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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Many thanks to Bob Kaster for sharing this video (http://cdnapi.kaltura.com/index.php/extwidget/openGraph/wid/1_c15snnrq)of excerpts from conversations his colleague Brooke Holmes had with some alumni and alumnae last spring: they represent a wide range of ages and career paths, but they're all united by their love for Classics and their gratitude for the world it opened to them.

View full article. | Posted in General Announcements on Sun, 11/24/2013 - 9:45am by .

Following is the schedule for the APA Office for the next two months.  Our regular hours are 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

November 28-December 1, 2013                   Office Closed (Thanksgiving Holiday)
December 24-26, 2013                                   Office Closed (Christmas Holiday)
December 27 and 30, 2013                             Office Open (see Note A)
December 28-29, 2013                                   Office Closed
December 31, 2013-January 6, 2014             Office Closed (see Note B)
January 7-10, 2014                                         Office Open (see Note C)
January 11-12, 2014                                       Office Closed
January 13, 2014                                            Normal Office Operations Resume
January 20, 2014                                            Office Closed (Martin Luther King Day)

Note A:  The building where our offices are located at the University of Pennsylvania (220 S. 40th Street) will be locked, and we will not receive U.S. mail during this period.  Courier services may be able to make deliveries, but the best ways of communicating with us will be via telephone and e-mail.

Note B:  All staff will be at the annual meeting in Chicago or traveling between Philadelphia and Chicago.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 11/21/2013 - 10:10am by Adam Blistein.
The Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance (CAMP) of the American Philological Association invites proposals for a panel to be held under the Committee’s sponsorship at the 146th Annual Meeting of the APA (New Orleans, January 8-11, 2015).  Submissions, which should not exceed 500 words in length, should include:
 
(1)  the title of the proposed panel;
(2)  a general outline of the proposed topic;
(3)  a brief explanation of the topic's relevant to the performance of ancient or modern drama;
(4)  and, where relevant, a brief bibliography.

APA panels usually comprise either four 20-minute papers in a two-hour session, or four 20-minute papers plus short introduction and response in a

two-and-a-half-hour session.  Panel proposals should be sent via e-mail to Amy R. Cohen, Chair of the Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance (acohen@randolphcollege.edu), by December 30, 2013 (note extended deadline).
 
It should be noted that selection and sponsorship of a panel topic by the Committee does not in itself guarantee final acceptance of the panel by the
APA Program Committee.  Note that the organizer of any panel selected by the Committee will have to be a fully paid-up member of the APA for 2014.
View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 11/21/2013 - 9:14am by Adam Blistein.

I want to provide an update on the steps we are taking to implement the change in the name of the  Association that the members approved this summer.  With the help of incoming President Kathryn Gutzwiller, I formed an ad hoc committee consisting of members who represent various communities in our society to consider issues such as communicating with audiences outside the membership and guiding the graphic designer who is creating a new logo for us.

As part of this process we have learned that taking the legal steps required to change our name is the easiest task ahead of us.  We are incorporated in Delaware, and that state requires only that we file a simple form and pay a modest fee.  Legally we will become the Society for Classical Studies as soon as we make that filing.  Before we take that step, we want to have a logo ready and decide how the new name and its “subtitle” (founded in 1869 as the American Philological Association) will appear on our printed and electronic publications.  We also want to identify and prepare communications for all the audiences (both internal and external) who need to know about our change.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Mon, 11/18/2013 - 1:50pm by Adam Blistein.

California State University Long Beach’s Classics program would like to announce that we are making our upper division Latin reading classes available to students via the web. These are not “online” classes; they are classes conducted with students in real time. People who are interested in joining our classes would attend class sessions virtually through a web interface, and thus anyone who wants to participate would have to be online during the specific class time.

For Spring semester 2014, we are offering two reading courses, Cicero and Caesar. The semester begins on Tuesday, January 21, and concludes on Friday, May 23, with Spring Break during the week of March 21. Each class meets three hours per week and earns a student 3 semester units. The prerequisite for each class is intermediate Latin; i.e., students will be expected to have facility with noun and verb morphology and an introductory knowledge of Latin grammatical constructions.

View full article. | Posted in General Announcements on Mon, 11/18/2013 - 10:08am by .

The Department of Classical Studies at the College of William and Mary is currently accepting applications for its first incoming class of students interested in pursuing a Post-baccalaureate Certificate in Classical Studies.  This is a flexible program of study for students who have an undergraduate degree and who wish to pursue an intensive course of study in the Classical languages in preparation for graduate studies, teaching, or personal enrichment.  Students in the program take specific courses in Latin, Greek, and classical civilization appropriate to their level of preparation.  This program is especially designed for students who wish to:

  • pursue graduate study in Classical Studies but do not have enough Latin and Greek to be competitive in applying to Ph.D. programs.
  • teach Greek, Latin, or a related field in Classical Studies but have only a limited number of courses in Greek or Latin as an undergraduate student.
  • study Latin or Greek (or both) for personal intellectual growth and satisfaction.

A complete program description and application for admission can be found at: www.wm.edu/as/classicalstudies/post-bac-program/index.php.  For additional information, please contact: John Donahue, Chair, Department of Classical Studies at jfdona@wm.edu or at 757-221-1930.

View full article. | Posted in Degree and Certificate Programs on Wed, 11/13/2013 - 4:19pm by .

Classico Contemporaneo is a new international review aimed at sharing themes, methods and experiences dealing with the persistence of the classical tradition in western cultural memory. The review’s focus converges on the relationship between modernity and Classics and its influence on the daily collective imagination.

The guidelines for submissions include, but are not limited to, didactical practices, research themes, and methodology. Experiences from abroad and reviews of literary and visual works inspired by Classics are welcome.

The first issue of Classico Contemporaneo will collect contributions about the classical tradition in western cultural memory and new perspectives that modern knowledge transmission has created.  For information please contact us: redazione@classicocontemporaneo.eu
 

View full article. | Posted in General Announcements on Tue, 11/12/2013 - 10:26am by Adam Blistein.

OK, my title is a more than a little tongue in cheek. Blogging for the APA doesn’t make me a public intellectual. Nor does the one article I’ve published for a wider public, a piece on Petronius for Salon.com. But by the same token it seems to me that most professional classical scholars don't pursue publishing in such venues, and I think more of us should attempt it. There are a lot of reasons why we don't. We’re not trained to write for broad audiences, and the tenure and promotion system demands that we devote our energy to peer-reviewed publications. Most of us don't know how we would go about finding a venue (I got published on Salon by pure, naïve luck, a shot in the dark to a culture editor. There must be better ways to do it, and I now know that your college’s office of communications can help, but I would welcome an APA panel with advice from those who have actually done it). But I also wonder whether many of us, self-conscious about the specialization of our expertise, don't think of ourselves as having much to say. So I think it’s useful to deflate the vaunted designation of “public intellectual” a bit, because too much vaunting discourages us from trying to attain it. It’s bad for our field if no one is speaking to the public about what we do.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 11/11/2013 - 3:59pm by Curtis Dozier.

Over the summer I saw a production of Antigone at the Schaubühne in Berlin, and for the most part I absolutely hated it. In a way this was rather good – I’ve seen so many blah-blah-just-fine productions of Greek tragedy that it’s easy to forget the invigorating ire that trickles down your spine when you see the immortal lines to which you’ve devoted your career trampled into the dust before your eyes. It was a classic example of artistic navel-gazing at its most extreme: the whole play was set in a therapy group, where the actors took it in turns to adopt the roles of different participants in the myth to work through their own issues, and then came out of character to discuss what they’d learned from the process. Everything was blasted with self-referential irony until every last trace of emotion withered and died. Tiresias was played by a glove-puppet who threw fried chicken all over the stage while uttering his prophecies in a squeaky voice. The duel between Polynices and Eteocles was staged as a wet towel fight. There was far too much silver glitter involved at every point.

View full article. | Posted in on Wed, 11/06/2013 - 8:30am by Laura Swift.

“At last my love has come along.” — At Last, written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
tandem uenit amor (at last my love has come along) — Sulpicia poem 1, line 1

Etta James’ most famous song quotes the first line of the love-elegist Sulpicia, one of the few surviving Graeco-Roman women poets.  One of the song’s composers, Harry Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna), was the son of Italian immigrants.  Perhaps he encountered the line through them, and it stuck with him over the years?  More likely a coincidence.  In “Rumour Has It,” a recent chart-topper by the pop star Adele—a self-described admirer of Etta James and lover of poetry—the plot is one of love unrequited and rumor at large, a scenario reminiscent of Dido, Aeneas, and Rumor in Vergil Aeneid book 4.  (I’m not the first to make this association: see @calpunzel on Twitter.)  Even closer correspondences with Vergil appear in the songs of the singer Dido, particularly “My Lover’s Gone,” as Alden Smith has pointed out.

View full article. | Posted in on Tue, 11/05/2013 - 2:24pm by .

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