egyptology, like many other Liberal Arts programs Classics is facing real problems as we move through 21st century higher education.

Throughout the middle Ages and most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, knowledge of Greek and Latin was considered the hallmark of Western education. If you wanted to be considered “educated” or “intellectual”, you had better know your Cicero. Even up to the first half of the 20th century, Classics still had the reputation as the gold standard of education, with Latin being considered a core component for elementary and high school curriculums. Ask your grandparents.

We developed more up to date curricula and offered a wider range of courses in the 21st century, when our resources were much better, our universities grew, and our education system improved, moving past the 17th century standards and perceptions of what it means to be “educated”. When someone says they studied “Classics” it used to be an impressive claim. Now, the most common response is “what the hell is Classics?” It’s become something of an unknown field of study. Classicists themselves have become so disconnected from their larger societies that they’ve partly caused the disinterest and confusion.

Many Classics professors are the quintessential, stereotypical, aloof, out-of-touch-with-reality, higher education professors. They practically invented the term “Ivory Tower Academic”. Classics is mostly an isolated subject to work on. Outside of classes and conferences all the work is done solo, usually locked in a library or your apartment for endless hours. You learn Latin and Greek on your own; they aren’t spoken so no need for a partner or conversation practice. You also read everything on your own, and write papers and books on your own. Classics does not translate into an industry, there really is not any lab component or group research. As a result, Classics professors, perhaps ironically, do not make great ambassadors to sell the field. They talk almost in a different language than the rest of us.

This is partially the fault of academia, and partially the fault of the professors themselves. Classicists spend ridiculous sums of time studying multiple subjects to get their degrees. At a minimum, Classicists become proficient in Latin and Greek, as well as two modern foreign languages (usually French or Italian, and German). On top of this, they get experience in philology, history, and archaeology, regardless of their specific subdiscipline and research interests. On top of that they pick up whatever skills and knowledge is required for their research; whether that’s additional languages like Coptic or Spanish, or different fields like philosophy, sociology, or botany. This is why it takes 5-15 years to get a Ph.D., and why the people who do seem a little “disconnected”; it’s hard to experience the rest of life with learning an entire language on your to-do list.

Unfortunately this drive continues well into their careers. Classicists make terrible conversationalists, because they can’t seem to talk about anything but Classics. They cannot turn off “work mode”. This is their own fault. The path to professorship naturally attracts a certain type of person, namely the kind who have never left school and still view “Classics Ph.D.” in the 17th century mindset as a badge of honor and prestige—incidentally, the professors who went straight through undergrad to tenure were always the worst, where professors with previous outside jobs and careers were more stable and fun. While fine in itself, it can lead to an arrogant attitude, to the extent that even Ph.Ds. in other fields are looked down as “inferior”. Obviously this does not help endear Classics to other departments, let alone the general public.

A second problem is approach. With rising tuition in an unsecure economy, people are more cautious in their choice of degrees and majors. Books and classes are an expensive way to learn about the ancient world. So, screw it, let’s just become autodidacts and learn on our own time. Ok, now where do we start? What do we read? Where do we go for good information? From…the books and classes. Crap! A specialized language separates the professor’s knowledge from the enthusiast’s ability to learn, as well as the size of one’s wallet. Unfortunately, with many positions being filled by people with yesteryear attitudes, it still occurs that many professors do not want open or easier access. If they view other scholars as inferior, the general population certainly has not “earned” the access to information, at least not without paying for the privilege and putting in the time.

While there has been a remarkable improvement in access, there is still a long way to go. Like a lot of academics, technology in Classics is a source only now becoming better utilized, but it is not widespread. Many Classicists do not want wider access for a myriad of reasons I won’t get into now, although see the above paragraphs for a few of them. Unfortunately for the status quo, decline in interest is in no small part due to the difficulty of accessing the information; if it’s pulling teeth trying to get good information on Roman religious practices, people are more apt to give up than pay for a bunch of classes or ridiculously expensive academic books.

More damning is the lack of diversity in the field. Diversity gets a bad reputation and is a politically charged word, but it is an absolutely essential aspect in any venture requiring thought for one simple reason; people from different demographics think differently. Diversity of thought is crucial for solving problems. Take the case of microbiology. In 2011, researchers presented a 13 year old problem to the gaming community, which they solved in 3 weeks. Far from rotting brains, gamers are solving issues that have stumped professionals. All because stumped scientists took the problem outside their box.

So how does Classics fare on the diversity front? Appallingly. Classicists in the old days were masters of the world, and in a lot of disturbing ways, that attitude hasn’t changed. Old world sexist attitudes are still an issue. Attitudes of Imperialism and racism, prominent in the early days when countries like the UK, Germany, and France had actual empires, is disgustingly a common issue. By their own numbers, minorities make up 2% of tenured faculty, which I’m fairly certain is a stat that would even make the KKK jealous. As the APA put it, “Minorities remain scandalously underrepresented in the field”. The field is literally as white as our milk. The downside—I mean, the additional downside—is that problem which could be solved is not, simply because the homogeneity of the field is preventing out-of-the-box thinking. This unintended groupthink is really bad for an academic discipline because duh. The perception of Classics as elitist is harmful enough without adding sexist and racist to the mix.

To sum up, professors are doing a really good job screwing their own field over. As I said at the start though, I don’t buy the doom and gloom scenario. There’s a silver lining in all this. Younger professors bring fresh attitudes and perspectives, and the economic downturn has significantly “humbled” the field. A change in attitude is forming by the necessity of low enrollment.

Professors are now becoming more aware of their attitudes and seeking out students and interested parties. Teachers need students or there’s no class to teach, after all. Some Classics departments have outreach programs or events to extend the field to local high schools and other groups. Likewise, individual professors are taking on more “popular” approaches to their works, recognizing the larger market for their research.

Robert Strassler is a perfect example of how the popular approach can win. He wanted to make an easy to read, but informative, edition of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. The academics found the idea stupid and didn’t want to help. So Bob did it on his own and sold some 70,000 copies, where the average print run for those profs’ books is between 300-600. He even talked about how silly the arrogance of the academics was. Some scholars are taking note, making websites, podcasts, and popular books accessible to a “lay” audience, and other materials to help drum up business and interest.

The rise of adjuncting and the decline of tenure is also a good thing for Classicists—and yes, I can hear the sphincters of all the academics reading that tightening. I’m not saying tenure is bad and should be abolished, or that professors shouldn’t have decent salaries, but there is an upside to scholars moving from Visiting Assistant Professor and post-doc positions on to a more or less annual basis. It forces professors to engage more with life and society. Each new job takes them to a new city, a new university, and a new demographic, and a new set of students. Basically, forced life experience, at least on the part of the scholar. Normally, professors get tenure and never leave the university or town where they landed, which means they don’t get much idea of how the job market functions, how other universities function, how other departments operate, or even how the rest of the world views the field of Classics. Working with the same set of people for 40 years is nice stability, but not great for encouraging “out-of-box” thinking. If nothing else, a few years on the adjunct circuit will give them a better appreciation for people with real jobs, or more appreciation for tenure once they do get it. On the other hand, adjuncts are paid terribly, and cannot accomplish much more than simply surviving. After a while, the hiring system, which is all sorts of crazy, starts viewing the person in adjunct positions as “damaged goods”, preventing them from advancing in their careers.

Likewise, the digital revolution is changing how scholarship is done and presented. Nobody can afford the books anymore, let alone the classes. Fortunately, the internet is creating new avenues. There has been an increase of journal and book access, free online courses, and tons of databases dedicated to bringing the Ivory Tower back down to Earth. Between resources like the Latin Library, the Internet Classics Archive, Project Gutenberg, and Perseus, almost the entire corpus of ancient literature is available for anyone to read. There are other sites for subdisciplines and specialties, like Diotima, a resource for studying women in the ancient world. Many journals are moving from print to digital to reduce costs. The old way was to buy an Oxford Classical Dictionary for around $150, not including any other academic press works you might want. Many academics are very uncomfortable around technology and aren’t quite sure how it can really be used for research. At best, they tend to use tech as nothing more than databases, the digital equivalent to the libraries they’re already using. But GPS, digital mapping, scanning, and translation programs are being made to revolutionize research methods, and how the field can be studied. Digital humanities is a hot item for funding and continued relevance, and younger Classicists are better prepared to link technology to research. Sites like Perseus are making an attempt, but there are still numerous issues, as any regular visitor will tell you. The closest we have to a decent Classics computer program right now is Whittaker’s Words, which runs in MS-DOS. The next generation will move the field into the 21st century, hopefully.

Finally, on the diversity front improvements are already happening. Women have made great strides in breaking up the boys club and minority scholars will likely do the same in the years to come. Arrogance among the older generation of professors is high, but they’re on their way out. Racism, sexism, and elitism just aren’t very attractive anymore.

All in all, the younger scholars have an uphill battle, but I have confidence Classics departments will still be a thing in the years to come. We just need to tell the old farts to hurry up and retire. And hopefully universities won’t cancel their positions as they leave.


One might object to me using older data regarding women and minorities in Classics faculties. The latest report is from 2007, and minorities have improved to 4%. At the very least, the APA is aware of how stunningly racist that looks, which I guess is some sort of improvement?


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