Graduate Education in Classics: Some American Perspectives and Initiatives

Judith P. Hallett

  1. Hands Across the Water
  2. The University of Pennsylvania Classics Graduate Education Project
  3. Follow-up efforts to the Penn 1993 Colloquium
  4. Appendix: Acculturating the Aspiring Classicist

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Hands Across the Water

In preparing to give my presentation at the CUCD in April 1995, I consulted with several of my fellow Americans. I was eager for their input and advice on what I should tell a group of British classicists about what we in the United States have recently been thinking about, and doing about, postbaccalaureate education in classics. Often, however, I got neither input nor advice, but a stunned and incredulous reaction: Don't those British classicists have any idea of who it is they've invited to do this? Haven't they heard about your public pronouncements on the prominent presence of European (and especially of British) imports in US classics departments offering graduate degree programs? In fact, one fellowcountrywoman assumed that I would be adapting the closing routine immortalized by a prominent British import on the American scene, the non-classicist Tracey Ullman, who used to bid farewell to the studio audience at her television comedy hour by yelling "Go Home!" My colleague even urged me to incorporate a fashion statement ­ the garb and hat of our Statue of Liberty ­ and the arm-lifting but unwelcoming STOP-gesture of a traffic cop as I yelled "Stay Here" to those who would populate graduate programs in American universities (as potential teachers and students in them, and as potential recommenders of teachers and students to them).

What prompted this reaction? Well, my public pronouncements about the presence and prominence of these overseas imports ­ and I'm one of a very few Americans even to address this topic ­ have raised serious questions: why it is that foreign scholars have been appointed to so many positions at our leading, Ph.D.-granting, institutions when it was possible to hire highly qualified Americans; why it is that hirees from abroad have not been held to exactly the same standards ­ in terms of teaching experience, or of broadly-based academic training ­ as their American competitors. My decision to start speaking publicly on this subject was, moreover, a way of dealing intellectually with powerful, personal feelings of anger and exasperation over what many of us in the States perceive as practices and attitudes which privilege European, and denigrate American, training in classics. At my angriest and most exasperated I had started referring privately to the foreign-born and trained scholars occupying the highest perches of the professoriate on our shores, the likes of Edward Courtney, Sally Humphries and Marcel Detienne, as "wetbacks" ­ a derogatory term for Mexican laborers who cross over the US border, via the Rio Grande River, stealthily and illegally, and then make no attempt to dry off, i.e. assimilate to American cultural mores.

My anger and exasperation, however, have always been directed at my fellow American classicists who patrol and control our borders, who allow those from abroad to slip into our professional midst without sufficiently briefing them about our American, democratic, educational system and its values. And I have always suspected that American classicists are motivated to hire foreign-trained scholars because they ­ because we ­ suffer from low esteem about our own academic worth. In a forthcoming contribution to a volume on the personal voice in classical scholarship, I have dealt at some length with my own feelings of inferiority about the value of American education in classics relative to that provided by English and European institutions, and provided documentation that my feelings obtain widely. I suspect, too, that foreign scholars have fared so well, appointment-wise, on our shores because of the unwillingness of American classicists to recognize that, and reflect upon why, the study of classics in US higher education is distinctly different from that elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I came to the CUCD not only to encourage recognition of and reflection upon these transatlantic differences, but also to stress our common concerns and interests, and to brief CUCD members about a new American initiative. Educating the next generation of classicists is an enterprise we're all engaged in together, whether as educators or educatees. What my colleague Nancy Rabinowitz would no doubt call "the traffic in graduate students" is increasingly becoming a two-way street. American students have traditionally flocked to Europe, particularly to the UK, and particularly to Oxbridge, for their post baccalaureate training in classics. Lately, though, we've been welcoming significant numbers of European, and largely British, students to American graduate programs. And the multinational educational experiences which this traffic pattern creates has attracted the attention of a new project, based in the Classical Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of Pennsylvania Classics Graduate Education Project

My own involvement with this project began in November 1993, at a day-long colloquium held on the Penn campus in Philadelphia on graduate education in classical studies. Its organizers were (and its guiding lights remain) several then-members of the Penn classics faculty: Joseph Farrell, Jeremy McInerney, Sheila Murnaghan, James O'Donnell, Ralph Rosen, Matthew Santirocco, and Wesley Smith (let me clarify at this point that we in the US use ­ and I'll also be using ­ the term "faculty" for instructional staff, as opposed to administrators and clerical workers). They were assisted by two Penn graduate students, one of whom ­ Nigel Nicholson ­ had done his undergraduate work at Oxford and ­ after a year's teaching teaching stint at my own alma mater, Wellesley College in Massachusetts, has taken a tenure-track position at Reed College in Oregon. Several in attendance at this colloquium came from a variety of classics doctoral programs elsewhere in the US: Helene Foley (from Barnard College/Columbia University in New York), Michael Halleran (from the University of Washington in Seattle), Ralph Hexter (then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, now at the University of California at Berkeley), Dan Hooley (from the University of Missouri at Columbia), John Peradotto (from the State University of New York at Buffalo), Charles Segal (from Harvard University) and Giulia Sissa (from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland). I alone represented institutions which offer the Ph.D. degree in various areas of classical studies (e.g. ancient history and art history) but only the MA in classics itself. Still others ­ Carrie Cowherd (from Howard University in Washington, DC), Ellen Finkelpearl (from Scripps College in Claremont, California) and James May(from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota) ­ represented institutions which only have undergraduate classics programs, two of them small liberal arts colleges, and the third our country's only historically black university with a classics department.

We all were sent twenty questions to mull over in advance. Among those which ended up as the focus of our discussion were: Are students applying to graduate school with sufficient training in both Greek and Latin? What special expectations do institutions that do not grant the Ph.D. in Classics place upon newly hired classicists? How well-prepared are classics Ph.D's to meet those expectations? Many of us felt that those commencing graduate study in classics nowadays were not as strongly grounded in the languages as we ourselves had been (and we ranged in age from mid-thirties to early sixties). In view of institutional limitations on the length of time that students are eligible to receive funding, or even be enrolled, in American doctoral programs, this was a worrisome development. And this development is even more worrisome in view of the fact that most American classics Ph.D's find employment (if they even do find academic employment) at institutions which do not grant the Ph.D. Once there, they teach many if not most of their courses in translation, on extra-linguistic aspects of ancient Greco-Roman literature and society, to non-concentrators, students filling general education distribution requirements. How do we prepare graduate students for such teaching situations?

Furthermore, even at institutions offering advanced degrees in classics, decisions about hiring, tenure, promotion and salary require classicists ­ and indeed all faculty ­ to be assessed by colleagues from outside their field. These non-classicist evaluators usually need assurances that we are contributing more to the intellectual life of a campus than pounding in the fundamentals of languages no longer spoken and hammering out translations of works by people no longer living. They also need to know that our scholarship is keeping pace with what our colleagues are doing in other humanities (and indeed social science and science) departments.

Yet another issue which occupied us that day, though not one addressed by these twenty preliminary questions, involved the fact that most faculty members on American college and university campuses teaching courses on ancient Greek and Roman literature and culture, in translation, to non-concentrators, are not themselves classicists. A relatively small proportion of American institutions of higher education even have classics departments, and not all that many more employ even one faculty member with any sort of classics training. There are, in fact, probably more students being taught classical texts by non-classicists at community colleges alone ­ public institutions at which more and more Americans obtain their first two years of higher education ­ than are being taught by classicists elsewhere.

As one way of coping with the serious employment crisis in our field (and in US higher education generally), we obviously need to get classicists hired at places where they have not been hired previously. We must make the case that employing a classicist to teach classical texts would serve an institution better than having someone with an advanced degree in another humanities field. But even if some instructors with classics training do manage to get hired for these positions, we also need to face the reality that most American college and university faculty teaching classical texts, prospective as well as present faculty members, are going to be from other humanities fields. Thus graduate programs in classics need to reach and teach graduate and post-doctoral students in these other fields, most likely through advanced literature and culture courses in translation: most of these students will not have the time or inclination to do much (if any) work in the ancient languages themselves.

I should clarify, too, that US graduate programs in classics have always consisted of at least two years of course work, usually followed by qualifying examinations on the field of classics generally, and then the writing of a dissertation on a specialized topic (a pattern which holds true in other disciplines). So how are classics graduate faculty supposed to find the time to work with these, often highly motivated and deserving, pre-professionals from other humanities disciplines if we are also doing more language teaching to get our insufficiently prepared graduate students up to speed? Like many of my colleagues, I've done so through summer institutes for college and university teachers funded by an agency of the U.S. government ­ the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH has required that all of its institutes which focus on classical topics and texts teach these texts in English translation, and mandated that these institutes enrol non-classicists as well as classicists. Thus most of the sixteen participants enrolled in an institute (on women writers of Greece, Roman and the English Renaissance) which I co-directed in the summer of 1994 regularly taught Greek and Latin literary works at their colleges, community colleges and universities, but only one of them held a doctorate in classics, and only a handful had ever studied Latin or Greek. The NEH, however, was threatened with extinction by the Republican-controlled Congress elected in November 1994, and has only managed to survive in a much less generously funded form. Furthermore, at the Congressional hearings about the future of the NEH held in the spring of 1995, the allegedly Marxist, feminist, subversive approaches of these summer institutes were specifically cited ­ by the former NEH heads under Reagan and Bush who proudly instituted and promoted these very institutes ­ as reasons for the withdrawal of federal funding from the humanities altogether. It is possible that the NEH, and the important educational programs that its funds, may vanish altogether.

Follow-up efforts to the Penn 1993 Colloquium

Since that initial gathering of the Penn classics graduate education group, we have launched follow-up efforts in diverse venues. On the national level, the group sponsored an open meeting at the 1993 meeting of the American Philological Association in Washington, DC, entitled,"Graduate Education in Classics: the 1990's and Beyond: A Continuing Conversation." There our project engaged the serious interest of several movers and shakers on the American classical scene: Erich Gruen (of the University of California at Berkeley) and Ludwig Koenen (of the University of Michigan), both recent presidents of the APA; Susan Guettel Cole (of the State University of New York at Buffalo), major author of the APA's Statement on Professional Ethics; and Richard Thomas (of Harvard University), an outspoken proponent of traditional values in our discipline. At the December 1994 APA meeting in Atlanta, Charles Segal, the organization's president that year (and one of the participants in the November 1993 colloquium), devoted his presidential panel to the topic of graduate education in classics. Panelists included Sheila Murnaghan of the Penn classics group steering committee and James May, both participants in the November 1993 colloquium; Erich Gruen and Susan Cole, both recruited at the December 1993 open meeting; Carolyn Dewald (of the University of Southern California), Jon Mikalson (of the University of Virginia), and Gregory Nagy (of Harvard).

Many of the participants in the November 1993 Penn colloquium were, moreover, assigned organizational responsibility for individual task forces. My own task force has been concerned with socialization and culture. Its charter statement poses such questions as "how should we think of the relationship between faculty and students? training? apprenticeship? collaboration? what kinds of advising and mentoring are appropriate?" Not posed explicitly as a question in this statement, but central to the charter's subtext, is the issue of acculturation: how professors initiate their graduate students into the established mores and folkways of their classics communities. And ­ insofar as few things have given me more professional satisfaction than my collaborative efforts with the Women's Classical Caucus to disestablish and transform the unjust mores and superannuated folkways of our profession ­ I'm determined to consider how classics professors can best challenge the status quo for the benefit of their students. But my first task force task was to undertake some fact-finding, or at least opinion-polling, on one aspect of who socializes whom into what, when and how.

In the spring of 1994, therefore, I solicited some reflections on the multi-national composition and education of our US classics community. In part I was seeking responses to one of the Penn group's original twenty questions, which read: "Our field is notable for its willingness to bring distinguished foreign scholars to these shores, giving us a refreshingly international profile. But does this willingness in fact constitute a mistrust of our own products...do we too easily resort to Auslander? Does the supply of foreign talent make it easier for us not to address the questions of the quality of our own product?" But I did so instead by asking an array of colleagues to what extent they would agree with a remark recently made in print, by Z. Philip Ambrose, of the University of Vermont, that classicists in the US and elsewhere transcend their specific institutional and geographical contexts by viewing the study of classical antiquity with an "international perspective."

While the majority of those I contacted in this context were American-born, American-trained and American-employed, I additionally approached several classicists here in the UK as well as some foreign-born and/or trained North American colleagues. From these, immensely thoughtful and helpful responses, I've been strengthened in my belief that Ambrose's international perspective is a naive ideal. Insidiously, the international perspective is often invoked to deny distinctive national differences among classicists in diverse countries and educational systems; in our country, moreover, such invocations invariably have the effect of disparaging the priorities and achievements of American classicists. For this reason I feel that we American classicists urgently need to have a serious talk among ourselves about how our country's more "generalist", diversified and democratic educational system makes our academic experiences and research agendas distinctive and different from those of classicists elsewhere. Not until we have this conversation can we clearly conceptualize how we resemble classicists from other countries in our outlook on the ancient Greek and Roman world and its possible roles in higher education today.

Meanwhile, though, during the 1994-95 academic year the Penn department sponsored a series of Saturday afternoon colloquia on its campus about issues of central concern to anyone interested in the graduate education project. The announcement for the December 1993 open meeting at the APA proclaimed "We seek not to develop a single package of reforms but to nurture a climate friendly to various kinds of change, including far-reaching reconceptions of our entire endeavor, as well as improvements to our current practices." It went on to indicate that there had been general consensus at the November 1993 colloquium on three main points. First, "that our graduate programs have not kept pace with changes in the disciplines they inculcate, with changes in relations between the classical disciplines and the rest of the humanities, and with changes in the ways in which classicists can or may be employed in the academic world of the 1990's and beyond." Second, "that there is room for specific repair work on parts of the traditional program that can and should be undertaken soon." And third, "But there are also strategic issues about the nature of the discipline itself that need to be addressed not merely as theoretical concerns but with a sense of their impact on the way we do our departmental business." The colloquia held in 1994-95 focused on various implications of these assertions.

The first colloquium, held in December, looked at the classics graduate curriculum. Entitled "If it's not broke, why fix it?", it featured brief presentations by three faculty members from departments which award the doctorate in classics. Lowell Edmunds of Rutgers University in New Jersey, the co-editor of a 1989 volume of essays pondering whether or not there is a crisis in our profession and discipline, returned to some of the more provocative points made in that book. Richard Thomas cited as proof of appropriate curricular change the incorporation of ancient historical, philosophical, artistic and comparative literary studies into courses required in Harvard's classical philology program (of which I myself am a product, and in which we used to be reminded regularly of our overwhelming superiority to our philologically-challenged peers consigned to the ancient history, philosophy, art and comparative literature programs). And Bernard Frischer of the University of California at Los Angeles outlined a range of disciplinary survival strategies, among them several modeled on academic practices in the sciences: collaborative research; the involvement of undergraduate as well as beginning graduate students in independent research for publication and public presentation. Attendees agreed that a major problem we encounter involves the way that classics is perceived by others, within and outside of the academy, and that our salvation may lie in, as it were, developing new marketing techniques.

I did not attend the second colloquium, "Wir Philologen", featuring Josiah Ober of Princeton University and Julia Gaisser of Bryn Mawr College (since my own department had its annual retreat that weekend). My understanding, though, is that discussion focused on the relative importance of ancient language study. But I ­ along with Susan Cole and Matthew Santirocco (now a dean at New York University) ­ was one of the presenters at the third colloquium, "Acculturating the Aspiring Classicist". There we pursued matters which were probably responsible for my invitation to participate when this group got started, and certainly responsible for my assignment to the task force on socialization (as Barbara Gold and myself received a good deal of attention in 1992 for organizing an APA panel on sexual harassment in our profession). Speakers at this colloquium focused to a large extent on how we classics faculty use our power, for good and for ill, singly and collaboratively, intra- and inter- and extra-institutionally: both to initiate students into the established mores and folkways of our profession, AND to challenge and change those mores and folkways to create a better environment for all classicists, particularly those with the least power.

The text of my own presentation is appended. I began with the now-notorious 1919 letter to a Cornell University graduate student, Harry Caplan, from four of his professors, urging him to abandon plans for a college teaching career because of widespread anti-Semitism (which these professors deplored but were unwilling to combat). I likened Caplan's response to this letter ­ his strengthened determination to succeed in college classics teaching ­ to my own toughened resolve to continue collaborating with other classicists in speaking out and educating about sexual harassment when I received a letter on that topic from a beloved mentor three years ago. My mentor's letter claimed that the true victims of sexual harassment were male professors, like himself, whose rights to engage in the traditional, natural process of "meeting and mating" were under attack from potential female blackmailers brainwashed by man-hating lesbians. I used this letter, which invoked the office procedures of gynecologists as a model for male classicists, to emphasize my own view of the professor's role and responsibility as involving a sacred bond of trust best described as parental. And I then explored the limitations, the problems, of this parental analogy (i.e. the difficulties entailed in single professional parenting, in refusing to let the fledglings under our wings "fly from our nests", and in failing to comprehend the key differences between our students' lives and our own).

While the Penn group has not organized any similar colloquia during the current academic year, our national profession-wide conversation about graduate education is continuing in a variety of venues. Substantial impetus has been provided by an article in the September/October 1994 Lingua Franca entitled "Can Classics Die?", by David Damrosch, a Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Literature who has recently published a provocative study of US higher education entitled We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. I would be happy to provide my readers with copies of this Lingua Franca article, which incorporates a mini-symposium ­ entitled "Is Classics Ancient History" ­ with "sidebars"by Ward Briggs (University of South Carolina), William Calder III (University of Illinois), James O'Donnell, Hayden Pelliccia (of Cornell), Richard Thomas and myself. And I would like to thank the CUCD for the opportunity to air my, American-based, take on issues of concern to us all. Unlike Tracey Ullman, I implore you to "STICK AROUND" and contact me if you have further questions.

Judith P. Hallett

University of Maryland, College Park



last updated 26/1/96


CUCD Bulletin 24 (1995)
© Judith P. Hallett

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