On 25 May this year, Liverpool hosted a colloquium on the teaching - and definition - of Greek history. There were five presentations on different aspects of Greek history today: two general, attempting to frame the issues of the day (by David Fitzpatrick and myself); and three more specific, on the definition of Greek history in 19th-century Manchester (by Peter Liddel), on the realities of language learning (by Lynette Mitchell), and on the disciplinary boundaries of ancient history (by Emily Greenwood). An overall focus of the day - not entirely planned or foreseen - was the retention of students to postgraduate level and into the profession. The event was funded, very generously, by the Higher Education Academy, with a contribution to postgraduate studentships from the Hellenic Society. I should like, in particular, to thank Lorna Hardwick, Colin Brooks, and especially David Fitzpatrick (who did much of the organising of the colloquium) for all their help - and the speakers, participants, and all those with whom I corresponded, for their contributions.
The following is an attempt at an impartial, if condensed, record of the issues raised in the course of the day. It also draws on correspondence I had with a number of Greek historians and others in advance of the colloquium.
On the day, opinions on the seriousness of the situation varied depending on the value put on 'traditional' areas of study (there was one rousing critique of others' addiction to period-divisions). A number of important qualifications were offered to the view of a problem in Greek history. First, of course, we are dealing with (funding for) very small numbers overall within Classics - or indeed within the Humanities more generally (if the Second Sophistic is booming, it is only a blip in a wider context). Second, many of the issues that affect Greek history are clearly common, in varying degrees, to other periods of Ancient History. Third, the question was raised of whether an effect of the RAE had been to raise the threshold of 'appointability', so making the fields for jobs appear weaker. On another topic, one correspondent noted that Greek history (in his experience) was still predominantly a male field - and asked what, if anything, that signified.
Opinions varied more starkly when it came to how to prepare students for doctoral work. One participant suggested that we should cherry-pick likely postgraduates at 2nd year for intensive language training (at the expense of historical work); others felt strongly that this would be impracticable (and, in many cases, that it was undesirable). Changes in the structure of postgraduate degrees, e.g. towards two-year Masters, as a result of the Bologna agreement might, it was noted, be helpful here. Finally, Colin Brooks of the Higher Education Academy offered advice from outside Classics: first, that we should take a more flexible approach towards curricular structure (rather than seeing it as a straitjacket); second, that we should not speak in terms of a 'market' and 'consumers' for languages, but instead in terms of 'access' and 'entitlement'.
At the same time, more institutional causes were discussed. One participant, in particular, spoke fiercely of the clique-ridden and off-putting small-worldishness of (British) Greek History - as evidenced, for example, in the footnotes of publications - contrasting it to literary studies. There was also discussion of, as some saw it, a growing gulf in understanding between Oxbridge (especially Oxford) and provincial universities: in particular when it came to the qualifications suitable for appointees to academic posts.
Definition of the subject
Perhaps the topic of the most sustained discussion was the definition of the subject area of Greek history. It was noted by a number of correspondents and participants that a large number of the candidates for any Greek history or ancient history posts were likely to define themselves as cultural historians or historians of ideas, or indeed not as historians at all. As one correspondent put it, 'there were very, very few people working on the areas traditionally defined as Greek history, let's say people working on anything from the archaic period to the late Hellenistic who have good Greek and work with both literary texts and inscriptions etc. There are of course good reasons for attacking this traditional view, but it is striking that there are very few of these people around.' One correspondent noted, interestingly, a difference between Greek and Roman history here: since 'Gender, Alterité and Religion became the sort of thing doctorates were encouraged in, [he had often been struck that] they were taken up by Greek Literature rather than Latin and Roman history rather than Greek. So - if the Edith Halls went into literature while the Mary Beards went into History that might form part of your explanation.' (Conversely, the same correspondent added, 'there is something similar to be said about the differential success with which classical Archaeology advanced into social, cultural and economic fields in Greek studies while hardly at all in Roman.')
Opinions inevitably varied as to whether this greater stress on cultural history was a good thing. Some, for example, felt that the range of questions asked within (traditional) Greek history was narrow by comparison with other periods of history, and that the experience of being taught history alongside literature was too often to confirm the boundaries between areas of study rather than break them down. (This sense was reinforced by discussion of the exam papers from 19th century Manchester, which both depressed by showing the lack of any great change in approach, and impressed by their comparative approach and their focus on the regions of the Greek world.) Consequently, for some, the problem of numbers (if there is one) vanishes as soon as you change your definition - either by including a broader range of historical questions, now perhaps studied by self-styled literary scholars, or by changing the chronological goalposts (and including, e.g. the history of the Greek city under Rome). As one correspondent put it, 'there are loads of wonderful 'Hellenists' doing marvellous work out there - and the paucity is caused by the template ('what is a historian?') that we still operate with'. On the other hand concerns were expressed that 'traditional' questions and other types of evidence might be being excluded, and that this might be damaging in the long term. (Similar concern was expressed by one correspondent about the current state of Greek literary studies - now that everyone is a cultural historian, 'it would be very difficult to hire what used to be called an expert on Greek Lang. and Lit., too, who could actually tell you how to scan an iambic properly'.)
What emerged most clearly perhaps was a confusion as to the boundaries between sub-disciplines within Classics. This is not to say that the boundaries are vanishing - as some felt, indeed, they persist inevitably and insidiously - only that we are operating with a number of different distinctions simultaneously and without always being aware of it. This lack of any clear 'referential purchase' was, for some, a result of the huge span that history now claimed for itself; for others there was a difficulty as to how to integrate new approaches (from other disciplines) into a traditional discourse without a lack of focus. For some, this confusion was a cause of concern (and confusion); for others, on the contrary, a sign of health.
This confusion is reflected in a (seemingly new) diversity in approaches to teaching. It was clear, in particular from discussion, that the type of course which simply bashes through the events of Greek history chronologically, with occasional apologetic diversions to take in women, slaves etc. (the 'diluted Greats' model, according to one participant) is not nearly as prevalent now as it may have been in the past. Now, for example, some courses adopt a 'skills-based' approach to the teaching of ancient history, while, significantly, some have distinct modules and courses in Ancient History and Classical Civilisation (though in practice the content of the courses is converging), while others have introduced first year modules that integrate Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, with students having the opportunity of moving between (still distinct) degrees at the end of the year. (The rationale for this, as it was put to me, was that 'ancient historical research had - become so catholic in approach - as to be indistinguishable from Classical Civilisation'). There was widespread agreement that students still needed clear orientation within a narrative framework - though this did not require an 'idiot's guide to narrative history'.
Discussion on the day reflected a more positive attitude. Some expressed the feeling that Greek history is in an exciting period, with new connections being made with other disciplines, and (as mentioned above) that that the lack of any common template of history might actually be healthy. One participant expressed the view that the decline of Latin at school level might actually be responsible for an increased uptake of Greek at university (as students would not just continue with the one language of which they had experience). On the other hand, another view expressed was that we, as Greek historians, were underselling ourselves - in particular, that we should be trying harder to avoid the 'static' impression of some areas of Greek history, and to bridge any gap (in terms of areas studied) between our undergraduate courses and postgraduate research.
More generally, it is my hope that some of the issues raised at the colloquium - about the teaching of Greek history at undergraduate level, disciplinary boundaries, or the job market - might continue to be discussed in the open at similar forums. To judge from the energetic discussion on the day, I am not alone in this.
University of Liverpool
|||See the report 'Ancient History and its Friends': hca.ltsn.ac.uk/resources/reports/Ancient_History_05-03-2003.pdf. For alternative approaches to assessment see www.hca.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/case_Studies/morley-nontrad-assess.php.|
CUCD Bulletin 34 (2005)
© Tom Harrison 2005