Acculturating the Aspiring Classicist

Presentation for University of Pennsylvania Classics Graduate Education Group
March 18, 1995

I can't say that I have ever read much about acculturation of graduate students in our common pursuit of classics, what I will later label "professional philological parenting". But of what I have read, I have probably been most affected by accounts of a letter, found in the desk of the Cornell classicist Harry Caplan, soon after his death in 1980: it had been sent to Caplan in his graduate student days, over sixty years earlier, by a group of his former teachers at that same institution. Some of you may know this text by heart (and I may bear some responsibility if you do, since I've quoted from it in a number of papers I've published and presented: indeed, this text was one of the main reasons that I started publishing and speaking out on the history of our profession). The letter says:

"My dear Caplan: I want to second Professor Bristol's advice and urge you to get into secondary teaching. The opportunities for college positions, never too many, are at present few and likely to be fewer. I can encourage no one to look forward to securing a college post. There is, moreover, a very real prejudice against the Jew. Personally, I do not share this, and I am sure the same is true of all our staff here. But we have seen so many well-equipped Jews fail to secure appointments that this fact has been forced upon us. I recall Alfred Gudemann, E.A. Loew ­ both brilliant scholars of international reputation ­ and yet unable to obtain a college position. I feel it wrong to encourage anyone to devote himself to the higher walks of learning to whom the path is barred by an undeniable racial prejudice. In this I am joined by all my classical colleagues, who have authorized me to append their signatures with my own to this letter. [Signed] Charles E. Bennett, C.L.Durham, George S. Bristol, E.P. Andrews [Dated] Ithaca, March 27, 1919.[1]
Two things strike me about this letter. First, that its sentiments are voiced jointly by four Cornell faculty members, colleagues working together rather than at cross-purposes: it's a collaborative effort at academic co-parenting. And second, that although the members of this quartet are eager to work together in advising an aspiring classicist, they don't seem interested in combining forces to combat the undeniable prejudice that they wish to go on record as deploring. Instead, they seek to quash this young man's aspirations. That they failed to do so is a matter of general knowledge, but I only learned recently, from Helen North's entry on Caplan in the Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists, how badly they failed: Caplan's dissertation, produced two years later, was "The History of the Jews in the Roman Province of Africa: A Collection of the Sources."

Now it's been my experience that if I make common cause with as many as three colleagues, it's usually so that we can pool our energies in order to change, rather than to acquiesce in, something we regard as unjust and unfair. So, too, we are usually trying to change something we regard as disproportionately unfair to those less powerful than ourselves: students and junior colleagues. But I've also had experiences like Caplan. Not seldom have I heard discouraging words, which are well-intentioned defenses of our professional status quo, from my own teachers and mentors. At times these advisers, like Caplan's Cornell quartet, have collaborated with one another in quashing my aspirations. I was, for example, advised by two of my former undergraduate teachers not to contribute anything to the first Arethusa issue on women in antiquity. They felt that its editor surely had, and would be widely assumed to have perpetrated, sexual designs on all (and you'll forgive the term) submitters.

When I recently chose, however, to enshrine a mentor's discouraging words, as Caplan did by placing that letter in his desk, I selected a solo performance. With me at all times in my Land's End attache case, snuggling together with my handwritten correspondence from Daniel Day-Lewis, is the following (from a male professor holding a named chair at an Ivy League institution):

"On `sexual harassment' I feel rather strongly, and not on what I take to be your side. There has obviously been a lot of it going on, and those really guilty ought to be held up for public obloquy and, in suitable cases, suitably punished. But the whole thing has got out of hand. The charge is ill-defined, as you will know, and it has begun to be used for blackmail (certainly in academic contexts ­ you will know of cases, just as I do). I suspect, though I have no evidence, that it's also being used, at times, out of plain nastiness, to make trouble for a man a woman dislikes (for whatever reason not relevant to this issue). It is certainly easy enough to do.

As you will know, male gynecologists now often insist on having a female nurse present when they examine a patient. I think the time has just about come when I and my colleagues will have to insist on having another woman present whenever we see a female student in a tutorial or an office-hour visit. It really is time that, with the issue now firmly established as a serious one, the protection of the innocent (the ­ usually ­ male victims of baseless charges) begin to be of equal public concern. We have fortunately seen this happen in the case of sexual abuse of children, where much the same situation prevails.

I suspect, however, that the "sexual harassment lobby" has been infiltrated by the lesbians who seem to run the women's movement on most campuses and who have their own agenda, of discouraging the traditional process of `meeting and mating' between the sexes. Fortunately, human nature being what it is, they probably won't succeed. But I think one ought to realize what the agenda amounts to."

I received this letter right after making common cause with several colleagues, my fellow panelists Matthew Santirocco and Susan Guettel Cole among them, to present a panel dealing with sexual harassment at the 1992 APA meeting. We had pooled our energies to effect profession-wide change by educating our classics community about a phenomenon which we regard as unjust and unfair, and as especially so to its less powerful members. And my profound commitment to educating our profession on this issue has if anything been strengthened by this letter's effort to question the assumptions of our enterprise, and particularly by its author's odd determination to maintain that the most powerful members of our profession suffer a greater degree of victimization ­ from potential charges of sexual harassment ­ than do those who have actually been sexually harassed. Like Harry Caplan, with his dissertation on Jews in Roman Africa, my colleagues and I, who had labored against great opposition to make our panel possible, have gone on to do more public thinking and writing about sexual harassment in spite of discouraging words.

Yet I remain puzzled, and distressed, about the notions of professorial role and responsibility informing my mentor's letter. The implicit equation between the professional functions of Ivy League classics faculty and those of gynecologists disturbed me the most. Whyever view these two professions as even remotely similar, I keep asking myself (it's not ­ if you'll forgive another tasteless terminological joke ­ as if we were medievalists, with a journal already named Speculum)? To be sure, my correspondent is not alone in his representation of university sexual harassment policies and their feminist defenders as puritanical, totalitarian, and suppressing spontaneous and healthful hormonal urges. Jane Gallop, who defines herself as a pro-sex feminist, has recently challenged university policies on sexual harassment as anti-sex, saying "As a woman who, when a student, had aggressively pursued sexual relations with teachers, I felt my desire erased and the way it had made me feel powerful denied [by such policies]. I..discovered that a large number of my [feminist academic] friends [of my generation] had had sexual relations with teachers either as undergraduates or graduate students. These relations had been part of our embrace of the intellectual life." [2]

But even Jane Gallop merely justifies sexual relationships between students and teachers as an educational, a culturally constructed, desideratum. She never invokes the "traditional" or natural "process of meeting and mating." Is coeducational schooling supposed to provide schoolers and schoolees with (and you'll forgive my conservative language, reminiscent of our Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) a free marketplace for connecting with sexual partners? What models of an academic community are being endorsed by professors who hold such beliefs (and especially by professors who suspect that if their female colleagues and students are uncomfortable with compulsory eroticizing of the academic workplace by its more powerful denizens, then these women must have been infiltrated and presumably brainwashed by unnatural lesbian manhaters with their own agenda)?

Now in my ongoing efforts to do some professional consciousness-raising about sexual harassment, last summer I had a conversation with a male secondary school classics teacher at an elite private co-educational academy. He quickly acknowledged, and lamented, that several of his colleagues had become involved with their students sexually. But he then added that sexual involvements with students shouldn't be a problem on college campuses. After all, he said, students there are no longer under age: once they have reached the age of consent, it's only natural that they'll meet and mate, as it were, with faculty. I responded, incredulously, that one of my own children is no longer underage but I do not have sexual relations with him, and that I was never involved sexually with my own parents (or, for that matter, stepparent) before or after I reached my age of majority. And I launched into an impassioned explication of the professor's role and responsibility as first and foremost parental: it is my credo (and one which I routinely make known to my own graduate students) that a sacred bond of trust exists between teachers and students of any age, a bond which is comparable to that between parents and children.

Now obviously this analogy between being a professor and being a parent is nothing original: it is made explicit by the term Doktor Vater, applied in Germany (and throughout Europe), for the faculty member who supervises not only a student's research but also his or her professional development (are there also Doktor Mutters?). As it happens, I had puzzled out this "professor as parent analogy" long before I had ever encountered the term Doktor Vater: when my mother married an alcoholic around the same time that I entered a graduate school program whose faculty numbered several sufferers from that disease. Similar problems soon arose in my dealings with both my parents and my professors, and in looking back over those formative years I regard myself (and my fellow students) as having experienced the same kinds of mistreatment from my department as I did from my family.

If, however, we are willing to view our relationships with our students as parental, if we in the professoriate attempt to acculturate future classicists much as our parents acculturated us, and we our own children, what are the limitations of this model? Let me conclude with some questions about problems of professional philological parenting. At the risk of sounding even more Gingrichian, I am extremely uncomfortable with single parenting, with the European tradition of having only one professor supervise, support and sustain the aspiring classicist. It allows the professorial parent too much control, and can be risky for the offspring if something unfortunate happens to either the relationship or the professor. Yet, within the confines of a single graduate department, providing multiple or even dual parents for an individual student may be difficult or even counter-productive ­ owing to the specific scholarly interests of the faculty members or (more often) their complicated relationships with one another. I myself do not teach in a department which offers the Ph.D., but have taken on numerous parental commitments for graduate students and recent Ph.D.'s from other institutions. Many other classicists who do feminist scholarship are in the same situation ­ and even welcome such opportunities for what is officially labelled mentoring (although I sometimes call it my Junior League volunteer work, after an American charitable initiative organized by post-debutantes and other youthful socialites). Can we use the APA, or this group here at Penn, to set up further, extra- and intra-institutional parenting structures (which I would not, mind you, equate with those orphanages that Newt Gingrich favors: our profession, with its centuries of male-monopolized elitism and exclusivity, has no need for another Boys' Town)?

How, moreover, do we familiarize our students with the established mores, scholarly and social, of our professional culture? When do we even start what I suppose some would regard as the professional equivalent of toilet training (I believe that waiting until the beginning of graduate school is too late, that many undergraduates unsuited for the academic life would not apply for advanced degrees if they had a clear idea of what research and teaching and academic citizenship entail)? How long does ­ or should ­ the parental relationship continue (I believe that it's inappropriate for it to end when the student receives the Ph.D., and have in fact been actively seeking out additional new mentors throughout my professional life, especially after I assumed professional parenting roles myself; on the other hand, all parents, professorial and otherwise, need to learn when to let go)?

Although we rightly assume that a great deal of informal teaching goes on about professional practices and values, that students learn from our example, how much do they know, how much can they comprehend, about the entirety of our professional lives (even if we shepherd students to professional meetings, or involve them in our research projects)? So much of what we do involves confidential deliberations, and can't appropriately be shared. And even if it could, would they understand (when I once showed an American student of Werner Jaeger, the quintessential Doktor-Vater, all of his correspondence with various colleagues about his failed bid for the APA presidency, she refused to take it seriously, replying that this failure couldn't have meant much to him as he never mentioned it to her)? Furthermore, given that the times they are a-changing, given that many of our students have backgrounds and life-styles very different from our own, and given that quite a few of them will work in institutional settings totally unfamiliar to us, how much can we expect to understand about the problems that they may face? Many of my own mentors, even the ones I sought out myself, enjoy privileged existences in sheltered academic environments, and haven't a clue about what my life at a large, financially strapped, demographically diverse public institution is like.

Finally, how do we best go about explicit instruction in established professional mores and practices, about telling the aspiring classicists who are under our wing "the facts of life"? Susan Cole's APA presentation last year reported that at SUNY-Buffalo the graduate pro-seminar includes discussion of the APA Statement of Professional Ethics. Do we want to set up extra-institutional discussion groups of this sort, at the APA or at regional meetings, for classicists, aspiring or otherwise, whose institutions do not afford such opportunities? And how else might we work collaboratively, both intra- and extra-institutionally, at group (rather than at strictly individual) professional philological parenting which seeks to transform aspects of established professional mores and practices which are unfair, or outdated? How can we do a better job than Harry Caplan's well-meaning Cornell quartet?

Judith P. Hallett

University of Maryland, College Park


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[1] Cornell Alumni News 84 (July 1981) 7, cf. Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Experiences (New Haven and London, 1988) 7 n.7/ 321. Comment seems superfluous. Capland did not follow this advice. For a general treatment of anti-Semitism in the American sciences, cf. E. Digby Baltzell, The Protestant Establishment (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983) pp. 111-22. Cf. also Judith P. Hallett, Lee T. Pearcy, et al: "Nunc Meminisse Iuvat: Classics and Classicists Between the World Wars," Classical World 85.1 (1991) 27; Helen F. North, "Harry Caplan", in Ward W. Briggs, Jr., editor, Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (Westport, CT 1994) 82-83, esp. "Caplan was not deterred by this doubtless well-meant counsel, and in fact his rapid advancement in his profession seems not to have been impeded by prejudice. His promotion to the rank of professor in 1930 at the age of 34 long antedated the influence of refugee scholars, who are thought to have opened the gates for American Jewish classicists." [back to text]

[2] Jane Gallop, "Sex and Sexism: Feminism and Harassment Policy," Academe 80.5 (September/October 1994) 22. [back to text]


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last updated 9/3/96

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CUCD Bulletin 24 (1995)
© Judith P. Hallett

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