Graduate Education in Classics: A Continuing Conversation...
"Wir Philologen?" The Boundaries and Structures of "Classics" as a
Opening Statement by Julia Haig Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College
Introduction: Definition of "philology"
I was asked to speak at this session as "the philologist",
and so I will, as long as I can use my own definition of the
term. I use philologist to mean a "word person", one who is
absolutely convinced of the importance of Greek and Latin texts
for the study of the literature, history, and culture of Greek
and Roman antiquity.
In my professional lifetime there have been two
in "philology" as I have defined it:
New Criticism, and
our present revolution - the rise of theory.
A. New Criticism
The new Criticism had
the great merit of promoting
the close study of texts and of making American and British classicists
recognize that ancient texts are of literary, as well as
historical, importance. (European classicists, especially in
Germany, had been engaged in literary studies for some time, but
that is a question for another occasion.) But it did nothing to
lessen the image of philology conveyed by Nietzche's "Wir
Philologen" of something embattled, narrow, adversarial. Since
there is no time today to discuss classics as "embattled" and
"adversarial" I will focus on the perception and treatment of our
field as "narrow". The domain covered by Greek and Latin texts
is not narrow in either space or time, but philologists have too
often acted as if it were:
1.Narrowing of the canon Most classics departments, and certainly
departments, centered on 5th century Athens with a nod to Homer
and the lyric poets at one end and to Catullus and Vergil (and
nowadays Ovid) at the other. Several factors have contributed to
- The dominance of Hellenists in most undergraduate departments
(and remember that when Nietzsche was talking about philology he
- The tendency to see the study of texts as only literary
study, and perhaps also to focus on texts most susceptible to
techniques of new critical interpretation.
- The canonizing of authors and the entrenched idea that some
periods and authors are more worth studying than others.
2. Narrowing of the field This artificial narrowing of our field
in the neglect and undervaluing of other periods that are not only
interesting themselves but also (and this is of the greatest
importance) force us to confront a set of questions that could be
ignored or avoided, at least, in studying mainly the literature
of 5th century Athens and 1st century B.C. Rome.
The Hellenistic Period, the Silver Age (so ominously named)
Late Antiquity force us to consider mixed or conflicting
cultures, marginalized groups like women, foreigners, and slaves,
and the influences of the past as a palpable force on literature,
politics, and society.
B. The current revolution Our
current revolution is focused on these
periods and questions, (even 5th century Athens and Augustan Rome have
benefited from the new interests), and new criticism and old
fogey positivism are being supplanted by a host of theoretical
approaches. That is the good news. The bad news is that the
study of texts, which is the backbone of these new areas of
inquiry, is falling on even harder times.
a. Student profile: current
Undergraduate enrollments in Greek and Latin are
down. The students we do not get often lack the fire in the belly to push
themselves very hard, and the ones who will work are often
plodders - without the creativity benefit from our "2nd
revolution". Undergraduates tend not to be readers (in any
language) and are likely to be uninterested in literature.
b. Student profile: the future Given
the U.S. situation - we can increasingly
expect the following profile for the next generation of graduate students.
(We are already seeing the beginning of these tendencies.)
- Graduate students will still be having trouble with one or both
- They will have read relatively little Greek and Latin or English.
- They will be
creatures of their generation in that they are more at home
with images than with texts.
- They will
find close reading of texts relatively uninteresting and wll be apt
to make serious mistakes in fact and context in what they read.
3. Conclusion: Prospects for "philology" So
where are we? I think we're at a moment when intellectual
and scholarly possibilities in our field have never been greater,
but where the pedagogical possibilities are limited and
problematic. Some of our sub-fields may suffer less than others
but literary studies have a great deal to lose - and we are at
grave risk of being marginalized. I work, for example, in the
area of imitation and reception, which, I would submit, are right
at the heart of classical literary studies. How can I train my
students in this field? And if I could train them, how should
they be prepared to teach today's undergraduates? The issue,
then is not "wir Philologen?" but instead "wo
Philologen?" or rather "wohin Philologen?"