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.

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6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the future of Classics and archaeology

  1. myomonchoro

    This has been the story for a long time – since I was in grad school more than 30 years ago. There was something called ‘archaeologists’ Greek’, i.e. substandard, not up to a philologist’s standards. I was never called on to teach Latin, but I did teach Greek at all undergrad levels and anchored the program teaching intro and intermediate in the early part of my career – up to half my load.
    But to my mind, a large problem is the attitudes of some of our Classical Studies colleagues. They do not appreciate that working through several metric tons of pottery is useful or valid. They think archaeology does not actually require specialists: ‘material culture’ can be taught by anyone, it’s easy! just read some books, put together a powerpoint, and you too can teach it. This maybe truer about (say) Periclean Athens but the contempt for the kind of deep training and engagement that you mention is real.

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  2. nicky

    I think getting a higher degree in classical archaelogy or the classics is unobtainable for some . For example I want a PhD in classical archaelogy but won’t be able to get in a program because I lack Latin .My undergrad college didn’t offer classics thus I was an English major. I couldn’t get into a Masters program in classics or classical archaeology because I needed to study Greek and Latin in undergrad,went the route of religion but still not enough greek and no Latin. I am a minority and a foreigner who has great interest in classical archaelogy was interested in it since I was a kid in pampers but because of my lack of Latin and not enough Greek through no fault of mine , I cannot get into a classical archaeology or classics Phd program.I am willing to learn both Greek and Latin but I won’t even have the chance because the requirements and admissions are stiff.so I understand this post is about once you get in the program but I think the ridigity starts with the admissions requirements of entering classical archaeology. Just my thoughts

    Reply
    1. nakassis Post author

      100%! This is something that Joy addressed in the blog post I was responding to, and it’s something that I worry about a lot too. My take-away from Joy’s blog post is that there need to be more doors into Classics and less of a monolithic idea of what the finished product looks like if the discipline is going to thrive, and that definitely means rethinking admissions requirements to graduate programs.

      Reply
  3. Guy Sanders

    I failed every Latin exam I took from the age of eight through 15 and was not permitted to sit the Latin O level exam then required for university humanities courses. It also meant that I was forced to take sciences for A levels. I applied for, and was admitted to, an environmental sciences course and took a year out to travel. I switched to Geography and Archaeology (Southampton) which did not require Latin. I was fortunate to have Jane Renfrew (seeds), Clive Gambol (human bones), David Peacock, Susan Shennan and Colin Renfrew as lecturers but most inspirationally, also Malcolm Wagstaff. As a joint honours programme, It was 4 years of classwork in three years. When I went to the University of Missouri, they put me on academic probation and made me do Latin and Greek, sculpture and architecture none of which equipped me for what I wanted to do for an MA – a connectivity analysis of the Roman road systems in Spain inspired by Wagstaff’s courses. It was too mathematical and I was told to write it on Diocletian’s Palace at Split instead…. Fortunately, I escaped and have consistently preached what Connolly and Nakassis advocate since.

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