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Toward a New Institutional Future of Classics

Joy Connolly

City University of New York, Graduate Center

Having enjoyed for over two centuries a privileged (though much debated) status in American higher education, the field of Classics now confronts serious existential challenges in colleges and universities across the country. Classics joins other humanistic disciplines, notably history and other departments of language and literature, whose undergraduate majors and enrollments in core disciplinary courses are falling, whose retiring faculty are being replaced with contingent hires instead of tenure track lines, and whose graduate fellowship funding is being cut. Ben Schmidt of Northeastern University, a keen observer of trends tracked by Humanities Indicators and the Department of Education, has noted that the post-2008 decline of undergraduate interest in humanistic studies has not stabilized with the economic recovery, despite the fact that the recovery’s impact was experienced by well-off families who have historically pursued the humanities in significant numbers. Rather the trend appears to reflect “a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom…students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying – in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market” (The Atlantic, August 23, 2018). 

At the same time, growing awareness of the discipline’s history of bolstering elitist and exclusionary values and practices has generated an internal call for Classics to be dismantled from within. 

What is the best response? Consider these two possible paths forward: 

A fight for the status quo. Faculty continue to struggle to retain department status, replace each retirement with a tenure-track line or a lecturer, and sustain current levels of fellowship funding for graduate students. In wealthy universities, this strategy will likely result in at best a continuation of the current situation or a slow decline in institutional support. In less wealthy schools, faculty who put their eggs in the status quo basket are unlikely to prevail against the current trends. It is not impossible to imagine a world in which only the richest institutions will be able to afford Classics departments as we know them today. Elsewhere, it will fall to the remaining tenured faculty dispersed to departments like History or Literature to convince administrators as well as their colleagues to preserve tenure lines and graduate fellowships in the study of the ancient Mediterranean in their new departmental homes – not an easy fight. One real danger here is that faculty will be so absorbed in the battle for basic resources that they will lose opportunities to think critically about Classics’ nature as a field, its values and goals. 

Creative re-design. Faculty and graduate students take matters into their own hands, form alliances with colleagues in other departments and programs, and develop a new vision. Likely partners include but are not limited to art history, anthropology, various language and literature fields, religion, philosophy, history, area studies (including American Studies), and linguistics. I will discuss two alternative approaches that transcend the traditional departmental model. 

Amidst these organizational challenges is a chance for the field to tackle deeper questions. What knowledge do faculty in Classics departments most value? How has it changed over the past 150 years? How does our research, and particularly the highest-status research topics, relate to the teaching we do? How do we make the most of the fact that interest in the humanities is growing among the least privileged American students, those enrolled in community colleges?   

I aim to bring my ten years of experience as an administrator to bear in articulating both the larger issues and several concrete actions that faculty and students can take to inform themselves about administrative priorities on their campus and – should they wish – to redesign the institutional shape of the field.

Session/Panel Title

Administrative Appointments: A Contribution to the Dialogue on the Present and Future of Classics...

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