(updated May 5, 2017)
"Connected Classics: Research and Teaching in the Public Interest" by Joy Connolly
Classical studies as we know it today grew partly from the pressure of politics — from people’s need for a repertoire of words and images that could respond to the new political possibilities in early modern Europe. Much has changed. Our professional practice, especially the way we teach doctoral students, orients students decisively toward preservation and historicist analysis of the past. This orientation is not in itself a problem. But its domination of the intellectual field has displaced the early modern notion of classical studies as producing thought that “gives rise to something else”: new thoughts, new habits of mind. Also, as a look at any doctoral reading list or journal will show, classicists have concentrated their activities on a narrow canon. This attachment tugs the field away from issues that attract many of our undergraduates or popular audience.
Consider this alternate vision: classical studies oriented toward the public interest, responsive to big questions and wicked problems, written in styles accessible and innovative formats, directed toward the production of new thoughts. Laying more emphasis in both undergraduate and graduate Classics training on the formation of ideas central to the public interest — and recapturing the “make it new” approach to teaching and writing used by the early humanists — would help turn the field toward public concerns without abandoning disciplinary skills or falling into the pitfalls of presentism.
This would involve redefining doctoral education as training in stewardship of public knowledge. The Carnegie Foundation initiative on the doctorate uses the label "steward" conveys a role that transcends accomplishments and skills; it has an ethical and moral dimension. Stewards have a responsibility to apply their knowledge in the service of problem solving or greater understanding.
“Self-identifying as a steward,” Chris Golde says, “implies adopting a sense of purpose that is larger than oneself. One is a steward of the discipline, not simply the manager of one’s own career. By accepting responsibility for the care of the discipline, and understanding that one has been entrusted with that care by those in the field, on behalf of those in and beyond the discipline, the individual steward embraces a larger sense of purpose. The scale is temporally large, looking to the past and the future, and broad in scope, considering the entire discipline as well as intellectual neighbors.”
How might we craft such a turn? We academics are not very good at saying no. We want students to learn at least as much Latin and Greek as we did, but also literary theory, feminist theory, digital coding, and reception studies. Some of us want our students to be better teachers and get certificates in pedagogy, on top of all the rest. And now you may accuse me of demanding that students immerse themselves in TED talks and the news from the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Piling on is not the right answer. We must reform doctoral education from the ground up, crafting curricula that integrate diverse interests and capacities and research orientations. Taken seriously, this enterprise requires us to leap into a tangle of interrelated challenges. It means a deep questioning of the goals and practices of doctoral training. It means entertaining new ideas about what we aim to produce as scholars. It means questioning the format of the dissertation. This in turn means questioning the book as the mark of a good scholar and the hurdle for tenure. It also means questioning the boundaries between the university and the public.
Start with a close critical look at the dissertation topic. How do we choose topics of research? What would a classics dissertation look like if it developed as a response to questions of interest to the public? Steven Lubar, who is involved with the Masters of Public Humanities at Brown, has written seven rules for public humanists. The first is: “it’s not about you. Start not by looking at what you, your discipline, or the university needs and wants, but by what individuals and communities outside the university need and want…It’s a sharing of authority, knowledge, expertise.”
Classicists can and should connect with the publics interested in the field: both making our specialized work speak to them, and acknowledging that we now live in a world where it’s easy to access information about the classical world that is not produced by academics. There is already a lively dialogue going on out there about movies and television shows with classical themes, fan-fiction, the debate between high and low culture and between ideals of artistic creativity versus imitation, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tourism, democratic politics, military history — the list goes on.
It’s all out there. But how many of us connect with it? As we dig into research topics of interest to us, and mentor our students, do we inquire into the histories of these topics and whether they might contribute to the public good? Insightful and innovative work emerges when scholars use the public good as a criterion to frame the choice of research topic – work of a quality that we wouldn’t achieve by working exclusively in familiar modes of scholarship and with questions defined within the field alone.
One more word about the public. Doctoral education is perhaps most easily thought of as a series of requirements: courses punctuated by exams and capped by the dissertation and its defense. All these formal and informal expectations are designed to help students prepare for academic employment. But such employment is increasingly rare. And even if jobs were thick on the ground, it is worth defining the goal as developing students as learned stewards of the public good. In this world, we would place doctoral students in museums and arrange internships with poets, economists, architects, and lawyers, bridging the distance between scholarship and practice. We would join with grammar school and high school teachers in teaching the history of civics and literature. We would join activists in working for a robust democracy. The point is both-and: to design a curriculum that does justice to the discipline’s deep history in civic engagement and that pushes back against its hermeticism and inhibitions.
We need not and should not stick with a 19th century education for the 21st century. If we do not want to watch our programs face flat or slowly decreasing enrollments or worse, closure; if we want to spread knowledge of classical antiquity and its legacy to the widest and most diverse possible audience; if we face the reality of the new job market -- then we should delight in exploring new criteria for research and new methods of scholarly communication. It will involve hard work with administrators like me to devise new standards for hiring, tenure, and promotion.
As the sesquicentennial approaches, let’s critically reflect on our research focus and ask ourselves and our students what public the work might serve. Let’s reconsider the history and role of the individual in doing research, and explore group projects and collaborations with designers, illustrators, or filmmakers.
Let’s think of ourselves as stewards, not just of the discipline, but of the public interest. Let’s start with Classics doctoral education, re-imagining it from the ground up.
Charles Bernstein, “Frame Lock,” in College Literature 21.2, June (1994)
Julie Ellison, “The new public humanists,” PMLA 128.2 (2013)
Chris Golde, “Preparing stewards of the discipline.” Carnegie Perspectives, July 2006.
Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, “No more Plan B,” Perspectives on History (2011)
Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy,” Past & Present 129 (1990)
Nicholas Sousanis, Unflattening. Harvard, 2015 [comics dissertation/book]
Kathleen Woodward, “The future of the humanities in the present and in public.” Daedalus
138.1, Reflecting on the Humanities (Winter, 2009), pp. 110-123
More May 2017 Newsletter Content
For jobs data and annual meeting updates from the SCS Office, see this write-up.
For Georgia's own words on this change and our new focus on jobs, read her piece in this same Newsletter.
For jobs data stretching even further back, read Jason Pedicone's article.
For a way to get this issue of academic jobs into the public eye, read about our social media campaign to John Oliver's Last Week Tonight.