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Blog: COVID-19 and the Future of Classics Graduate Study

"Portrait of a young woman from Pompeii (so-called 'Sappho')" Courtesy of Creative Commons

This piece was co-authored by Del A. Maticic, Alicia Matz, Hannah Čulík-Baird, Thomas Hendrickson, Anna Pisarello, Amy Pistone, and Nandini Pandey.

“COVID-19 and the Future of Classics Graduate Study,” a workshop at the recent AIA/SCS Annual Meeting, identified frameworks for immediate action that students, faculty, and institutions could take to mitigate the outsized effects the pandemic has wrought on Ph.D. students—especially those coming from already marginalized communities, both in Classics and related disciplines. The workshop, organized by Del Maticic on behalf of the SCS Graduate Student Committee, was more relevant than ever when it convened, after COVID-19’s impact on research, teaching, and the job market had become clearer. In many ways, the pandemic has not created new problems so much as laid bare growing, systemic ones in higher education, problems that any ethical path forward must address. Given the urgency of the subject matter and the spirited reception after the event, in this post, we recap the content and share the resources offered there.

Our six presentations addressed different elements of the process of preparing graduate students for life during and after grad school and the role graduate students and faculty can play in that process. Though our focus was on Ph.D. students in literature-centered programs, we hope that future conversations will address the diverse graduate student experiences that this panel did not center. The high attendance and lively participation point to a real need for more conversation, resources, and — crucially — action!

“Dispatches from a Graduate Student Representative: Some Department-Level Solutions,” Del A. Maticic

Del surveyed different steps that Ph.D.-granting departments can take to improve the lives of their graduate students. Curricula should be streamlined to focus less on introducing graduate students superficially to all the subdisciplines of Classics and more on setting them up from the beginning to get started quickly on a dissertation. Especially now, when resources are scarcer and fellowship funding is more limited, Ph.D. curricula need to be more efficient. Wherever possible, credits or their equivalents should be allocated to professional development, exam preparation, and especially dissertation preparation, ideally supplemented by a prospectus-writing seminar. Faculty should practice transparency, welcoming graduate student representatives into faculty meetings. Departments should implement accountability measures like periodic, externally administered department climate surveys. Advisors should encourage students to undertake shorter, more targeted, and more quickly publishable dissertations, especially for those considering alternatives to academic jobs.

Ideally, faculty will make changes like this on their own. But in many cases, it will fall on graduate students to advocate for them. Graduate students should elect and support graduate student representatives, work on building consensus, and learn how faculty and administrators are incentivized to make the kinds of decisions they make. They should commit to fight to change department policies, even if those changes take several years and will benefit future cohorts, if not the current ones. The PowerPoint for Del’s talk can be found here.

“More than Brains in Jars: A Graduate Perspective on the Future of Classics Graduate Studies,” Alicia Matz

Alicia Matz reported on graduate students’ experiences in their programs during the pandemic, based on an anonymous online survey of Classics graduate students documenting a variety of graduate-student concerns. This survey was open to graduate students of all levels and distributed on Twitter. The majority of respondents were current Ph.D. students, but the few responses from past students and M.A. students were enlightening. Foremost among these were department responses to mental and physical health.

Graph displaying how grad students would describe their grad school experiences

Graph courtesy of Alicia Matz.

One small step faculty can take is to remember that graduate students suffer disproportionately from mental illness, and to inform themselves on how best to address that reality as an advisor, DGS, chair, or colleague. Equally important to remember is that many graduate students — like all sorts of low-wage workers in the U.S. — lack essential health insurance like vision and dental, which can create enormous psychological and financial strain. Departments and societies like the SCS could explore ways to underscore to universities the need for these categories of insurance. Graduate students experiencing immediate financial hardship are encouraged to apply for SCS/WCC COVID-19 Relief microgrants. 

 Twitter poll:"Do you think that your program gave you realistic expectations when it comes to the job market?" 34.3% Yes, 65.7% No.

Poll courtesy of Alicia Matz

“Digital Teaching and COVID-19,” Hannah Čulík-Baird

Hannah Čulík-Baird’s presentation also focused on a survey, this time about graduate students’ experiences teaching under COVID-19 conditions. Her data confirmed that, at least from a sampling of graduate students on Twitter, Classics departments have not provided adequate pedagogy training to help graduate students cope as teachers during the pandemic (though it should be noted that there has been an efflorescence of helpful writing on pandemic pedagogy, such as Teaching Classical Languages 11.2, which was devoted entirely to the topic). As is so often the case in the COVID era, problems that have arisen over the last year are symptomatic of serious preexisting conditions. Graduate students reported that, even before the pandemic, the pedagogical training offered to them by their universities and Classics departments alike was inadequate. Furthermore, while Classics has early on produced some of the most creative and ambitious digital projects in any humanities discipline (consider the pioneering Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, for instance), graduate training in Classics does not tend to prioritize digital competencies. If there is anything good that has come out of the pandemic for Classicists, it’s the fact that the field is now thinking more consciously about pedagogy. We have an opportunity to permanently improve how we teach our graduate students how to teach in the years to come. 

“The Latin Pedagogy You Didn't Learn in Grad School,” Anna Pisarello and Tom Hendrickson

Anna Pisarello and Tom Hendrickson’s presentation complemented Čulík-Baird’s data with concrete examples of some pedagogical considerations that many graduate programs overlook. They led a discussion about pressing pedagogical debates facing Latin teachers of all stripes, with a special focus on practical classroom applications, as informed by Hendrickson and Pisarello’s experience as teachers at Stanford Online High School. Tom outlined some of the differences between the traditional grammar-translation method of learning Latin and the newer comprehensible input approach, which stems from research in linguistics and Romance language acquisition. Anna outlined some key differences between in-person and online pedagogy, with particular emphasis on community building in the virtual classroom. Tom and Anna also offered practical demonstrations of how these methodological principles play out in actual classroom activities, including a picture description exercise that generated enthusiastic participation from panel attendees. In their discussion, they encouraged departments to promote more expansive and inclusive pedagogical training, both to address the immediate (and likely long-lasting) impact of COVID-19 on teaching, and in realistic acknowledgment of the many career paths graduate students take as thinkers and scholars in a variety of environments.

“Professionalization and Preparation for Graduate Students,” Amy Pistone

Amy Pistone presented on the “hidden curriculum” of a professional career in classics. She detailed different skills and proficiencies that graduate students need to prepare for a range of careers (both in and out of higher education), even though graduate programs never explicitly teach or address many of them. We all, often without thinking about it, develop and deploy soft skills like networking, writing abstracts, delivering papers, writing emails, and even dressing for conferences. Many of these things can be easier if you have a more gregarious personality or are more comfortable with awkward situations. But Classics does not necessarily select for extroverts, and these skills can certainly be taught and learned. She provided a handout of elements of this “hidden curriculum” that may be useful for advising graduate students and helping with the professionalization process.

“Building Outward Bridges,” Nandini Pandey

Wrapping up the panel with some cautious optimism, Nandini Pandey offered seven observations about how she sees the post-COVID landscape evolving and how graduate students might leverage it over the mid- to long-term. The intellectual and social value of the arts and humanities, humanistic education, and critical thinking and communication skills have rarely been clearer. Far from seeing a drop in undergraduate enrollments, Classics may appeal to students who prefer to follow their passions in this time of global economic uncertainty. The pandemic has accelerated the decline of institutions that were already struggling financially. It has also put administrative targets on the backs of some smaller departments, and we must advocate for threatened programs. But overall, the long-range financial outlook for higher ed is not quite as dire as we anticipated in the spring. There is a permanent demand for education, coupled with a current shortage of competing alternatives. 

This year, graduate enrollments actually increased across the board. These new graduate students are entering an online universe that erases some long standing inequalities between faculty and grad students, well-funded and poorer departments. Whereas faculty and budgets once determined departmental programming, graduate students can now organize intellectual and professional development opportunities tailored to their interests at minimal cost. This enables graduate students to shape their departments’ priorities and opens up radical new opportunities for networking and skill-building. Particularly exciting are the chances to “travel” freely to lectures, conferences, workshops, and performances all over the world; organize writing, reading, and identity-based support groups without geographical constraints; build trans-institutional collaborations and mentorships, independently or through the WCC or AAACC; gain valuable experience visiting high school or liberal arts classes; and engage with practitioners and “alt”-academics on matters like public humanities and educational activism. We can no longer avoid the need to rethink and reform the traditional Classics Ph.D., from curricular and exam requirements all the way to the dissertation. Graduate students can — and indeed must — have a hand in that reform.

Brief Author Biographies:

Alicia Matz began her PhD career at Boston University in the fall of 2017. She earned her B.A. in Classics in 2015 from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, and her M.A. in Classics from Rutgers University in 2017. Her research interests include Augustan literature, politics, and material culture and reception, especially in science fiction and fantasy literature. In her free time she runs the @LOTRinLatin twitter, where she is translating Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (slowly) into Latin, as well as the @IodulaDicit twitter, where she tweets as Baby Yoda/Grogu from Disney's The Mandalorian

Hannah Čulík-Baird is an Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, and author of Cicero and the Early Latin Poets (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). Her research specialties are Cicero, fragmentary Latin poetry, and “the fragment” more broadly. She is co-organizer, with Joseph Romero (University of Mary Washington), of the Res Difficiles digital conference series on challenges and pathways for addressing inequity in Classics. She can be reached at culik@bu.edu or @opietasanimi

Tom Hendrickson and Anna Pisarello teach English and Latin at Stanford Online High School. During the COVID-19 crisis they have provided outreach and support in online pedagogy to fellow educators. They are currently editing a new series of student editions of women Latin authors. You can reach Tom at tghend@stanford.edu and on Twitter @TGHendrickson; Anna at annacp@stanford.edu and @TCatonis.

Amy Pistone is an Assistant Professor in the Classical Civilizations Department at Gonzaga University. Her primary research explores the question of Greek tragedy’s interaction with 5th-century Athenian society, in particular the misunderstanding of oracular or prophetic speech in Sophoclean tragedy. She is also very interested in public scholarship and contemporary receptions of Greek tragedy in modern society and popular culture. You can reach her at pistone@gonzaga.edu or @apistone.

Nandini Pandey is associate professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome (Cambridge 2018), and frequent writer and speaker to broader public humanities audiences. She plans to spend Spring 2021 at the American Academy in Berlin working on her second book project on Roman diversity. You can reach her at nandini.pandey@wisc.edu or @global_classics. 

Header image: Portrait of a young woman from Pompeii (so-called 'Sappho') (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

del.maticic's picture

Del A. Maticic is a Doctoral Candidate in Classics at NYU. His dissertation, Raw Materiality and the Poetics of Energy in Augustan Literature, explores how representations of raw materials in Latin literature from Vergil to Ovid changes our understanding of human-nature relations in Roman thought. When not writing about rocks and trees, he actively advocates for Classics graduate students and other precarious members of the field. In January 2021, he began a term as the first graduate student member of the SCS Board of Directors. You can reach him at del.maticic@nyu.edu or @maticiceronian on Twitter.

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