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

"Wir Philologen? The Boundaries and Structures of "Classics" as a Professional Discipline

An open letter from Stephen Ciraolo to Ralph Rosen

First of all, let me say "Thank you" for organizing a stimulating and necessary, if at times depressing, discussion "Wir Philologen?" three weeks ago. Here are some thoughts on the issues we discussed (and on others, too), which you may use or not use as you wish.

As a young ("green"?!) teacher, without Ph.D. or university professorship, I am admittedly unfit to judge some of the issues we discussed. However, as an independent school teacher in a vibrant classics program, and as an individual who was not long ago an undergraduate, I think I am well- suited to provide some useful observations on other matters, especially those involving pedagogy and the needs and perceptions of undergraduates.

You are welcome to distribute copies of these notes and/or put them on the Internet....

(1) One question which came up, but which was never answered, in the course of our discussions is why, other than for the possibly ignoble reason of self-preservation, classics should not become a marginal part of the curriculum, like Sanskrit. If there is some kind of transcendent educational importance to classical studies, then perhaps identification of it can help us figure out what is really important for all classicists to know via graduate programs. (2) I still think a good case can be made that the central attribute which binds all classicists together is scientific (!) philology. Throughout the discussions I was reminded of a comment made by Kenneth Dover, to the effect that no one who is ignorant of the Greek language can really say much that is original or correct about the Greeks. (I would be grateful if someone could supply the reference.) I also repeat an example I gave during our discussions: what makes The Roman Revolution a great book (forgetting for the moment both its rhetorical brilliance and what Syme left out/underemphasized) is its author's absolute command of the relevant literature and of subjects, like prosopography, which are derived from the literature.

Even people who teach classics-in-translation courses need to know the languages, whether or not their students do. (Incidentally, Prof. Gregory Nagy at Harvard has pioneered how to go about teaching classics-in-translation courses in a way that is both accessible to the non-specialist and respectful of the original language. See, e.g., his undergraduate lecture course and readings pack entitled "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization" or the transliteration/translation method he employs in The Best of the Achaeans.

(3) The philosophical issue encapsulated in the title "Wir Philologen?" is inseparable from the practical issue of how young classicists should be trained in order to meet not only their own research needs but also the educational needs of their future students. While the fiction can be maintained that the Ph.D. is purely a "research degree," in fact most Ph.D. candidates hope to have careers which inevitably will involve undergraduate teaching.

(4) Even if it is true that current undergraduates are more visually-oriented and less well-read than their counterparts fifty years ago, that alone is not the only reason undergraduates do not take text-based courses in classics. If there are 90,000 high school Latin students (as someone at the seminar said), one would think that more of them would go on to take Latin in college (whether as majors or "on the side"), and that some of them could be lured into Greek as well. If many students who have even four years of high- school Latin never take text courses again, though they may indeed become English majors, or ancient history buffs, or whatever, we have to ask ourselves why this is the case.

There are of course many answers. One which I do not think has gotten nearly enough airing is that the introductory courses which are offered can be intellectually sterile, and this is the fault of

(a) the usually unalloyed tedium of introductory and intermediate language instruction;

(b) the poor pedagogical method employed by many introductory and intermediate language instructors;

(c) the lack of pedagogical instruction in the graduate schools; and

(d) the texts beginning students are asked to use.

(a) The learning of the rudiments of any language (=what catalogs call introductory and intermediate courses) is both laborious and boring to intelligent 18-year olds, except to the "atomic-chart people" whom we supposedly don't want. (I find it instructive that a metaphor from science was chosen to describe these people!) I don't think anything can or should be done about the laborious part (she who would have the fruit must climb the tree!), but I do think our profession has a long way to go with the boring part. Thus Latin 101 traditionally involves a heavy amount of language work and not much else. But even freshman students are able to elect a course in the Victorian novel, or Shakespeare, or an introduction to international relations, all of which are far more stimulating than amo, amas, amat, or Dicaiopolis and the big rocks on his farm.

(b) One obvious improvement would be to turn these courses into introductions to Latin and the Romans, or to Greek and the Greeks, or, at the intermediate level, to provide more than an Oxford text and the grave pronouncement (once given to me when I complained about unproductive page-flipping), "In the lexicon there is truth." For example, a high school or undergraduate course in Greek might spend 60% of its time on detailed linguistic work and 40% on supplementary material, i.e., primary sources in translation plus some secondary sources. The Greek words which compose the main text under consideration certainly must be the primary focus, but that does not mean that the instructor cannot broaden the course to embrace and integrate more interesting ideas. Interlacing text courses with discussion of readings in translation and/or archaeology is not a form of watering-down the program or of pandering to students who are lazy, visual, untutored, uncivilized, infrequent readers, unshaven, or whatever today's complaint is, but rather of keeping it intellectually vibrant, and of communicating the humanistic values which are supposedly central to literary study and appreciation. The fact that this wasn't done fifty years ago is immaterial; students didn't study calculus and science in great depth then either, and classics held a more prominent place in the curriculum. A course whose final exam simply asks students to translate a passage into English and nothing more is pointless, and this approach simply fosters the atomic-table mentality we say we don't like. Classicists need to use bulkpacks at the beginning levels just as other subject areas do.

(c) Graduate students in classics, if they are to go on to become successful teachers, must be taught something about how to teach. Otherwise only the ones with a "knack" for teaching will know what to do in the classroom. Knowledge of the language and literature and archaeology does not automatically imply the ability to be an effective teacher. All graduate students should be involved in teaching during their graduate careers, and they should be observed in action by both their peers and their professors. The same should apply when they become assistant professors: they should be observed in the classroom each year by the tenured staff. And even tenured faculty members can learn from peer professors. The growth and development of graduate students and assistant professors as teachers should be of great importance rather than marginal consideration. This applies to all liberal arts fields (at least), but most acutely to classics, which is so sensitive to undergraduate enrollments. Undergraduates at research universities now often regard graduate instructors as little more than babysitters, and graduate students who teach often act as though teaching is a burden from which they gain nothing except fellowship income and a headache. Again, it is perhaps true that the Ph.D. degree is purely a certification of an ability to do original research, but to argue that for this reason grad students need not concern themselves with pedagogy is ridiculous.

(d) Textbooks are a problem. The fact that introductory texts like Chase and Phillips are still in use speaks volumes about why students are turned off or scared away. At the intermediate level, it is simply unacceptable to hand a student an Oxford or Teubner text and ask him/her to start translating (=hours of flipping through endless pages of the lexicon, probably followed by abandonment of the effort). A good standard for an intermediate class is that an intermediate student read as many lines as possible with understanding and appreciation. Whether a major or merely a cultivated person otherwise majoring in chemistry, he/she is better off being helped through a lot of material than hacking through small amounts. It is equally irrational to give intermediate and even better-than-intermediate students an Oxford commentary and assume that that is enough help. At the very least they should have something like a Bryn Mawr Commentary. I am not saying that intermediate students should never consult the great commentaries or the lexicons, but that it should be done selectively. A structured assignment which asks students to spend two hours in Lewis and Short, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, and the concordances is infinitely productive. Two hours spent looking up Pindar's vocabulary in middle Liddell is very nearly useless.

One of the reasons that more textbooks and "teaching- commentaries" have not been developed is that they are not "scholarship," and have little value in improving a professor's chances at tenure and the other glories of advancement, even if they have added to the field by allowing wider access to it. And one of the reasons more innovative courses are often not developed is that curriculum development is a time- and thought-consuming process which most likely goes unrewarded under the current hiring and tenure system. (For further comments along these lines and more, see Page Smith, Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America.)

(5) Although it may seem too concrete an issue at a meeting entitled "Wir Philologen?" I would like to offer one last observation: Any decent secondary school classics department which does not commune with the universities is doing a disservice to itself, to its school and to the field of classics. (I note that only three secondary schools--all independent--were represented at the meeting Saturday.) On the other side, any college/university classics department which is not in some way involved with local secondary schools is also doing a disservice to itself, to its school and to the field. I note that the open meeting of the AP Latin Test Development Committee at the 1994 APA Convention was thinly attended, with very few professors present. On the other hand, there were very few secondary school instructors present at the Annual Meeting as a whole.

I would like to hear any comments you can provide.

Yours sincerely,
Stephen N. Ciraolo
Classics Department
The Baldwin School
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010