A Liberal Art for the Future

By Nigel Nicholson, Reed College

This paper was delivered as part of "The Future of Classical Education: A Dialogue," a panel organized by the SCS Program Committee at the 147th annual meeting of the SCS in San Francisco, January 8, 2016.

The problem of perceived employability

The biggest challenge that Classics as a discipline faces in the current climate in this country is surely the perception that, unless you are going to be a teacher, a BA in Classics does not make you much more employable than a high school diploma. The challenge comes from a variety of stakeholders: students, of course, current, past and future; students’ parents (I am sure we have all had conversations with parents about what young Johnny will “do” with a classics degree); but also accrediting agencies, deans and provosts, foundations and donors; and, right now, crucially, employers, and indeed many of the employers that our students are interested in working for.

This problem is not just our problem; it afflicts all the humanities and arts, and also the social sciences, and even the life sciences. What young Johnny will “do” is often code for what young Johnny will earn, and there are a lot of organizations and institutions invested, purposefully or otherwise, in the reduction of a college degree to earnings after college – not just the Presidential Scorecard..1 All of these show roughly the same conclusion: higher salaries for engineers, computer scientists, physicists and chemists, and business degrees; lower for the rest of us (though certainly significantly higher than for those without a BA). Classics has particular problems of its own—the perception of privilege, of being out of touch with changing demographics or concerned only with the white and the male—and these are very real challenges for the discipline that I in no way mean to diminish, but I am going to focus on the problem of perceived employability, because this is the one that I, as Dean of Faculty, hear most from parents.The Colorado State University 2014 Spring College of Liberal Arts II Commencement ceremony, May 17, 2014. Photo: via flickr, © Colorado State University

Helping students express the value of their degree

What is so odd about this for many of us is that we grew up in a world where Classics was—or was until recently—an obvious and well-worn route to success in business and government—seen as making the best students better: stronger intellects, with a breadth of vision and understanding of ethics and history. In Britain in the 70s, if a government minister had gone to college, he or she had typically read History, PPE, or Classics; classicists were a major part of the fabric of public life, dominating the obituary pages in the “quality” newspapers. No one asked you why you wanted to study Classics or what you would do with it. It was assumed you would get a good education and be successful.

But times change, and we need to address the prevailing zeitgeist. That does not mean acceding to the idea that the point of college it to train you for an entry level job on graduation (and no more than that) or devaluing the value of a Classics degree or liberal learning in general in favor of business and technical degrees. But it does mean engaging with the questions these stakeholders are asking. And this is my main point today. Part of our job must be to help students transition to careers and vocations. We cannot leave this, as we once did, to the Office of Careers Services, or to the students themselves. The Classics degree cannot be taught under the sign of graduate school; some of our students go on to teach, but the vast majority do not, and we need to help that majority make this transition. And to do this, we need to articulate, and help our students articulate, what they learn in terms of broader, transferable skills and abilities so that they have a language in which to frame their considerable achievements when they want to begin or change a career.

This is not something we do well, according to a study done by Kenny Morrell and the Center for Hellenic Studies, and funded by the Teagle Foundation..2 Or at least the CHS group showed that Classics majors are rarely framed in terms of the broader goals of a liberal arts education—and I think such framing is a good place to start in helping students navigate what it means to be classics major in terms that are legible to employers and parents. The CHS group interviewed classics majors at four liberal arts colleges, including Reed, to construct a sense of what broader goals these students saw represented by their major, and the five most commonly agreed goals were:

  • Critical thinking. As the authors note, this rather vague category probably represented a catch-all for a number of more specific skills such as clarity of thought, reasoning, problem-solving etc.
  • Synthesizing information. The authors relate this to the fact that Classics, in contrast to most other language and literature departments, claims as its own the study of the culture as a whole, including history, art history, archaeology, philosophy, etc., and typically offers classes in them.
  • Research skills: finding, evaluating and appropriately deploying information, and doing a full survey of a problem, rather than reading superficially.
  • Communicating through writing.
  • Ability to continue learning throughout life.

There are certainly many reasons to be a Classics major; I suspect that most students are drawn to the major by simple enjoyment, the quality of the professors and the other students in the major, or the perceived difficulty or even prestige of the major—at least within the Humanities. But helping students think about what they are doing in these more general terms, in terms appropriate to all liberal education, will give them a language with which to express the value of their degree to someone who may have little understanding of what that degree represents. The CHS study concludes by encouraging faculty members to explicitly help students frame their work on this level, and some programs are doing that already. One very interesting experiment is going on at Skidmore, where Dan Curley teaches a class for seniors that takes as its goal encouraging reflection on such questions as well as on the constitution of Classics as a discipline, while making sure students know more immediate details like how to write resumes and cover letters..3

Challenging traditional classics curricula

The main limitation with the CHS study is that it reflects a kind of reverse engineering: it asks, “Given what you are studying now, how might you talk about it?” But I think one of the great benefits of this exercise is that it can be prospective, a chance not just to articulate the curricula we presently teach, but rethink aspects in order to better serve the larger goals that we identity as important. There is a lot of helpful educational work being done by supportive institutions that can help this process of proactive reflection. One rubric that I quite like, and that the CHS study also uses, is that provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. As part of its centenary the AAC&U is backing an advocacy program entitled LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) that champions the importance of liberal education today, both for an individual’s intellectual and moral development, and for a nation’s economic and democratic vitality. The rubric is not a perfect fit for majors—it concerns rather the whole curriculum—but there is a lot of useful research involved, plenty of food for thought, and the backing of an important advocacy organization..4

The AAC&U picks out ten practices that they see as having a major impact on student development:

  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Capstone projects that require integration of prior learning
  • Undergraduate research: involving students early on in the current open questions in a discipline
  • Diversity/Global learning: study of different cultures, often with experiential learning or study abroad
  • Intense, small-group seminars for first-year students
  • Learning Communities: pursuit of questions across different disciplines in different classes
  • Common intellectual experiences: suites of required courses that work together
  • Collaborative work
  • Service-learning or community-based learning
  • Internships

Looking at this list the first reaction for many of us will be to say that many of these elements are already part of a typical program. Classics majors are typically writing intensive; capstone projects—in many cases whole classes devoted to senior theses—are regular features; the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of the field encourages the pursuit of questions through different disciplines; study abroad and learning about difference are often central; first-year seminars tend to be intense; and current research regularly features on syllabuses. So prima facie this rubric is a flattering one, and we can use its language, and its authority, to pick out and frame what outsiders who may never have heard of Catullus or the polis will recognize as valuable in what we do.

But, again, the goal here is not just to give a new description to what we do, but also to test ourselves against it.

  • Do we really teach in an integrative and interdisciplinary way? Are the different disciplines brought into real contact, or do they remain separate, studying different questions, with different students involved? What would it mean to really integrate different disciplinary modes and methods in the study of a single problem?
  • Or our capstones: how effective are they? Do they really draw together what the students have worked on and require that they use what they have learned?
  • How much do our syllabuses lean to explaining old debates and how they were solved, rather than pitching students into the new questions that as yet have no answers?
  • Is study abroad integrated into the students’ learning? Does the study abroad program involve the student in a different culture, or protect them from it?

And perhaps we can stretch further. Are there elements on this list that we do not typically pursue but might be able to if we did some rethinking? Two on this list are surely possibilities. Collaborative work is one, and surely a key one. I am speaking in broad strokes here, and there are certainly programs that stress collaborative work, but the SCS program itself is testament to the fact that classics research is still largely figured as an individual endeavor. Few articles, books and talks, certainly outside of archaeology, feature the multi-author lists of science papers, but there is no reason why this should be so. Collaborative work does take practice, though, and thought is required to build it into a curriculum. That is, of course, why it is a real skill.

A second interesting area is service learning or community-based learning, which is probably the preferred term right now, with its emphasis on partnership rather than charity. Some schools have fantastic programs. I think of Gonzaga’s program run by Dave Oosterhuis of translating historical documents written by Jesuits in the archives of a local Native American tribe. Few have such opportunities, but there are often tutoring possibilities in local schools, and in many if not most colleges, senior students tutor more junior students, building community, improving their own understanding and taking some of the workload of the professors in the process. This could be built into the requirements for upper-level language classes.

There are possibilities outside of this list too. First, oral communication is rarely emphasized in the way that written communication is, an odd thing in the department of Cicero and Demosthenes. Second, developing an ethical sense of one’s place in a community is increasingly common in college mission statements, and that could easily be one of our goals, given the importance of Plato, Cicero and Seneca, not to mention the centrality of the polis and Greek democratic institutions. And, third, technological expertise is often underplayed also, despite the obvious achievements made by classicists in this area, often well ahead of the curve—I think of BMCR, Perseus, the various digitization projects or Sunoikisis. (Sunoikisis is a collaboration that links together several mainly liberal arts colleges in a team-taught course each fall.) One of the elements that students in the Sunoikisis collaboration flag is that they develop a facility with distance communication software. But I am thinking of integrating technology on a different level, although integrating it into the modes of presentation of student work is surely productive. Our discipline, again outside of archaeology, is still very much guided by close reading, but the digitization of our texts gives us a great opportunity to do a different kind of big-data (or at least bigger-data) reading that could be particularly open to undergraduates who lack the kind of advanced language skills to read really closely. If we trained classicists, and not just some archaeologists, to do statistics, they might do more of this work.

This may not fit your vision of a Classics major, or even of an undergraduate liberal arts degree, but my larger point does not rest on the details; these are offered as one potential rubric, or several potential rubrics, that might help one plan and organize a major. My central point is simply that we need to articulate broader goals that are legible beyond Classics, and use these to interrogate what we actually do in the major. Different programs will surely articulate different goals, or like Dan Curley’s class encourage the students to articulate goals for themselves as well. But the key is to build this in, and not leave it to the students to make this leap—as many, if not most, will not be able to until later in their careers. Typically our students just need a foot in the door; employers love them when they see them. We just need to make sure they get that foot in the door. And this will not just help the students; a well-conceived and executed set of goals will also help the program represent itself to deans and accreditors also.

Getting involved

One further point: Good ideas don’t necessarily sell themselves; you have to make sure people are listening or have a chance to hear them. This means putting ourselves forward. The Liberal Arts College Caucus convened annually at the SCS by Barbara Gold of Hamilton College and Michael Arnush of Skidmore spends a lot of time thinking about how requirement systems (diversity requirements, language requirements) might advantage or disadvantage programs, or make it hard for people to begin, say, Greek in the fall. This is obviously not only sensible, but crucial, and having this vehicle for liberal arts professors to share good ideas has been one of my favorite pieces of recent SCS meetings. It also makes sense to volunteer to teach in first-year writing programs or other classes aimed at first-year students, or be part of learning communities and other initiatives that often are more generously underwritten than traditional programs—even if it takes more work, pulls us out of our comfort zones, or involves learning some new tricks or areas. I am speaking here especially to those of us with tenure here, who can afford to put more time into new programming.

Similarly, taking the time to cultivate relationships with admissions and development can pay dividends. On the one hand, it helps if a group of students comes as first-years already interested in classics; on the other hand, if a department has funds to send students on summer digs or fund unpaid internships of other sorts, students in the major are more likely to do something over the summer that will help them develop a vocation.

And finally, even if administration is not to your taste, it is important to serve on major committees—to make oneself available and also do the kinds of things that get you elected or appointed to such committees. The more places we occupy on these committees, the more our ideas will be heard within a college, but also the more we will know about how decisions are made, and against what criteria. If they have low enrollments, Classics programs may seem expensive, but with no lab assistants, no expensive equipment and few physical plant demands, they may still be a better deal than programs with many more students. It is in our interest to be at the table when questions and criteria are framed.

And that is my final point: that we need to engage rather than retreat. We have a strong story to tell—Classics can be a great training—but we need to tell it in words designed for an outside audience, even if that involves using a language that we find reductionist or getting involved in administrative work we find tedious or reframing and reinventing some of our courses or even our curricula. If we do that, we will not only help our students transition to their life beyond college, but we will also strengthen and improve our programs.


1. E.g. the NACE (National Association for Colleges and Employers) statistics (.pdf). This does not mean that humanities graduates are not employed, and it is clear that they are much more successful than those without a BA, but even defenders agree that their median salaries are lower than those of BA holders as a whole. Cf. Wilson Peden, “The Myth of the Unemployed Humanities Major,” LEAP Challenge Blog [published by the AAC&U], November 11, 2015.

2.Center for Hellenic Studies, “The Classics Major and Liberal Education,” Liberal Education [published by the AAC&U] 95.2.

3.Dan Curley, CC 395: The Classics Major and Beyond, Skidmore College.

4. George Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008) (summary).]

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From The Baltimore Sun:

Georg H.B. Luck, whose career teaching the classics at the Johns Hopkins University spanned two decades and included studying the role magic and witchcraft played in the theology and world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, died Sunday from complications of cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

He was 87 and a longtime resident of the city's Poplar Hill neighborhood.

"Georg was a modest man who had great gusto for the things that interested him," said Richard A. Macksey, a noted Baltimore bibliophile and professor of humanities at Hopkins. "He was the kind of person who could interest the general public in what might appear to many to be very dry work. He saw the relationship between theology, witchcraft and magic."

"He was a pioneer in the study of magic and witchcraft in the theology of the ancient Greeks and Romans," said Matthew B. Roller, a professor and former chairman of the classics department at Hopkins. "It was the first serious study and he collected all of the material."

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Sun, 02/24/2013 - 4:45pm by .

Silius Italicus Poetry and Historiography, a Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, March 23rd 2013, 10AM-4:30PM.  After a long and varied career as a lawyer and politician, Silius Italicus devoted his last years to the writing of poetry. During the reign of Domitian (81-96 CE) he composed an extensive epic on the Second Punic War, choosing the third decade of Livy as his main source and Virgil’s Aeneid as the predominant epic model. Silius’ poetic achievements have not met with much approval over the centuries: for many modern scholars, his work has been a classic example of a rather slavish and uninspired form of imitatio. During the last few decades, however, a reappraisal has taken place, and scholars have begun to appreciate the striking originality of Silius’ approach to his topic.

The papers of this conference will focus on an important part of this new appreciation: aspects of Silius’ relationship to the older historiographical and epic tradition that have not previously been appreciated. They will not only provide new insights for specialists, but they will also present a lively introduction both to an author who deserves more scholarly attention and to a literary practice—the mixing of historiography and poetry—that has played an important role from the time of Herodotus until today.

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Wed, 02/20/2013 - 6:26pm by Adam Blistein.

Charles Luther Babcock died December 7, 2012 at the age of 88. He was born in Whittier California, May 26, 1924. After attending Whittier Union High School, he enrolled in the University of California—Berkeley in 1941, where he became a member of ROTC. In 1943 he entered the US Army and served in General Patton’s Third Army in the invasion of Germany in 1945. There, as Second Lieutenant, he earned the Bronze Medal for leading his platoon through heavy fire at Neumarkt, assisting the wounded, personally liberating nine POWs and capturing the local civilian leader of the resistance. After the war as Captain he became aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. John Coulter, who went on to become Deputy Commander of the Fourth Army.

In 1947 Capt. Babcock resumed his studies at Berkeley, where he earned a BA (Phi Beta Kappa) in Latin in 1948 and a PhD in Classics in 1953, with a dissertation on The Dating of the Capitoline Fasti and the Erasure of the Antonii Names, written under Arthur E. Gordon. So began Charles Babcock’s lifelong interest in Latin Epigraphy and the history of the Roman Empire. He continued his pursuit of Roman history and epigraphy at the American Academy in Rome as a Fulbright Scholar and Academy Fellow (1953-55). While sailing to Rome with other Americans heading for the Academy, he met Mary A. Taylor, a graduate student from Bryn Mawr. They were married in 1955 and raised three children.

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Tue, 02/19/2013 - 8:28pm by .

Jim Halporn was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island and carried his accent from there for his whole life — much of it spent far from there. His mother Louisa taught English in the public schools. His father Robert brought much of the influence of his Gymnasium education and Viennese values to educating his son. (Much later, in retirement, Robert moved to Bloomington, where he took a number of Latin and Greek classes with his son’s Indiana University colleagues.)

After a year at St. John’s College, Jim entered Columbia College with the full intention of becoming a chemist, despite his strong interest in literature — from childhood he was a constant reader of anything at hand. That interest, the year at St. John’s, and the first-year humanities courses at Columbia influenced his decision by his senior year to major in classics rather than chemistry. He then concentrated on Latin and started Greek in order to prepare for the Masters degree program at Columbia; following that, he earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. His previous scientific training and inclination gave him a discipline and focus that was an asset to his linguistic and philological future. While at Columbia, he was coxswain for the junior varsity crew. Chosen for his very lightweight physique, his winter training consisted of smoking and playing cards while the oarsmen worked out. He was bemused to have earned a letter in the sport.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 02/14/2013 - 6:07pm by Adam Blistein.

Last October Jeffrey Henderson began a discussion of one of the major recommendations to emerge from the APA Board’s March 2012 retreat, that our organization should change its name so as better to reflect who we are and what we aim to do.  In late November he reported to the membership on the over 200 comments received to date, and announced a discussion forum to host further debate.  At our Board meeting in Seattle, we took note of the responses and had a wide-ranging discussion of the views of the membership, which at that point were running about 3 to 1 in favor of a change of name, although without consensus on an alternative. 

After a lengthy and full discussion, the Board voted in favor of a change of name, to “Society for Classical Studies”, with “Founded in 1869 as the American Philological Association” as a permanent subtitle. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 02/14/2013 - 1:20am by Adam Blistein.

On February 6, President Denis Feeney and I on behalf of the APA submitted comments to a British Parliamentary Committee investigating the government’s policy on Open Access (OA). Although most scholars support OA in principle, a recent proposal in the UK, resulting from a high-level report in 2012 (the Finch Report), has raised concerns particularly among scholars in the humanities. The proposal would require all UK research that is supported by public funds to be published in OA journals,  with the costs to be borne by the researchers themselves rather than the journals. The proposal is complex and the issues are difficult, but Denis and I have tried to present a concise summary (as required by the Committee) of our concerns.

I would be happy to hear any comments you might have on the matter.
Michael Gagarin, VP for Publication and Research (gagarin@austin.utexas.edu)

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Fri, 02/08/2013 - 5:11pm by Adam Blistein.

David C. Young, Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Florida (http://web.classics.ufl.edu/faculty/faculty_o/young.html), died February 5, 2013. An internationally recognized scholar of Pindar and a pioneer in the history of the Olympic games, David was recognized with a Lifetime Distinguished Scholar Award in 2007 by the International Society of Olympic Historians. He taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1963-1989) and was a visiting professor at Stanford (1974, 1976) and the University of Michigan (1973, 1983) before joining the faculty at the University of Florida where he was a beloved teacher who inspired students for twenty years.

The Department of Classics at the University of Florida will post information here http://web.classics.ufl.edu/index.html regarding a memorial service to be held in his honor in Gainesville, FL. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we may assist you to attend.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 02/07/2013 - 4:01pm by Adam Blistein.

As noted earlier, Craig Gibson has been appointed Editor of Transactions effective January 5, 2014.  However, he will handle new submissions effective immediately.  Please send all submissions electronically to tapa@uiowa.edu, following TAPA guidelines.  Katharina Volk will remain the official Editor through 2013 and in charge of producing this year's issues (143.1 and 2).

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sun, 02/03/2013 - 4:07pm by Adam Blistein.

As Chair of the Search Committee, I am happy to report that Professor Craig Gibson of the University of Iowa has accepted our invitation to become the next Editor of the Transactions of the American Philological Association.  Professor Gibson is a distinguished and very productive scholar of ancient literature and its intersections with other aspects of ancient culture.  His term as Editor will run from January 5, 2014 to January 7, 2018.  An announcement concerning the transition of responsibility from current Editor Katharina Volk to Professor Gibson and protocol for submission of manuscripts will soon be published on the web site and in the Association Newsletter.

I want to thank the other members of the Search Committee (John Bodel, Jeff Henderson, Chris Kraus, and Adam Blistein) for their assistance in the completion of this successful search.  I also very much appreciate the interest that the Committee saw from the other highly qualified candidates for this position.  Finally, we are grateful to Department of Classics of the University of Iowa for its support of the arrangements necessary to enable Professor Gibson to accept this position. 

Michael Gagarin
Vice President for Publications and Research

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 01/29/2013 - 7:48pm by Adam Blistein.

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