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

APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession


New Directions from a Penn-Sponsored Dialogue

Sheila Murnaghan, University of Pennsylvania

[From an APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession. For more information on this forum, click here. For information on related initiatives, click here.]

Let me start by making it clear that I am not here speaking for myself alone, although I do believe the possibly provocative things I will be saying in the course of this talk, but rather trying to represent a process that has being going on for over a year. In the summer of 1993 a group of us at Penn -- including Joe Farrell, Ralph Rosen, and Jim O'Donnell, as well as myself -- starting talking about our shared sense that graduate education in Classics needed to be rethought. We quickly saw that the questions involved were complicated and likely to look very different to people in different professional settings, and so we concluded that our first aim should not be to try to come up with a new model of what a program should look like, but to start an open-ended dialogue.

The following November we convened a group of about twenty colleagues from all over the country and from a variety of institutions for a day long session in which we began to hash out some of the basic issues. This was followed by a similar session at the APA in Washington last year, which many of you may have attended. We then identified a series of subtopics which were pursued in conversations largely taking place over e-mail and which had their intensest phases during last summer. This year, we are sponsoring a series of Saturday afternoon colloquia, open to anyone who can get her or himself to Penn, on specific topics. The first of these was held on December 3, 1994, on a topic defined in response to some of the challenges to our entire enterprise with which we have met over the last year: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it! Does Graduate Education in Classics Need Reforming?" Three more such sessions will be held in the spring on (1) "Wir Philologen? The Boundaries and Structures of Classics as a Professional Discipline"; (2) "Classics as a Way of Life: Acculturating the Aspiring Classicist"; (3) "Teaching Teachers: Graduate School as Pedagogical Apprenticeship".

I want to encourage everyone who can make it to come to one or more of these sessions. I should also add that there has been a new upsurge of energy among our e-mail participants, who have all now been merged into a single list, which I also invite anyone interested to join. And while we hope that this dialogue will continue for a long time, we are aiming to come up with some sort of report by the time of next year's APA annual meeting and, yes, even a model for a newly conceived program, or possibly several models, since we are not convinced that all programs should be the same.

As we look back over this rich, often heady series of discussions in various media, a number of us have been struck by a paradox, on which I want to focus for the rest of my time. We have noted two distinct ways of looking at the situation that seem to be logically inconsistent but that are both strongly held and often by the same person (including, sometimes, ourselves): on the one hand, with some vocal and distinguished exceptions, most people seem to agree that, yes, something needs to be done to change the way we educate our graduate students. On the other hand, there seems to be a widespread view that, whatever we do, the result should look as much as possible like what we are doing right now. As a profession, we are strikingly reluctant to ask any very basic questions about how our discipline is defined and conducts itself.

One manifestation of this pervasive conservatism is that the need for change is almost always seen as a defensive response to external conditions that are bad: shrinking enrollments in Latin and Greek, inadequate language preparation on the part of entering students, not enough jobs for our new PhDs. I am by no means denying the reality of these painful circumstances or claiming that they should not be on our minds as we think about reforming graduate education. But I do think that we limit ourselves severely when we identify the need for reform with the seemingly fallen fortunes of our field. This kind of thinking involves the ultimately self-defeating presupposition that the set of endeavors that currently defines the field of classics is not itself in need of reexamination; what we are doing makes sense to us and ought to make sense to the rest of the world. In other words, we have a good product and our problems stem from our need to do a better job of marketing it. In the case of graduate students, this means we should be training them much as we always have been, but we need to be giving them better marketing skills as well.

This deep attachment to what we what we have been doing all along means that, in the course of discussion, change tends to get redescribed as a form of accretion: the basic core -- consisting, at least in the version of Classics defined as "philology," of something like Greek and Latin to a very advanced level and mastery of certain canonical ancient texts -- remains untouched, but is augmented by some rapid catchup linguistic instruction, a swift introduction to contemporary literary theory, and some teacher training, geared especially for large enrollment classical civilization lecture courses. These other activities must not, however, be seen as displacing parts of the core enterprise or shifting its center. Thus we find that people can easily be brought to agree that our students should be made much more conversant with the methodologies of other disciplines like anthropology, cultural studies, gender studies, and literary theory, but not that we should therefore expect less of them in the way of linguistic mastery. We can easily reach a consensus that much more time needs to be spent on giving our students teaching skills, but that consensus quickly evaporates if we try to conclude from it that we should therefore reduce our traditional emphasis on research.

Difficult as it is to imagine giving up on any part of our current practice -- or perhaps more accurately our current image of what we are supposedly doing -- we have to face up to the serious pitfalls of this approach, to the ways in which it leads us to fail our students. First of all, by adding various forms of accommodation to the changing outside world to an unchanging traditional core, we are asking our students to do much more than is possible within the typical 5-6 year time span of a Ph.D. program. I am sure that we at Penn are not alone in being under pressure from our administration -- as they in turn are from their external funding sources -- to keep the time to degree in our program short. While demanding more than is possible from students may be useful up to a point as a means of getting them to ask a lot of themselves, I think we are way beyond that point and that, in fact, we are sending our students such an overwhelming and conflicting set of messages about what they ought to be doing that the result is often unnerving and demoralizing.

In addition, we fail our students by perpetuating the ever- widening gap between what goes on in graduate school and the demands of the jobs they can actually expect to get; in most cases they will not have the opportunity to imitate their graduate teachers, as they have been trained to do. This lack of fit is much deplored, but there appears to be little will to do anything about it. And yet perpetuating it as we do means both that we duck our responsibility to provide realistic professional training and that we reinforce a damaging sense of division and hierarchy within our profession, whereby those who do not end up in research universities teaching graduate students (or in settings in which they can prepare undergraduates to follow them to graduate school) are viewed, or view themselves, as not really fulfilling the purpose of their graduate education, or as not really having the jobs they were trained for.

And, finally, I think we fail our students by transmitting to them a circumscribed sense of their identity as exclusively classicists, a less and less viable identity in the world they will inherit, which will undoubtedly include fewer and smaller Classics departments and fewer students exclusively interested in the classical world -- although that does not have to mean fewer people who think and write and teach about classical antiquity, at least some of the time. We owe it to our students to think harder than we have so far about whether we want to claim and defend a sense of disciplinary autonomy based on the linguistic tools and factual data of what could also -- and perhaps more usefully -- be described as an area study. Fond as we are of thinking of classics as a discipline, doing so can lock us into the position that we -- and, more to the point, our students -- have something to offer only to people interested in classical antiquity, a span of time which -- rich and extensive as we know it to be -- becomes every minute a remoter and proportionally smaller segment of human history.

I won't try now to sketch out the practical implications of such rethinking, but one direction in which it surely points is towards a more wholehearted partnership with other disciplines than we have so far had. We have to be more willing to learn from other disciplines, to see their concerns as central, and to allow them to affect the way we carry on our own business -- to take seriously those things people who are deciding not to study Greek and Latin are choosing to do instead. We have to start seeing the teaching of graduate students in fields other than Classics -- students without our familiar commitments to the ancient languages and to the totality of Altertumswissenschaft - - as equally central to our mission. We surely are moving, and should be moving, towards a situation in which fewer people get PhD's in Classics and more people with PhD's in other fields are qualified -- with our help -- to talk about the ancient world. And as we think about the mix of pursuits that make up the intense but relatively brief segment of a career-long learning process that graduate school represents, we have to make room -- at the partial expense of those familiar commitments -- for serious and prolonged engagement with the practices of other disciplines, not as additional window dressing that will improve a student's marketability, but as constituents of his or her intellectual makeup. There is no nifty variation on business-as-usual that will position our students to reclaim the past prominence of our field in the academic landscape. It is by helping them to become full participants in the conversations going on among those who do not define themselves as classicists that we can best prepare them for flourishing professional lives.