Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The latest flurry of discussion among Classicists was spurred by a New York Times Magazine article about Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta written by Rachel Poser entitled “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” I personally found the discourse about this article deeply depressing. Not only do Classicists seem incapable of engaging with Prof. Padilla Peralta on his own terms, but the article seemed to bring back to the surface discussions that reflected how little the discourse had changed

Many in my social media feeds seemed to be drawn to this comment in the Times feature: “To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would ‘explode the canon’ and ‘overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,’ including doing away with the label ‘classics’ altogether.” One thread on the Facebook group Classics international focused on labels, with various folks advocating for ‘Ancient Studies’, global ancient studies, ‘Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Classical and Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Greek and Roman studies’, and so on. All these suggestions are well-meaning, of course, but they reminded me of the paper “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which worries about the superficiality of decolonization in the Academy, and the severing of the decolonial project from practical action. This is presumably why Prof. Padilla Peralta speaks of overhauling Classics “from nuts to bolts”: this project is a practical one.

Many Classics departments already claim to study the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, but the reality is that most of them do not. One department of ‘Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, for example, offers no ancient languages other than Greek and Latin, and only one class of any kind that isn’t Greco-Roman-centric. Renaming our departments Ancient Mediterranean Studies while retaining a standard Classics curriculum is window dressing, and a not entirely unproblematic one at that: Michael Herzfeld (1984, 2001, 2005, 2014) has been writing for almost 40 years about the problems of ‘Mediterraneanism.’ 

Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

The Classics department of which I am a member has 14 contract faculty (12 tenure-track/tenured and two full-time instructors). In terms of specialization, we could divide them (somewhat crudely and arbitrarily) as follows: 3 Greek philologists, 5 Latin philologists, 1 Greek historian, 2 Roman historians, 3 archaeologists (1 Greek prehistorian, 1 Greek, 1 Achaemenid; our Roman archaeologist recently retired). We teach classes on Egyptian archaeology and the ancient Near East, but I would not say that we really constitute a department of ancient Mediterranean studies: we cannot offer any training in languages other than Greek and Latin (even if some of our faculty know other languages), and we do not teach upper-level classes about Egypt. We cannot claim to cover much that is west of Rome or south of Sicily. We are remarkably focused on texts and Greece & Rome. 

In contrast, a real ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department of the same size might look like this: 3 Romanists, 3 Hellenists, 3 Egyptologists, 3 Assyriologists, and 2 additional scholars to cover any major gaps that remained (such as North Africa, Iberia, and southern France). That configuration would mean shrinking the Greco-Roman core of the department from 13 to 6 (or 8). We could suppose that our new ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ departments would be much larger in size than our current Classics departments, but that seems naïve. If we are really committed to studying the ancient Mediterranean, we need to actually reform our disciplinary structures and curricula to do so. But that seems, frankly, unlikely. Much more likely is that such units will retain their Greco-Roman core, add an Egyptologist or Assyriologist, and call it a day. As Ian Morris put it in the NYT piece: “There are some in the field who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” An ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department that remains mostly Greco-Roman is, to put it bluntly, a joke.

That’s why I don’t favor departments of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’: they do too little. They seem to be an attempt to shed the term ‘Classics’ while retaining Classics. Adding a faculty member or two to the Classical mix would not, after all, entail a radical rethinking of the field, much less a radical change to the practices of the discipline. Classicists would still go to Classically-themed conferences, publish in Classical journals, train students in the same canon of Classical texts, and so on. The title of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ might also convince (some of) us that we have, in fact, solved the problems of Classics without actually doing any of the work required to do so. In short, the Mediterranean is not a magical solution: actually it solves almost none of our problems while committing us to others. For example, configuring ancient Egypt as Mediterranean separates it — problematically so — from its very important connections to Africa

Ancient Mediterranean Studies is not the radical reconfiguration that Prof. Padilla Peralta calls for. It’s more like Paul Zimmer pretending to be Troy Becker. There are more radical (and thus more interesting) suggestions made by others, but I’ve already written too much and the Super Bowl is about to begin, so I’ll leave those for another blog post…

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Publishing in Aegean prehistory

Towards the end of his review of the archaeology of palatial Crete in Archaeological Reports, entitled “Palatial Crete: recent discoveries & research, 2014–2019,” Kostas Christakis writes,

The study of old and new data with a view to examining the political, economic and ideological organization of the various Bronze Age polities and the impact of Minoan culture beyond the shores of the island forms the subject of a series of recent conferences. The most important of these are, in my view, those held at Louvain and published in the Aegis series (Akan and Bárta 2017; Driessen 2018; Schmitt et al. 2018; Caloi and Langohr 2019; Devolder and Kreimerman 2020). The proceedings of these conferences are a source of inspiration, and their themes indicate the broader direction of Minoan archaeology in recent years – which was, in fact, the subject of a special conference in Heidelberg (Cappel et al. 2015). This trend combines theoretical and anthropological patterns and methodological models in the treatment of excavated testimonies. It is worth noting the shift in research interest towards the study of the ‘great unknown’ of the various Minoan communities: the lives of ordinary people, a field hitherto neglected due to the traditional elite-orientated approach to archaeological research. The most recent published example of this is the proceedings of the OIKOS conference (Relaki and Driessen 2020). The desideratum here is for these research efforts as a whole to escape the confines of the narrow regional Cretan context and adopt a broad perspective that connects Crete to the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, in order to answer big questions about the human past.

(Christakis 2020: 160)

I agree with Christakis’ evaluation. For those who don’t know, Aegis is a series of monographs and edited volumes organized by Jan Driessen and published by the Presses universitaires de Louvain. What’s striking is that whereas in many sub-fields of art and archaeology the most important work is published by ‘major’ university presses like Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, etc., this is certainly not the case for the Aegean Bronze Age, and for many subfields of field (or ‘dirt’) archaeology. A glance at the citations in Christakis’ article illustrates the point nicely:

A breakdown of the citations in Christakis’ article

Of the 176 citations in Christakis’ bibliography, most are articles (‘article’ in the pie chart) or publications from conference proceedings (‘conference’ in the pie chart above). The latter are entirely comprised of papers from two conferences: the International Congress of Cretan Studies and the Αρχαιολογικό Έργο Κρήτης. The articles tend to be drawn from journals that focus on the publication of primary data:

JournalNumber of articles
Αρχαιολογικόν Δελτίον16
Archaeological Reports8
Πρακτικά της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας5
American Journal of Archaeology4
Annual of the British School at Athens4
Kentro4
Pasiphae3
Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici3
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology2
Ten other journals (Annuario della Scuola, BCH, BICS, CIG, Hesperia, JMA, KretChron, PloS ONE, Quarternary International, Rivista di archeologia)1 each

The monographs, edited volumes, and chapters from edited volumes display a similar pattern: very little is being published by the “major” Anglophone presses. Of the 14 monographs, half are published by INSTAP Academic Press (Philadelphia); the other are published by the British School at Athens (2), Τα πράγματα (2), the Cycladic Museum (1), The Ministry of Culture (1), and the Scuola Archaeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente (1). Of the 10 edited volumes, seven are published by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain (i.e., Aegis), two by the Danish Institute at Athens, and one by Kapon Editions. Individually-cited chapters display the same distribution:

PublisherNumber of chapters
Presses Universitaires de Louvain7
INSTAP Press6
Oxbow Books4
Aegaeum (now published by Peeters Publishers)3
Cycladic Museum2
Danish_Institute2
Kapon Editions1
Oxford University Press1
Philipp von Zabern1
University of Crete 1

One article can hardly be representative of the entirety of publications about Bronze Age Crete or the Aegean Bronze Age, of course, and Christakis’ article is especially focused on new work, which explains the large percentage of papers from conference proceedings. Yet these results are broadly consistent with my experience, which is that the most important new work is not published by the presses that most American and British scholars consider “important” (the Oxbridge presses being the most iconic). When I proposed my book project to one of these presses, I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not interested in publishing a technical volume about Linear B. (Even if we consider more synthetic work to be important, many of the most important and progressive syntheses appear in such publications. A quick perusal of the bibliography of a 24,000 word summary of the Aegean Late Bronze Age that I wrote for the Oxford History of the Ancient Near East [Volume 1 has just come out; my chapter is in volume 3] is dominated by such publications.)

Yet it is precisely in technical volumes that new data and new methods are presented. Most early career scholars have important technical material to present, and these publications will ultimately establish their reputation in the field as excellent practitioners. The big presses, on the other hand, are more likely to send their books out to review, giving them a broader audience. A kind of prestige is also attached to their names that is likely to be important to tenure and promotion committees, and hiring committees. Similar dynamics obtain among journals. This is unfortunate, for it contributes to disconnect between what is rewarded (publication in big journals and big presses) and what is important to the vitality of research in the field (publication of original material and technical methods).

How to be a better ‘senior scholar’

I’ve been meaning to write some version of this post for a couple of months, but the spring semester and then COVID-19 got in the way. I’ve been thinking since January that I need to think more carefully about what it means to be a ‘senior scholar.’ It’s a weird term, because I don’t consider myself ‘senior’ — I’m 45 44 years old — but when I was freaking out about getting a job, it was 2006-2008, which in academic terms is a lifetime ago. It’s sobering, and a bit sad (for me, I mean), to think that the students who are on the job market now (such as it is) were graduating from high school while I was desperately trying and mostly failing to convince search committees to give me a job.

The first time I realized that I was a weird old guy was in 2016, when I was on sabbatical and spent a spring semester in Athens. I was staying with my family in the northern suburbs of Athens and commuted on the Α7 bus down to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where I’d work in the library all day, eating lunch at Loring Hall. The place, and the pattern, reminded me of when I was a student, and I even felt like a student again. I tried to engage the students at the School over lunch. It was pretty awkward. Then I remembered when I was a student, and when rando old guys would show up in the middle of the academic year. I avoided those guys (i.e., guys like me) like the plague.

IMG_20160118_124737

Loring Hall; we smoked a lot of cigarettes here in 2003-4

So there’s that kind of delusion, where senior scholars — let’s define them loosely as tenured professors, the scholars who have “made it,” whether they feel that way or not — forget their own position vis-a-vis the students surrounding them, in my case out of a weird and heady mix of nostalgia (I was a student at the School in 2003-2004) and a dumb and totally imagined self-image of myself as ‘young.’

There’s another kind of delusion, though, which is far more pernicious and damaging, in which the senior scholar decides that their position in the field is some kind of mark of merit, that they know best because they have “made it,” and that their job should be to “help” students and junior scholars (or maybe the field as a whole) not only by helping people they think are doing good work, but also by shutting down bad work. I’ve been thinking about this as “gatekeeping,” but I think that’s not quite right, although that’s terrible too. I’m talking about senior scholars who throw their weight around to compel less powerful members of the profession to “get it right,” and if their juniors won’t acquiesce, to shut them down.

I suspect that these senior scholars think that they’re doing the right thing. After all, as teachers, our job is to guide students, and ultimately to judge them with a letter grade.  If they apply to graduate school, we’ll have to write a letter of recommendation and we’ll have to carefully calibrate it to indicate to the readers what we really think of the student. It follows, maybe, that if we see a junior scholar (say, an advanced PhD or a pre-tenure but post-doctoral scholar) doing something that we think is wrong or maybe even misguided, we’re doing the right thing by telling that person that they’re wrong. And if we can’t help them, we can help the field by shutting down their research (which, after all, is wrong and therefore potentially damaging).

This is an insane way to think, although I think that I understand it — after all, we are trained as graduate students to be insanely critical of everything that we read, of poking holes in theories, of dismissing them as reductive or under-theorized. It gets more complicated when you start going to conferences and meeting some of the people whose work you’re reading, and finding out that they’re really interesting and smart… and nice. I took out a lot of mean-spirited critique out of some of the footnotes in my dissertation after a lovely conference in Rome. The earlier drafts of those footnotes were shameful; I’m still ashamed of them.

Anyway, I don’t want to be (or become) one of those senior scholars, and so I’ve been trying to come up with a list of things that I can remind myself of, so that I don’t act like a jerk. Here goes:

  1. Your first impression is often wrong. A famous Linear B scholar once told a group of us as graduate students that he was probably right about 10% of the time. He was okay with this awful batting average — although he’s a scrupulous scholar and probably bats well over the Mendoza line — and that’s a good attitude, I think. I’ve certainly misjudged people and situations and evidence and arguments a lot, and there’s no reason for me to think that I’m getting any better at this thing. In fact, I’m probably getting worse. Related to this:
  2. You often change your mind. There are a lot of ideas that I thought were absolutely stupid the first time I heard them and now I’m convinced that they’re right, or at the very least I’m not convinced that they’re wrong or stupid. I spent years trying to come up with good arguments against articles that I thought were dumb, only to conclude that they were right. (Once this process took me like 7 years). I’d like to think that it’s a good sign that I do change my mind — after all, I’m in a discipline that’s predicated on the practice of fieldwork, and if there were nothing that could change my mind then there’d literally be no point in doing fieldwork. (Incidentally, I think it’s really weird when I meet archaeologists who are committed to the idea that interpretations they came up with in the 1970s are still right. Why would you enter a field where the sands shift under your feet and then insist that the house you built on those sands is structurally sound 50 years later? Those people generally suck).
  3. Who the fuck are you? This, to me, is the main thing that senior scholars (especially men) need to be told, and constantly. I think it’s okay to be critical when that’s literally your job — when you’re teaching, or reviewing something — that’s what you’ve been asked to do. (Even there I need to be a bit more chill, but that’s a separate issue). But it’s a fucking awful thing to do, and a sign of real and inveterate arrogance, when you’re not being asked to do it by anyone. There’s no excuse for it, and it needs to be called out.

Modern Greek, Classics, and archaeology

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in sunny Sacramento, where the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) held its 26th biennial Symposium. Johanna Hanink and I organized a special session entitled “Modern Greek Programs in Classics Departments: Historical Perspectives, Present Challenges, and Future Prospects” featuring papers by Susan H. Allen, Ismini Lamb, Artemis Leontis, and Seth Schein, followed by an all-too-short discussion about the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek. Allen and Lamb focused on historical figures who bridged the gap between the two disciplines – Harriet Boyd Hawes and George Horton, respectively. Leontis focused on the administrative and institutional issues faced by modern Greek programs housed in Classics departments, while Seth Schein reflected on his personal and professional relationship with Ioannis Kakridis.

In preparing for the panel, I ended up writing a short paper that sketched out some of my ideas about the role that archaeology plays in this relationship. Before I get to my paper, here were some initial thoughts:

  1. In some ways, Classics and Modern Greek studies are similar in that language teaching forms an important core to the curriculum. As Artemis Leontis pointed out in her keynote, teaching modern Greek excellently is the sine qua non of a thriving modern Greek program, and Classics as traditionally defined focuses on teaching Greek and Latin literature in the original languages. This makes archaeology something of an outlier to both disciplines.
  2. On the other hand, there is certainly more to Classics and modern Greek studies than just language — they are impoverished disciplines if they don’t reach out to art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, and so on.
  3. Both Classics and modern Greek have the problem of narrative. Both are entangled in a master narrative of linear time and progress, and both have struggled to free themselves of that narrative, with mixed results in both cases. As some of the papers that I heard at the MGSA made clear, modern Greek studies has not yet fully shed itself of the nationalism and Eurocentrism that centers on Classical Greece and that emerged in the 19th century. I wanted to think of ways that archaeology had fallen prey to these same narratives but also had the capability to contribute to a reckoning with them.

So if there had been time, here is the paper that I would have given. Many thanks to Bill Caraher for useful comments on an earlier draft. I’m now thinking of organizing a panel on the archaeology of the contemporary Greek world for the next MGSA in 2021!

sacramento

Sacramento is very flat

Archaeology, classics, and modern Greek studies
MGSA conference 2019
Dimitri Nakassis

As the only archaeologist on the panel, I thought that it might be useful to reflect briefly on the role of archaeology in the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek studies. I should say from the start that I’m especially focused on the role of archaeologists who work in Greece and are housed in Classics departments in north America – a narrow scope, but for reasons that I hope are clear. My own perspective is that of a Greek prehistorian with a traditional north American training in Classics and classical archaeology, and who has always taught in traditional Classics departments. Like many people in my situation, my work has occasionally involved the archaeology of contemporary Greece, largely through regional studies.

I’m not alone in this. Archaeological surveys in Greece, beginning in the 1950s but accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, incorporated archaeological ethnography (or ethnoarchaeology) into their field practices and analytical procedures. Field survey and archaeological ethnography were both disproportionately dominated by prehistorians, largely for theoretical reasons. Greek prehistory in the 1970s was being infiltrated by a theoretical school of archaeology then known as the New Archaeology in the United States, now normally called processual archaeology, which (among other things) was heavily influenced by cultural evolutionism and cultural ecology. The ecological givens of “traditional” Greek life, as expressed by modern rural populations, were therefore useful to the ‘new’ archaeologist seeking to understand the ecological givens that were experienced by prehistoric communities, since modern communities could be understood to occupy a similar landscape and environment (sort of), and farm similar crops (again, sort of). One origin point of this approach in Greece was the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, or MME, directed by Bill McDonald from 1959 to 1969. As Michalis Fotiadis pointed out in 1995, MME’s approach to modern Greece employed tactics that effectively marginalized modern communities and placed them in a cyclical “traditional” time and space that effectively removed them from modernity. Or, as Sutton put it, these projects operated on “an implicit assumption that current Greek villages are carriers of an unbroken agricultural tradition only recently transformed by the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and tourism.” (Although MME understood this as the product of ecology and environment rather than the result of some Hellenic essence).

The marginalization of these rural communities is tied to the fact that archaeological surveys in Greece generally focus on areas that are understood as marginal in the present and in the past. For instance, in the Argolid surveys have focused on the southern Argolid (Kranidi), the Berbati-Limnes plains, the valley around ancient Nemea (Iraklio), and my own project in the western Argolid (modern Lyrkeia and Schinochori). The ultimate expression of this is an extremely intensive survey dedicated to the island of Antikythira, an island whose population in the 2011 census was 68. This was also one way that Greek survey archaeology differentiated itself from excavations, which were generally urban and focused on elite material culture: in contrast, survey focused on rurality.

I basically agree with the conclusion of Fotiadis, that although work in the 1990s and afterwards indicated that regional projects were shedding their reliance on tactics of marginalization and subordination, there remained, and there still remains, much “unfinished business.” That is to say, even if survey archaeologists today avoid the mistakes of earlier work, there is a persistent tendency for the archaeology of modern Greece to focus on rural communities and “traditional” economies (like agriculture and ceramic production), because this research is effectively subordinated to work on earlier periods. That is to say, although archaeologists now use the modern period as a way to characterize the dynamism that rural regions experience and their hypersensitivity to changes in broad socioeconomic networks – the “contingent countryside” – archaeologists do so not to understand modern Greece, but as an analogue for some other period or periods of antiquity. Among the many consequences of this attitude is the perception that modernization is a threat (both to the archaeological record and to traditional Greece) and, as Fotiadis points out, effectively a foreign influence on Greece.

As dismal as this sounds, it could be worse: many of the institutions of Classical archaeology ignore modern Greece altogether. One thinks of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and its regular program, whose field trips reluctantly include Byzantine sites but nothing after. Large-scale excavations may be predicated on the eradication of all traces of the modern.

Many of you may be thinking of counter-examples, although I think that in general most of these involve people who are not trained as Classical archaeologists and do not hold positions in Classics departments. Much of the best work has been done by scholars trained in Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology. On my survey project, we were lucky to have graduate students who are interested in working on the modern period, a Late Antique colleague on the research team, and Byzantinist colleagues (Kostis Kourelis and Guy Sanders) familiar with the material culture of modern Greece, as well as an ethnographer-archaeologist, all of whom worked alongside us. This much emphasis on the modern period isn’t typical for foreign survey projects, in my experience.

In sum, the state of problem is that the encounter between Classical archaeology and the archaeology of modern Greece occurs in a very circumscribed intellectual zone that emphasizes the marginal and the rural, and it largely does so as a means to another end. Outside of Greece, the archaeology of the contemporary past is often “the archaeology of us,” in contradistinction to the archaeology of the ancient Other. But in Greece, it’s often not, since every effort is made to “Other” contemporary Greeks.

Our panel’s statement articulated the hope that histories might suggest productive models, and I do think that a radical proposal mooted by Bill McDonald is worth considering. McDonald, the director of the MME, was awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal in 1981, and in his acceptance speech he suggested that in order to capitalize on the new technologies and techniques available to classical archaeology, students would need to be trained in archaeological science. This “new breed” of archaeologist-scientist wouldn’t be employable in traditional science departments, however, and so would need to be hired by Classics departments.

McDonald was clearly being aspirational here. But some 40 years later his plea is just as pressing; there is an increasingly wide gap between what constitutes cutting-edge technical research in Classical archaeology and what gets you a tenure-track job. This is related to my topic, because despite the interest in the archaeology of contemporary Greece it will always necessarily be a marginal side project for any archaeologist who aspires to get a job in Classics. Be this as it may, McDonald’s model of Classics is interesting, since it is constituted not by a set of core competencies (i.e., reading and interpreting canonical literary texts in Greek and Latin), but by a diverse set of methodologies that are brought to bear on a specific set of research questions about the Greco-Roman world. It seems to me that a disciplinary reorientation of Classics, away from a focus on canonical texts and the methods required to explicate them, and towards the methods that constitute work in the field, is needed for an archaeology of modern Greece to flourish in Classics. Another way of putting this is that as currently constituted, graduate programs in classical archaeology teach a tiny percentage of the actual skills needed to do archaeology in Greece, which leads to the dilettantism that I’m in the process of revealing right now (namely, prehistorians trying to do the archaeology of the contemporary).

I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, why the study of the modern period matters to my field project as much as it does. One answer is that we think we can contribute to the study of modern Greece. A second is that it contributes to a critical rethinking of our practices. Especially in comparison with archaeologies elsewhere, Greek archaeology fails to engage seriously with modern communities. Many archaeologists may feel that they would like to communicate their knowledge, but in this interaction “we” give something to “them.” As archaeologists move into the study of the contemporary world, however, these encounters change their character: they become more cooperative, discursive, and even multivocal, and fundamentally different ways of understanding come into contact and even conflict. A third advantage has to do with rethinking our theoretical approaches. As Kostas Vlassopoulos has observed, one of the main contributions of archaeological survey was to suggest new and alternative periodizations for Greek antiquity. A focus on the contemporary might also force Greek archaeology to come to grips with different temporalities, and respond to approaches that reject “the linear, causal and homogeneous conception of time.” (F. Hartog) Such a questioning would be potentially valuable to Classics, a discipline that is struggling  – in fits and starts – to redefine itself and to jettison in the process the ultimate master narrative.

A Minoan seal-stone from Tavşan Adası, near Miletus

Languages in the prehistoric Aegean

I was recently re-reading a chapter written by W-D Niemeier about the “Minoan presence” at the site of Miletus in the Late Bronze Age. Niemeier points out that there are Linear A inscriptions found at Miletus, most of them incised before firing on vessels made of local clay. Linear A, the script of Neopalatial Crete, was thus used locally on the Anatolian coast of the Aegean. “This is of importance,” he writes, “as the language otherwise used (and written) in western Asia Minor was Luwian” (Niemeier in Greeks in the East, p. 7). Although Linear A is undeciphered, and so we don’t know what language (or languages) it was used to write, Niemeier is arguing that its presence in a territory otherwise associated with Luwian suggests the presence of speakers of a foreign language (i.e., the language(s) of Minoan Crete).

A similar argument has been made for Linear B on Crete in the Late Bronze Age. The Linear B script, which we know was used to write the Greek language, was apparently invented at Knossos in the second half of the 15th century BC. Linear B used many of the same signs of Linear A, but adapted the writing system so that it could effectively represent Greek. This involved creating some new signs, especially to represent syllables whose vowel was ‘o’: the signs for do, no, mo, qo, so, wo, and jo are part of the Linear B script, but are unattested in Linear A. Although, as stated above, we don’t know what language(s) Linear A was used to write, it seems unlikely that it was used to write Greek, because in that case we would presumably be able to read Linear A. It might also be hard to explain the changes that led to Linear B. So we must have a linguistic change: Linear A is modified to write Greek. This has led a number of scholars to suggest that Greek was introduced at this time from the Greek mainland by ‘Mycenaeans’. Farnoux and Driessen (p. 3, in La Crète Mycénienne), for example, write “L’administration de la Crète par des étrangers est un fait que le grec des tablettes en linéaire B prouve a lui seul…”

But these arguments are strange, because they rely on ‘facts’ that aren’t really in evidence. Sure, Luwian was spoken in western Anatolia in the Bronze Age, as Niemeier asserts; that seems clear. But how could we possibly be sure that it was the only language that was spoken there, and that the language(s) of Linear A were not? In fact, if the later evidence is anything to judge by, there would have been many languages spoken in western Anatolia. And, given that Linear A isn’t deciphered, how can we use the presence of a script to prove the introduction of a different language? We also have no evidence for the Greek language prior to the Linear B tablets, the earliest of which date to Knossos: Jan Driessen has convincingly (although there are still some critics) shown that the earliest Linear B documents from Knossos come from the Room of the Chariot Tablets, which dates to LM IIIA1 (ca. 1400 BC). Of course, it’s very likely that Greek was being spoken on the mainland, but (a) we don’t have direct evidence of that until LH IIIA2 (ca. 1390/70-1330/15 BC) and (b) we cannot know, nor should we suspect, that Greek was the only language being spoken on the mainland.

I suspect what’s happening here is a kind of model of the Bronze Age that corresponds to a model of a nation-state: one language, one people. Thus, Minoans speak “Minoan” (an often-used place-holder for the unknown language of Linear A), Mycenaeans speak Greek. But as Mike Galaty and Bill Parkinson have asked me more than once: if Linear B was invented on Crete, what makes it a mainland phenomenon? Or, as Tom Palaima has queried:

We have hypothesized that Minoan scribes most likely invented and first taught the art of writing. Who were their pupils? Could we imagine that Minoan scribes were in charge at the beginning of the Mycenaean administration in Crete and that the knowledge and use of the script was transmitted from fathers to sons or nephews within their family lines? … Might this mean that the professional skill of writing always stayed within extended families who were of Minoan ‘ethnicity’ in origin?

I don’t see any need to talk about a Minoan ethnicity that is purely hypothetical, and not useful, in that it’s not really what Tom is talking about here anyway. He’s actually talking about communities of speaking and writing. These “Minoan scribes” are really just writers and readers of Linear A texts, and speakers of some language, and it’s possible, even likely, that many of our Linear B texts, written in Greek, were written by members of this community. Of course there must have been plenty of Greek speakers in places where Linear B was written. But there’s really no good evidence that wherever we find Linear B, those communities were entirely composed of Greek speakers who understood themselves as belonging to a Mycenaean ethnic group, or that wherever we find Linear A, those communities were “Minoans” who all spoke “Minoan.” The material record of the Late Bronze Age clearly shows intense contacts and influence. There’s no reason to put the people who made and used these objects into well-defined boxes of our own invention.

How Aegean is Aegean prehistory?

To those of us in the field, the argument of this blog post won’t be a surprise: Aegean prehistory isn’t very Aegean. In fact, this came up at a conference at the University of Michigan published as Prehistorians Round the Pond in 2005. The editors (Despina Margomenou, John Cherry and Lauren Talalay) wrote in their introduction that “what Aegean prehistory comprises is perhaps largely unproblematic: the prehistoric archaeology of the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete.” (2) They continue to discuss the common definition, and flag this usage of Aegean as peculiar. In his contribution to the publication, Colin Renfrew pointed out how absurd the situation was. As he put it: “No Ancient Greek would for a moment have ignored the great cities of the Ionian Coast, no Byzantinist [sic] would omit Ephesos, let alone Constantinople, and since we are prehistorians together, what about Troy, or Iasos, or Miletos, or even Kum Tepe?” (154)

In writing a book chapter about the Aegean for an edited volume, I’ve come to realize more clearly how un-Aegean my sub-discipline is. It’s really not about the Aegean, but about (modern) Greece: the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete are all part of what is now (and has been, for some time) the modern Greek state. The editors of Prehistorians Round the Pond aren’t wrong: those areas are the traditional focus of the discipline.

For example, in the Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), western Anatolia gets 13 pages in a book of 930 pages; that’s not much, especially compared to 36 pages for the Greek mainland, 41 pages for Crete, and 35 pages for the Cyclades. Specific sites in the eastern Aegean account for 67 pages of discussion, compared to 101 pages dedicated to specific Cretan sites, 136 pages to mainland sites, and 10 pages to a single Cycladic site (Akrotiri). In Aegean Prehistory: A Review (2001), not a single chapter deals primarily or exclusively with the Anatolian mainland, and Anatolia is indexed on only 49 pages of 473 total in the book (10.3%). In the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), Anatolia is indexed on 36 of 431 pages (8.3%); of the 15 chapters, two chapters include sections on the Dodecanese (2 pages), northern Aegean, Troy and the Black Sea (3 pages), Anatolia (2.5 pages), Trianda on Rhodes (1 page), and coastal Asia Minor (1 pages).

To those of us who have taken and taught classes called “Aegean prehistory,” this isn’t surprising — “Minoans and Mycenaeans” takes up a huge percentage of the real estate of the discipline — but it’s shocking when you think how little the discipline actually conforms to the Aegean, understood as a geographic descriptor. It’s bizarre that a discipline that effectively began with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (but see Fotiadis 2016) pays so little attention to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.

It’s hard not to see this as a reflection of modern politics, even if we concede that there are other factors at play, like the archaeological obsession with wealthy tombs and palaces, which in the Aegean appear at particular places (like the southern Greek mainland and Crete). As I mentioned above, “Aegean prehistory” took off with Schliemann’s excavations first at Troy, then at Mycenae, sites that Schliemann associated with the myth of the Trojan War. The connection between the Trojan mythic cycle – and especially the Homeric epics – with this prehistoric archaeology is what captured the imagination of the public and scholars. As Moses Finley put it in the New York Review of Books: “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” Greek prehistorians, many of them, were convinced of the essential connection between Classical Greece and the prehistoric past. As Alan Wace wrote in the forward to Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956): “In culture, in history and in language we must regard prehistoric and historic Greece as one indivisible whole.”

Prehistoric and historic Greeks, and what they mean to western civilization. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why the field chooses to focus so obsessively on the Greek mainland – and especially the southern Greek mainland, the geographical home of the Greek city-state (the polis) – the Cyclades, and Crete, and why it has so little time for the eastern edge of the Aegean.

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Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

In defense of the conference

A couple of days ago, Prof. Mary Beard suggested that large-scale conferences in Classics (viz., the joint annual meetings of the AIA and SCS) are not long for this world. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she wrote, but leaving the piece not entirely convinced. This post is an attempt to think through my resistance.

Obviously, my point of view is going to be radically different from Prof. Beard’s, or anyone else’s for that matter; I’ve only been attending these since 1999, and primarily on the archaeological side. I’ve never been to one of these meetings outside of the US, other than last year’s meeting of the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) in Barcelona. I also don’t have the high profile or accomplishments of Prof. Beard. I haven’t had to deal with sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination at these events or elsewhere.

First, a point of agreement: big annual meetings aren’t as exciting as smaller workshops, where there’s more time to talk to people working on similar problems, to give longer papers, and to have more intellectual interchange. (This argument isn’t fully developed in the blog post, although it is hinted at; it came out a bit more explicitly on Twitter.) I agree that the best part of any conference (socially and intellectually) is the social interaction and the time spent between and after talks. The best conferences (in the broadest sense) that I’ve been to have been small and focused, and resulted in really interesting and important publications.

Another point of agreement: I don’t think that anyone should feel obligated to go to big annual meetings, and I don’t think that it should be held against people who don’t (or can’t) go. They are expensive to attend, many institutions don’t pay for students or faculty to attend, etc., and if Prof. Beard or anyone else would rather not go, I don’t think that anyone should criticize them for that decision. For many, however, the annual meetings aren’t optional: even setting aside the job market, giving papers can be important for one’s professional development and the annual meetings are for many the best venue, both because of their visibility and because one’s university may be willing to give money for such events (and not for other conferences). So making these events affordable should be a top priority for the field (thanks to Erin Averett Walcek for emphasizing this point to me).

Where I part ways with Prof. Beard is when she suggests that “it is the arguments, disputes, protests and outrages which conferences throw up that… signal its demise.” The controversies about manels and sexism, about the privilege signaled by badges, about the costs of accommodation, about racism — to me these are all signs of strength, not weakness. I feel this way, I suppose, because I can’t imagine how else we can improve the status of the discipline and its annual meetings. I assume that sexism, racism, ableism, and privilege were always present in prior annual meetings, and that organizations like the Women’s Classical Caucus (established in 1972) and most recently the Asian and Asian American Caucus (established in 2019) were created in large part to combat these forces. It seems logical and correct to me that these organizations push for changes, including changes that will make many uncomfortable, and that their membership is outraged by the status quo.

My own view of the recent controversies of the AIA/SCS (and especially of the SAA, the Society for American Archaeology) is not that these institutions are turning in on themselves. Instead, I see a radical disconnect between the leadership of these societies and their membership. To be sure, there can be members who are especially loud and unreasonable, and it is certainly not easy for our professional associations to run these conferences, but generally speaking I think that members are disappointed when they see their societies (for whatever reason) failing to live up to their (the societies’) ideals. The membership wants to see swift and decisive deeds and genuine and resolute words from its professional societies, but more often what it gets are (overly) deliberative and safe actions, and milquetoast (or just weird and confusing) statements. To me, the shape of these controversies suggests the opposite of Prof. Beard’s conclusion that the professional society “has lost confidence in its own function”: on the contrary, the rank-and-file academic membership has an all-too-clear clear sense of its society’s function. If the membership has lost confidence in anything, it’s in its leadership. As Bill Caraher pointed out, our professional organizations seem hampered by their hierarchical leadership, lack of transparency, extensive range of interests being represented, and lack of resources. Running these conferences professionally is a difficult task that most academics are ill-equipped to do.

I’d like to end with a more positive defense of the big annual meeting. It seems to me that there are lots of paths that I could go down: the annual meeting informs you best about the newest North American fieldwork in the rapidly-changing field of Mediterranean archaeology, for instance. But to me the most important advantage is that it allows for social interaction on a scale that can’t be matched by smaller conferences and at a level of intimacy that can’t be replicated on social media. I don’t mean to say that these annual meetings are perfectly inclusive: of course they aren’t, as all of the recent controversies have shown, and I share Prof. Beard’s horror at the racism of the 2019 SCS (even if neither of us is probably very surprised by it). But the annual meeting brings students, professors, and other members (including avocational members) together into the same social space, and this is not something that other gatherings accomplish. The actual makeup of small conferences (maybe especially in the US) tends to be strongly shaped by who is invited, and it thus reflects networks of power and prestige. Early in my career (i.e., the year before my dissertation defense and the year after it), I was invited to two such workshops, in both cases through the agency of senior faculty with whom I had long-standing relationships (my dissertation advisor and someone with whom I had worked in the field since 1999). Graduate students don’t really get a seat at the table at such workshops.

All of this isn’t a criticism of the workshop: surely the advantage of the workshop (or small conference) is that it brought together people who have given a lot of thought to the salient issues of the conference for a very long time. That’s where it gets its power. The annual meeting, on the other hand, doesn’t have the coherency or fellowship of smaller workshops, but it gets its power by bringing together talks by people of varying ranks, from full professors to graduate students, from different kinds of universities, into the same space, even if this space is not magically free of power. It is a place where graduate students and other less privileged members of the discipline can make a positive impression and gain a reputation for good work, and hopefully create opportunities for themselves to get invitations to smaller workshops.

More importantly, though, the annual meeting is a place where the weaknesses of the field are on full display, and where we as a group can try to make things better (i.e., more equitable and more transparent), especially for our colleagues without the comfort of tenure. To me that’s the point of the fervent debates that we see at these meetings. We can’t wait for positive change; we have to make it ourselves.

* Thanks to my friends who read a draft of this post and made some useful suggestions.

Archaeology between Classics and Anthropology

Kristina Killgrove has a great article over at Eidolon; if you haven’t read it already, you really should. She tells, among other things, her story of moving back between Classics (BA) and Anthropology (MA) and Classics (PhD program) and Anthropology (PhD). It’s not an uncommon story. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I wasn’t sure what path to take. I knew that I was interested in prehistory, especially Aegean prehistory (I had taken a class with John Cherry in the Winter term of 1996), but also Near Eastern prehistory (with Kent Flannery in the Fall of 1995); I wrote an undergraduate thesis on archaeological survey and Bronze Age state formation on Crete that was explicitly and excessively inspired by the New Archaeology: central place theory, gravity models, all that stuff. I was inspired by articles like Vincas Steponaitis‘ “Settlement Hierarchies and Political Complexity in Nonmarket Societies: The Formative Period of the Valley of Mexico,” with their quantification and mathematical formulas. I used an article by Robert Dewar in American Antiquity whose appendix had a Pascal program–and I used it.

I’ve always preferred the anthropological approach to archaeology. It was Colin Renfrew’s Emergence of Civilisation (1972) that convinced me that I wanted to be an archaeologist and Aegean prehistorian. In the spring term of 1996, I took Intensive Latin (with Deborah Ross), and after I was done with my Latin homework, I would drink a coffee and read a chapter of Renfrew. That book was one of the first that I could remember reading that was theory-forward (even if it was systems theory) and empirically rich. That summer I dug at the site of Petras Siteias in east Crete with Metaxia Tsipopoulou. If you’ve ever worked in Crete, you know how magical it can be. I was hooked.

When I sat down with my mentors at Michigan, the advice I was given (or at least what I remember) was clear: don’t get a degree in anthropology if you want to do European prehistory. You won’t get a job, because what anthropology departments prefer are archaeologists who work in the Americas, or Asia and Africa, but definitely not Europe. Focus instead, I was told, on getting a degree in a Classics department, and work on your languages and all that a traditional Classical training entails.

I still wasn’t entirely convinced, and I applied to Michigan’s anthropology program (ridiculous, in retrospect, and I was rejected, I assume summarily), Sheffield’s archaeology Ph.D. and Cambridge’s archaeology M.A. Those programs were decidedly not Classics. I also applied to a number of programs in the US, where I was looking for a mix of a Classics department with prehistorians, survey archaeologists, and a close relationship with anthropology. I ended up deciding that I couldn’t afford graduate school in the UK and going to Texas. It was a hard decision, and I had no idea what I was doing (both in retrospect but also in the moment). I figured that if left to my own devices, I would keep reading archaeological theory and method and I’d audit classes in anthropology, but I probably wouldn’t do the hard work to learn the ancient languages on my own. So Texas seemed like a good decision at the time (and in retrospect too). At Texas, a lot of what I did were languages: by my count, I took 6 archaeology classes, 8 Greek classes, 5 Latin classes, and 5 history/epigraphy classes. Of course plenty of people still told me that I’d never get a job doing archaeology, and especially not prehistory (at a certain point I stopped trying to be nice to people who gave me unsolicited advice of this sort).

My Classics-centric strategy worked. I never in a million years would have gotten my first tenure-track job at Toronto had I not been steeped in the ancient languages, willing and able to teach graduate Greek from day one, and my ability to teach Latin and Greek sustained me when I was on the VAP track (I was lucky to get my PhD in 2006, before the job market’s floor fell out).

I don’t think that it’s a good thing that my strategy worked, though. As I’ve written about before (see here and here), this is no way to produce archaeologists. It’s not good that I did a lot of ad hoc training in the field, or that now that I have a tenured job I’m going about learning things that I should have (or would have liked to have) learned in graduate school. In some ways I’ve never left that spring semester of taking intensive Latin and reading archaeological theory in the afternoons, on my own time.

*

I was talking to a couple of colleagues in the natural sciences last week, who were saying that they worried that their students were not interested enough in learning and being inspired by work in other disciplines and that their students were too focused on individual research, whereas science is now entirely team-based. I’m worried about the same things when it comes to Classics. It’s too isolated, too committed to a mode of knowledge production that is focused on its own methods and approaches and individuals laboring in isolation. I think the discipline needs to break out of this tired and (in my view) unproductive way of doing things, for if a Kristina Killgrove cannot fit in Classics, and I can, then we are doing something very, very wrong.

Some thoughts on the future of Classics and archaeology

Joy Connolly has written a thoughtful piece on the SCS blog entitled “Working Toward a Just and Inclusive Future for Classics” about some concrete changes that some departments can make in order to effect positive changes for the discipline. I find a lot of value in what she has written, so I’d like to think through how some of her recommendations would work in practice, thinking a bit about the variation across the discipline. Specifically I want to focus on her recommendation that doctoral curricula be crafted such that “students focused on visual culture, history, or archaeology not [be required] to study Greek and Latin but to learn the fundamental skills required for those fields in the twenty-first century.”

I agree with the recommendation: almost two years ago, Joy and I both spoke at a symposium on the futures of Classics where I worried that

As Classical archaeology becomes more archaeological in approach, it also becomes less Classical. When I was applying to graduate school, I was told by my advisor that if I wanted to do archaeology in Greece, I should go to a graduate program that required significant training in both ancient languages. I took his advice, perhaps too literally, and consequently spent most of my time in graduate school working on languages and literatures. It turned out that I wrote a dissertation on a subject, Linear B, that required precisely those linguistic skills (at least the Greek), but my interests were always broader than Mycenaean epigraphy… I had to pick up most of my archaeological skills in my spare time and over the summer, when I spent as much time as I could in the field. As these skills multiply, even the most diligent and best trained students will find it difficult to keep up.

The on-the-fly, in-the-field instruction that characterized much of my training is often accepted as a necessity in Classical archaeology, but in fact it is a serious problem. Like all scholars, archaeologists need time to learn their materials in such a way that they can work creatively with them to solve problems. There are no short cuts here. To write her dissertation, my partner analyzed 4.5 metric tons of pottery from Corinth, which, she estimates, took her about 10,000 hours to study. That works out to about three years of working ten hours every day. I don’t really believe in the “10,000 hour rule” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – that 10,000 hours is some kind of magical threshold after which one is an expert – but I do think it points at something important, which is that good work requires time: time to become expert, time to be creative, time to make mistakes, and time to think. The consequence is that we cannot train well-rounded Classicists and expect them to become expert archaeologists.

My big worry is that there is a growing chasm between what makes good Classical archaeology and how an archaeologist gets a job in Classics. This mismatch between professional incentives and how archaeology will move forward is clearly unsatisfactory. I’m worried about brilliant students who do brilliant work that sheds important light on the ancient Mediterranean, but who can’t get jobs because their research is based on archaeological science.

I stand by what I said, but I also think that there’s a complicated reality that needs to be taken into account before we think about making curricular changes. Some Classical archaeologists don’t teach languages at all. None of the archaeologists in my department at the University of Colorado Boulder normally does (I think the last time was when I taught Homer in the fall of 2016). Even if we would like to teach the languages (I would!), we have more colleagues who would also like to teach the languages than there are classes available. Some Classical archaeologists teach a lot of language classes: if you’re at certain departments, one-third or half of the classes you teach might be in Greek and Latin.

Accordingly, many Classical archaeology programs have requirements for linguistic competence: Michigan’s IPCAA program, for example, requires that its students demonstrate competence in ancient Greek and Latin by passing three-hour translation exams. Although their website claims that “The purpose of the ancient language requirement is to ensure that students have basic literacy in both ancient Greek and Latin, and that they have the ability to read untranslated texts (or to check existing translations) for research purposes,” the reality is that the purpose of these exams is to assure potential employers that their students can teach both languages at introductory and intermediate levels (at the very least), so that they can get jobs at the full variety of institutions that are likely to hire a Classical archaeologist. It’s also the case that many of the VAP (visiting assistant professor) positions out there will require some language teaching. Since the job market in Classics has tanked, almost everyone now needs to do a lot of VAP teaching before they get a permanent position (if they get one at all). Flexibility is the name of the game.

This is all to say that while I agree with Joy’s recommendations to rethink and refashion Classical doctoral curricula, these curricula are not entirely free-standing, but respond to the requirements of a wide variety of Classics departments and institutions. Although my department’s course offerings are mostly in translation (this semester, by my count, only about one quarter of our classes are in Greek or Latin), other departments have radically different needs: this year Smith’s department is teaching 2-3 Greek classes and 3 Latin classes per semester, but only one class in translation this academic year (Classical Mythology); by my count just over half (54%) of Oberlin’s classics courses are in the ancient languages.

I worry about the future of Classical archaeology if it continues to follow a rigid model whereby linguistic competency in both languages is some kind of requirement. The truth is that proficiency in the languages isn’t just a practical requirement for getting certain types of jobs, it’s also a signal about what kind of discipline Classics is. There are departments who are convinced that it is a kind of moral or intellectual failing not to be able to teach Greek and Latin at all levels (including graduate), never mind the fact that it would be idiotic and irresponsible to have a Greek archaeologist teach a graduate seminar in Statius (say), never mind the fact that s/he may never be asked to teach Latin at any level at all (barring some kind of unthinkable catastrophe), and never mind the fact that there’s no way for these departments to really know (prior to hiring someone) how good or bad their Latin or Greek is. To be a Classicist, for some, is to have the ability to teach both languages at all levels. I personally find this vision of Classics profoundly boring and would like to kill it with fire.

On the other hand, we do have to recognize that it will be difficult for some Classics departments to accommodate an archaeologist who cannot (or wouldn’t be happy to) teach some language classes, maybe both Greek and Latin. I know that some departments have come to the realization that they simply can’t (for curricular reasons) accommodate an archaeologist, as much as they would like to have one. It’s too bad, because (among other things) it’s not good for their students.

I don’t know where that leaves us. We could let students decide for themselves whether they need Greek and/or Latin, although I don’t like the idea of training some people for “research” jobs (no ancient languages needed) and others for “teaching” jobs (make sure you know your Greek and Latin), and I would worry about my own responsibility if my curricula left my students without the meaningful possibility of employment. Like so many things, then, we are (or feel) constrained, “like Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputians by a hundred thin threads. The dilemma is that struggling to be free in one direction binds the threads more tightly in other directions; only a major wrench or rupture…will change many at once” (John Robb, The Early Mediterranean Village, 2007, 21-22). Have we reached the point of a major wrench or rupture? I honestly don’t know.

Kids these days

I’ve read a couple of “kids these days” pieces lately. One was Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I read as preparation for a lecture on the Culture Wars  and the reception of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006). I wonder if Bloom’s book is the first of the modern “kids these days” genre. Reading it some 30 years later after it was published, I felt much more kinship with Bloom’s students than with Bloom, who complains that his students don’t love books enough, and that they listen to too much Rock music (“even while studying”!). I suppose this much is unsurprising, considering that I was a first-year college student in 1993, so I am of the generation (Gen X) that so disappointed Bloom (although he’s also disappointed in Baby Boomers).

Now Gen X-ers are writing their own “kids these days” pieces; the one I read most recently was written by John McWhorter and published in the Atlantic: “The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World.” There’s a lot to like about McWhorter’s piece, and in many ways he’s sympathetic to the values of the people he’s criticizing. But for all of its sensitivity, it becomes surprisingly reductive as it draws to a close. For instance:

The new normal is, “If you don’t like it, cry loudly and then louder, because you’re always right and they’re just bad.”

And, in the final paragraph:

All of the above hinges on feigning claims of injury, on magnifying indignation in a trip-wire fashion, and on fostering a Manichaean, us-versus-the-pigs perspective on humanity out of Lord of the Flies.

Maybe McWhorter knows students like this at Columbia, but I find it totally alien to my own experience (at the University of Colorado since 2014, and before that at the University of Toronto from 2008). I can’t imagine my students “feigning…injury.”* They tend to think that some ideas are good and others are bad, but they’re not actually invested in an “us-versus-the-pigs perspective.” They’re careful and critical interpreters of modern media and of the ancient texts that we read together. As I read McWhorter’s piece, I started to doubt that he teaches many students at all; but I think that he does. And so it made me wonder how our perceptions of our students could be so different. Maybe our students really are different.

In his Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond (2016), Eric Adler suggests that “The Closing of the American Mind must be considered one of the most improbable best-selling books in American history” (19), and I suspect that the success of Bloom’s book, and others like it, explains the popularity of “kids these days” pieces. You get attention, and if you’re lucky a position at a well-funded think-tank, by writing such things about your students. (Incidentally, I wonder how McWhorter’s students feel about the fact that he compared their worldview to the spirit of Lord of the Flies; I also am trying to picture myself thinking this of my students – “you know, the way y’all think really reminds me of Lord of the Flies, a book in which one boy murders another kid and tortures some other kids” – and still cheerfully going to class every day). You don’t get on the New York Times best-seller list, however, for writing about the kids these days that sure, they’re different from us, but they’re all right.

Notes:

* Maybe my English is bad but “feigning claims of injury” makes no sense… one feigns an injury or claims an injury that is feigned, but “feigning claims of injury” means something other than what McWhorter must mean. On a second read, I wondered if ‘feigning’ was an participle (rather than a gerund) modifying ‘claims’ but that should be ‘feigned’ (or maybe ‘claims feigning injury’???) but that can’t work because of the structure of the sentence:

All of the above hinges

  1. on feigning claims of injury,
  2. on magnifying indignation in a trip-wire fashion,
  3. and on fostering a Manichaean, us-versus-the-pigs perspective on humanity out of Lord of the Flies’

so all three -ings are obviously gerunds. (Nice ascending tricolon, though).