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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Header Image: Late antique mosaic likely depicting Theseus sailing away from the Labyrinth (Utica, Tunisia, 3rd C CE, now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Image by Sarah E. Bond).

'Addressing the Divide' is a new series of columns that looks at the ways in which the modern field of Classics was constructed and then explores ways to identify, modify, or simply abolish the lines between fields in order to embrace broader ideas of what Classics was, is, and could be. This month, Kathryn Topper addresses the divisions between Art History and Classics.

For specialists in Greek and Roman art, professional life is an endless navigation of disciplinary divides. Often it seems like we belong to a disciplinary no man’s land – too archaeological for other art historians, too art historical for field archaeologists, and too visual for text-oriented Classicists whose training has predisposed them to doubt the intellectual seriousness of scholars who study something as seemingly straightforward as pictures.

The uneasy position of ancient art historians relative to the allied disciplines arises from historical factors, but it’s also a consequence of the nature of our material. When you work in a field in which reconstruction and interpretation almost invariably go hand in hand, you tend to need all the tools in your own toolbox, and in the neighbors’ toolboxes, too. As a result, historians of ancient art spend a lot of time working in disciplines dominated by colleagues whose priorities and training are very different from our own.

View full article. | Posted in on Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:09pm by Kathryn Topper.

National Humanities Center

Residential Fellowships 2020-21

Call for Applications

The National Humanities Center invites applications for academic-year or one-semester residential fellowships. Mid-career, senior, and emerging scholars with a strong record of peer-reviewed work from all areas of the humanities are encouraged to apply.

Scholars from all parts of the globe are eligible; stipends and travel expenses are provided. Fellowship applicants must have a PhD or equivalent scholarly credentials. Fellowships are supported by the Center’s own endowment, private foundation grants, contributions from alumni and friends, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Located in the vibrant Research Triangle region of North Carolina, the Center affords access to the rich cultural and intellectual communities supported by the area’s research institutes, universities, and dynamic arts scene. Fellows enjoy private studies, in-house dining, and superb library services that deliver all research materials.

Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. ET, October 10, 2019. For more information and to apply, please visit the link below.

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Tue, 07/30/2019 - 12:37pm by Erik Shell.
The Conference on Mediterranean and European Linguistic Anthropology 2020
 
Following the growth of The Global Network for Linguistic Anthropology, we announce The COMELA 2020, The Conference on Mediterranean and European Linguistic Anthropology 2020.

Purpose and Structure - Over 500 scholars globally will gather to present papers and engage in progressive discussion on the Linguistic Anthropology, Language and Society, and related fields, of The Mediterranean and Europe. The COMELA is fully Non-Profit, where all publishing with the JOMELA (its scholarly journal) is free, as the COMELA refuses to implement a pay to publish system. The COMELA sources funding/grants to assist people in impeded economic positions, who require funding to access the COMELA Conference, and display strong ability in their work. COMELA proceedings will be indexed with SCOPUS and will contribute to ranked and cited publications for all those accepted to present, as well as publishing papers in Top Tier Journal Publication Special Issues.

Location - American University of Greece, Athens, Greece

Date - September 2-5, 2020

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 07/29/2019 - 9:38am by Erik Shell.
"Empty Theatre (almost)"by Kevin Jaako, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Calling all Actors, Designers, and Creatives—to participate in a staged reading of

The Gladiator
by Robert Montgomery Bird

Directed by Rob Groves

Friday, January 3, 2020

SCS/AIA Annual Meeting, Washington D.C.

The Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance's annual tradition of staged readings at the annual general meeting will continue this year with a production of an engaging example of Classical reception, Robert Montgomery Bird's 1831 retelling of the Spartacus story, The Gladiator!

View full article. | Posted in Performances on Tue, 07/23/2019 - 9:24am by Erik Shell.

I have always been a proponent of reading outside of one’s own field. We are all pressed for time, of course, and keeping up with the scholarship in our own areas of expertise is itself a constant challenge. But reading outside of our traditional areas of study is one of those intellectual activities in which even a little goes a long way towards exposing us to real and imagined worlds that can allow us to better reconstruct the ancient Mediterranean.

As an ancient Mediterranean historian, I have gained most from my reading in (loosely) adjacent historical fields, especially early China and early modern Europe. I have also benefitted from exploring research in social-scientific disciplines with which history is in ongoing dialogue, especially sociology and cultural anthropology. My reading in these fields could hardly be called systematic, but it doesn’t matter. The time spent reading outside of ancient Mediterranean history almost always repays the reader by presenting new questions, new approaches, and new ways to think about familiar material.

However, today I want to explore something a little different: how my ideas about the Roman Empire, my research and teaching focus, have been shaped by creative literature—an essential tool, I have found, for facilitating the leaps of historical imagination necessary for an empathetic (if ultimately incomplete) understanding of a world so alien from our own.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 07/22/2019 - 2:21pm by Carlos Noreña.

Classical Representations in Popular Culture

Southwest Popular / American Culture Association (SWPACA)

Area Chair: Benjamin S. Haller (bhaller@vwu.edu)

41st Annual Conference, February 19-22, 2020
Hyatt Regency Hotel & Conference Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico

http://www.southwestpca.org

Proposal submission deadline: October 31, 2019

Proposals for papers and panels are now being accepted for the 41st annual SWPACA conference.  One of the nation’s largest interdisciplinary academic conferences, SWPACA offers nearly 70 subject areas, each typically featuring multiple panels.  For a full list of subject areas, area descriptions, and Area Chairs, please visit http://southwestpca.org/conference/call-for-papers/

Classical Representations in Popular Culture

Papers on any aspect of Greek, Roman, or Mediterranean antiquity in contemporary or popular culture are eligible for consideration.

Classical Representations welcomes submissions on a broader range of topics including:

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:29pm by Erik Shell.

Call for Lightning Papers: Classics and Civic Activism

Joint AIA/SCS workshop, January 2–5, 2020, Washington, D.C.

Organizers: Yurie Hong (Gustavus Adolphus College), Marina Haworth (North Hennepin Community College), Amit Shilo (UC, Santa Barbara), T. H. M. Gellar-Goad (Wake Forest University)

Classicists at all levels have knowledge, experience, skills, and contacts that can usefully contribute to civic activism outside of academia proper.  The Classics & Social Justice Affiliated Group has organized a workshop on the subject of Classics and Civic Activism for the upcoming AIA/SCS meeting. We invite proposals for a lightning round on outward-facing activism in which presenters will spend 3 minutes sharing their own experiences and making recommendations. These presentations will become integral to discussions among participants during the following breakout sessions.

The lightning round is the second of three parts of the workshop:

1) Three featured presenters from Indivisible, the National Humanities Alliance, and the American Federation of Teachers will offer guidance in community organizing, engaging with representatives, and other advocacy work, specifically focusing on how academics and educators can combine their skills and expertise with activism.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Fri, 07/19/2019 - 8:25am by Erik Shell.

The United States was more than a century old before it saw its first play staged in Latin. What follows is a story about its producers’ struggle for recognition and the external factors that doomed it to obscurity. Beyond a footnote in theatrical history, the 1877 production of a Jesuit Latin play at Boston College offers a glimpse into the fraught politics of education in the United States in the late 19th century, the origins of the modern college elective, and a form of Classical curriculum that might have been—if an ugly fight in Boston had turned out differently.

In April of 1894, Harvard’s production of its first Latin play had set Boston buzzing. The event  even rated a couple columns in the New York Times, which remarked:

Latin plays have been given in this country and in England, but never with the careful study of detail bestowed upon the Phormio of Terence, to be produced by Harvard students in Sanders Theatre this week… Educators from all parts of the country are expected to witness the production.

View full article. | Posted in on Thu, 07/18/2019 - 4:24pm by Christopher Polt.

Seneca 2020. International Conference

What more can we say about Seneca?

The Centre for Classical Studies of the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon is organizing an International Conference on Seneca to promote and encourage a critical reflection on the permanence of themes, values, perspectives and representations of Seneca’s works in Western literature and culture.

The Conference will take place between 14-17 December 2020, and, through the interdisciplinary debate of the contribution given by the experiences of researchers from different fields of study, it aims:

- to think of how Seneca became one of the most prominent figures in Western culture;

- to consider, examine and reflect on our current knowledge about Seneca, his life and works;

- to explore new study angles and what remains to be said about Seneca in the Twenty-First Century, in light of the renewed interest shown in his works.

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

António Pedro Mesquita (University of Lisbon)

Alessandro Schiesaro (University of Manchester)

Catharine Edwards (University of Cambridge)

Gareth David Williams (Columbia University)

Chiara Torre (University of Milan)

Jesús Luque Moreno (University of Granada)

José Pedro Serra (University of Lisbon)

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Thu, 07/18/2019 - 2:54pm by Erik Shell.

“Performing Texts”
Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song
6th Open Conference, July 1-5, 2020, Spetses, Greece

 

Gregory Nagy (Classics, Harvard University) announces the 6th Open Conference, which is organized by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC (CHS DC) on behalf of the Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song. The organization of the Conference will be administratively and logistically supported by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece (CHS Greece).

The conference will take place on the island of Spetses in Greece from July 1 to July 5, 2020. The topic of the conference is "Performing Texts."

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Thu, 07/18/2019 - 11:03am by Erik Shell.

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