Graduate Education in Classics: A Continuing Conversation....

APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession

Graduate Education and the Liberal Arts College

James M. May, St.Olaf College

[From an APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession. For more information on this forum, click here. For the report of a task force addressing this same issue, click here. For information on related initiatives, click here.]

It was eighteen years ago, almost to the day. Attending my very first APA meeting, I walked into an interview room in New York's Waldorf-Astoria, and met the Classics Department of St. Olaf College. As a product of large, state universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I must confess that, at the time, I knew very little about liberal arts colleges; in fact, I hadn't even ever heard of St. Olaf! Little did I suspect, at that point in my nascent career as a classicist, that I would spend the next two decades of my life teaching very happily in a college that grants only a B.A. degree and is proud of it. I suspect that similar stories could be told by many of you. According to the APA's most recent Data Questionnaire, of the 184 departments or programs responding, about 38% are liberal arts colleges, and nearly 20% of all faculty in the survey teach at such institutions. Many liberal arts colleges have a tradition of teaching classics that is more long-lasting and more revered than that of their university counterparts. Our schools enroll some of the finest students in the land, and the various professions are peopled with a disproportionate percentage of our graduates. It would certainly seem safe to assert, then, that liberal arts colleges will be intimately involved with the teaching of the classics in this country for as long as the teaching of the classics survives.

But can we be so sure? Not that very long ago, one could assume that colleges which purport to educate students for life, and not just for a livelihood, would hallow the place of classics in the liberal arts curriculum. Yet new areas of study, budget crunches, declining student populations, and the pressures of pragmatism have increasingly conspired to threaten or eliminate programs. Moreover, the demands of our constituencies are changing: more than ever before, we need professors who not only know the classics well, but can articulate them eloquently within the broader context of the humanities and liberal arts in general. Acknowledging this point, we might next ask whether our graduate programs are producing, or are even capable of producing such people. In the few minutes remaining, I would like both to examine in a bit more detail some the demands made on professors at liberal arts colleges, and explore the question of how well, in fact, graduating Ph.Ds are prepared to meet these demands. At the outset, I should say that during the past year, I've been a member of one of the Penn task forces focusing on the undergraduate implications of graduate education in the classics. Many of my ideas, especially those seeming to be any good, should be credited to that discussion and its participants.

Most faculty at the college level are evaluated for salary, tenure, and promotion according to three criteria, listed in order of importance: teaching, professional activity, and service to the academic community. In the case of liberal arts colleges, listing teaching first is not mere lip-service. They pride themselves on the teaching ability of their faculties, and, speaking from experience on our campus, it is virtually impossible to secure tenure without being a very solid teacher. The teaching situation at most undergraduate institutions is a demanding one. Although not generally involved with graduate students, faculty normally carry loads of about 6 courses per year; many places require seven or eight courses, and if one counts overloads assumed voluntarily to help out the program, professors in liberal arts colleges can often teach as many as 9 or 10 preparations yearly. The breadth of subject matter covered can also be demanding. Teaching one's specialty occurs perhaps only once every two or three years; courses in both languages, in classical humanities, myth, and history, are common assignments. In addition, the stress today in liberal arts education, especially in general education courses, is toward more integrative, interdisciplinary, team taught courses, freshmen seminars, core sequences, etc. Classicists are often called upon to develop and teach such courses with others in the humanities, and these courses often involve familiarity with new theoretical approaches, and even with other fields. A well-trained classics professor at a liberal arts college must, therefore, be able to converse across disciplinary lines, and build bridges with his colleagues in the humanities.

Several years ago, it was possible to win tenure at many liberal arts colleges by being an outstanding teacher and a faithful servant to the college, without, perhaps, doing any significant professional activity. This is certainly no longer the case. Good teachers are expected also to be good scholars, to engage actively in research, give papers at professional meetings, and publish articles and books. At St. Olaf, for example, chances for tenure or promotion without being engaged in scholarship are practically nil. Thus, the ideal professor for such a college is one whom we might call a true "teacher-scholar,"--in that order, and with that emphasis. When we add to the equation the third element, service to the college through committee work, advising students, curriculum planning, etc., the demands of the professor in a liberal arts setting are, indeed, rather daunting.

Does our current system of graduate education in the classics address such demands and prepare such professors? The answer is definitely both "yes" and "no." Certainly most Ph.Ds in classical philology have good enough knowledge of Greek and Latin to teach these languages to undergraduates; they have studied one or two fields in a special way; they have done some work in history, and maybe a bit in one or more of the traditional sub-fields of classics; they can generally research a problem and write something well enough to see it published. The vast majority have had some teaching experience; a few fortunate ones have had some real mentoring for their teaching. But even a student who has had the best experiences in all these areas will still be forced to scramble frantically in order to prepare for 6 or 8 widely disparate courses, some of which will demand, besides knowledge of Greek and Latin, literary sensitivity, interdisciplinary expertise, and a broad base in the humanities. In the midst of adjusting to a new environment, keeping ahead of grading, and trying to publish that first article, the typical new professor will be stretched to the limit, or more often, beyond the limit. Too often the teaching that results--for several subsequent years--falls far, far short of the kind of teaching that should characterize the ideal teacher-scholar whom we should be aiming to produce.

Now, I can hear my friends who teach in graduate programs objecting: "You're demanding too much of us. Students today are coming to us less well-prepared in the languages, with less background in the humanities. Our own budgets and faculties are, at the same time, being cut drastically. We can only afford to support students for four or five years. How can we offer more to them in less time? The task is impossible!" Indeed, to many, the task does seem impossible. Some, in fact, would demand the entire dismantling of graduate education in classics in favor of a radically new paradigm. Perhaps this is the ultimate solution, but one that will take much time and long, thoughtful consideration to construct anew. In the meantime, unless something is done now to respond to the changing demands facing our profession, the position of classics will continue to slip, even in the liberal arts setting. I believe that we can begin today, through some relatively modest changes in our graduate curricula, to improve our situation by building on our strengths, while attempting to eliminate our weaknesses.

First, we must maintain our emphasis on linguistic competence. New pedagogical models and methods for language instruction need to be developed to accomplish more in less time, and with greater efficiency. Graduate students with language problems should be helped in a systematic way, through summer and post-baccalaureate programs that are structured for these purposes.

Secondly, we must maintain the depth requirement for graduate students in one or two fields, while drastically increasing the breadth of their humanistic education. The only way to accomplish this in a timely and cost-effective manner is to impose a more "intentional" curriculum in the graduate program. More requirements and fewer electives. This would involve offering a more structured sequence of courses, including surveys and major author courses, to be taught on a regular basis by the faculty. Whenever possible linked pairs of courses should be offered, e.g., Alexandrian and Augustan poetry, or a course on Greek history with a reading course in Herodotus and Thucydides. At least one or two linked courses in fields related to, but technically outside of classics should be required. Seminar topics should no longer be dictated primarily by graduate professors' research interests. Mainline areas should, for the most part, be their topics, and one should include a survey of literary theory, new approaches in classics, and related issues. When possible the seminars also should be interdisciplinary and integrative in nature.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, teacher training must be taken more seriously and approached more systematically. The best teachers in the department must staff a program for mentoring their graduate students--and here I am not talking merely about meeting once a week to discuss coordination of the syllabus for sections of Latin 1. Methods of teaching various kinds of courses, language, myth, and classical civilization, should be studied and discussed; a visitation program should be initiated; videotaping with critiques should be introduced; students should be exposed to more than one kind of teaching situation, and if such experience cannot be guaranteed through actual teaching, mock teaching situations should be created. The program must be a required activity, even for graduate students who are not currently teaching. A specified number of semesters of participation should be stipulated for all students. Seminars and other advanced courses could be designed to include a small teaching component for those enrolled; discussion of teaching strategies and methods should become a regular component of most courses. The goal of such a program is to integrate teaching and thinking about teaching with the daily activities in the classroom and in the library. After all, this is the life of a true teacher-scholar, and the greatest challenge facing a new professor, be it in a liberal arts college or university setting, is preparing for the first, second, or third time to teach three or four new courses, all of a slightly different nature, all in the same semester. It may be worthwhile at this point to mention another interesting statistic revealed by the Data Questionnaire: the average load of all faculty in the survey, including both those at liberal arts colleges AND research institutions, involves teaching undergraduates 88% of the time! It makes infinitely more sense to prepare our graduate students to think about teaching undergraduates through the entire course of their training, rather than only when they happen to teach a class, or walk out the door on the way to their first full-time position.

Nothing that I have proposed here necessarily involves great cost or radical changes in personnel or resources. Still, such changes will, in most graduate departments, represent a considerable disruption of settled lives. Changes that require a re-orientation of one's thinking, or a break with accustomed ways of doing things, are always painfully difficult. So why go to all the trouble? The answer is, of course, obvious. As one member of our discussion group has put it, "Times have changed so radically that we cannot afford not to take the trouble. The ongoing marginalization of the field is a product, in part, of our failure to adapt." In order for classics to prosper in the twenty-first century, we must act now--we must broaden our scope, while retaining our traditional strengths. We must have true teacher-scholars in place, not only in the liberal arts colleges, but everywhere that classics are taught--people who can build bridges across disciplines, who can carry on the conversation with others in the humanities, who can place the classics in their broader tradition. Many such teacher-scholars are currently teaching classics in liberal art colleges and universities throughout the land--perhaps in spite of their training. Isn't it about time we begin to fashion our educational programs with an intentionality that aims at producing many, many more? True, we might be a decade or two late, but late, after all, is better than never!