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 site:

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity.

The model consists of 751 sites, most of them urban settlements but also including important promontories and mountain passes, and covers close to 10 million square kilometers (~4 million square miles) of terrestrial and maritime space. 268 sites serve as sea ports. The road network encompasses 84,631 kilometers (52,587 miles) of road or desert tracks, complemented by 28,272 kilometers (17,567 miles) of navigable rivers and canals.

Read more here: http://orbis.stanford.edu/.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Sat, 05/12/2012 - 6:01pm by .

A beta version of www.classicaltimeline.com, a new educational resource surveying the history of Classical antiquity, has just been launched and is currently seeking editors and contributors. If you wish to get involved please go to http://www.classicalstudiesonline.org/get-involved/ to find out more.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Wed, 05/09/2012 - 1:19pm by .

From Helma Dik via the Digital Classicist List:

I'm delighted to announce the release of an iPad app for introductory and intermediate Greek readers. Its name is Attikos and it includes a selection of familiar texts, including morphological information. The author is Josh Day, himself recently an intermediate Greek student.

Link to the app store page: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/attikos/id522497233?mt=8

Writing the app would not have been nearly as feasible without the Perseus Project's generous policies of making its data available to third parties. It includes links to logeion.uchicago.edu, which is an interface for dictionaries and reference works, including Liddell and Scott. Again, that website is based for the most part on resources from the Perseus Project at Tufts. When not connected to the internet, the app itself offers short definitions, as familiar from Perseus.

Texts include the Iliad, some Lysias and Plato, and the Antigone. Some texts have been parsed completely; no translations are included, however. Bonus features allow the user to look up morphological parses of words they type in, or figure them out with the included morphological charts.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Tue, 05/08/2012 - 1:24am by .

During a televised debate between Congressman Ron Paul and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, Congressman Paul pointed to inflation under Diocletian as a reason to be concerned about expansion of the money supply today.  Prof. Krugman disagrees, although he admits to little knowledge of ancient history, and in a subsequent post discusses the difficulty of talking about the "zero lower bound" when the numerical system has no zero.  In Slate, Matthew Yglesias provides a literature summary on the topic. 

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Wed, 05/02/2012 - 2:15pm by Adam Blistein.

Sally Anne MacEwen, Professor and Chair of Classics at Agnes Scott College, died on March 15, 2012 after a long and astonishingly cheerful and determined fight against cancer. Born in Abington, PA in 1948, Sally earned her B.A. From Mount Holyoke College and her Ph.D. From the University of Pennsylvania. After a two years at the University of Utah, Sally spent thirty years teaching at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, where she inspired generations of women with a love of Classics and especially of Greek tragedy and its resonance in our modern world. Her unwavering commitment to her Quaker beliefs and to the importance of equality and diversity helped to make Agnes Scott more just and supportive of its entire community.

Sally’s publications ranged from Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis to Thelma and Louise, and her teaching was similarly wide-ranging. A signature course was based on her book Superheroes and Greek Tragedy: Comparing Cultural Icons, and at the time of her death she was teaching a new course entitled “Racism (or not) in Antiquity”; these two courses epitomize Sally’s scholarship, teaching, and profound understanding of the relevance of Classics in the modern world. In addition to her service at Agnes Scott, Sally was a long-time member of the Women’s Classical Caucus and served as its newsletter editor form 2004-2010.

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Mon, 04/30/2012 - 3:54pm by Adam Blistein.

From newsobserver.com:

For 44 years, Burian, a professor of classical studies, has transported his students to the ancient world, a place inhabited by emperors and slaves, gods and heroes. And along the way, he has taught them about their own time and place, and maybe a bit about themselves.

Burian’s last class at Duke was Wednesday. At 68, he’s retiring from the classroom, but will spend a year as dean of humanities at Duke, where he will put his wisdom to work on larger questions about the study of languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion.

Read more…

View full article. | Posted in Member News on Sun, 04/29/2012 - 11:43am by .

From the National Humanities Alliance:

April 24, 2012 – On April 10, the National Endowment for the Humanities launched a new website. After a complete overhaul, the new neh.gov provides a more user-friendly platform for people seeking grants and for the public interested in humanities research, scholarship, and public programs.  A new “EXPLORE” section allows users to access information about more than 200 documentaries, radio programs, and apps produced by broadcasters and others with NEH grants. A prominent new rotator will showcase news of NEH and books, seminars, and other projects growing out of Endowment funding.  Each NEH division and program will have its own series of pages to feature projects, news about grants and opportunities to meet program officers in the field. 

Other features include:

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Sat, 04/28/2012 - 11:59am by .

Congratulations to Alexander Loney, one of 39 ACLS New Faculty Fellows for 2012 (http://www.acls.org/research/nff.aspx?id=5556).  He received his Ph.D. in Classics at Duke and will hold his NFF position at Yale.  As defined by the ACLS, "the New Faculty Fellows program allows recent Ph.D.s in the humanities to take up two-year positions at universities and colleges across the United States where their particular research and teaching expertise augment departmental offerings.  This program is an initiative of ACLS to address the dire situation of newly minted Ph.D.s in the humanities and related social sciences who are now confronting an increasingly 'jobless market.'  The generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation makes this program possible."

View full article. | Posted in Member News on Thu, 04/26/2012 - 1:58pm by .

From Informationsdienst Wissenschaft:

Universität Leipzig erhält hochkarätige Humboldt-Professur
Susann Huster

Die Universität Leipzig hat eine mit fünf Millionen Euro ausgestattete Professur der Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung erhalten, um den renommierten Altphilologen und Informatiker Prof. Dr. Gregory Ralph Crane von der Tufts University in Medford/Boston, USA, zu berufen.

Crane gilt als führender Pionier der eHumanities, der Entwicklung von Computerprogrammen für die Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften. Er kombiniert in einem innovativen Ansatz Altphilologie und Informatik. So wendet er Methoden der Informatik zur Systematisierung der kulturellen Entwicklung des Menschen an. Seine Reputation als Pionier der Digital Humanities, der digitalen Geisteswissenschaften, verdankt er der Entwicklung der Perseus Digital Library, einer umfangreichen und frei zugänglichen Online-Bibliothek für antike Quellen. Als einer der innovativsten Forscher in seinem Gebiet ist er wie kein Zweiter in den Geisteswissenschaften und der Angewandten Informatik bewandert.

View full article. | Posted in Member News on Wed, 04/25/2012 - 11:34am by .

From now on, the Gnomon Bibliographic Database will also be available in an English version (http://www.englisch.gnomon-online.de/), including a comprehensive English thesaurus. The database contains around 500,000 entries, with monthly updates comprising the latest reviews, monograph studies, anthologies, and articles in periodicals.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Mon, 04/23/2012 - 3:54pm by .

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