Category Archives: Classics

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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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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).

Some thoughts about Reed’s humanities course

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal Part IX (1939)

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills…
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Some may have seen the article on the Society for Classical Studies blog about the the controversy over HUM110 at Reed College, in which I was quoted. I gave the author of that post, Sarah Bond, a lot more than she could reasonably print, so I thought that I would include some of those (scattered, half-digested) thoughts here on my own blog. I should say that a lot of my thinking has been shaped by the response of the students in my “Modern Issues, Ancient Times” class on race and antiquity.

On the one hand, there are the Reedies Against Racism who accuse the course of being “too white, too male and too Eurocentric”; on the other, we have the riposte of Prof. Jay Dickson, who is quoted as saying, “The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me. It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

Of course Prof. Dickson is right. Greeks and Romans didn’t think of themselves as white or even as particularly European. On the other hand, it seems to me disingenuous (or at the very least, uncharitable) to interpret the students’ objections in this way. I think it’s clear that the students are referring to the reception of Classical texts: not only the way that Classics has been taught, as the starting point of European history (that is how I learned it in my AP class), but also the way that Classics was used by early modern and modern European and American race theorists and race scientists.

I don’t think that Classicists can have our cake and eat it too. That is, we can’t require students to read Greek and Roman texts on the premise that they are foundational to Western/European civilization/thought and then conveniently forget what this has actually meant in historical terms. The establishment of these texts as foundational has, in the past couple of centuries, been premised on a Eurocentric project. (And it would also be irresponsible to forget that some of these texts have horrific content, like Aristotle’s defense of slavery.)

It also seems weird to me that an Introduction to the Humanities course would contain no material written in the past 2000 years. That’s not an introduction to the humanities; it’s a Great Books of Ancient Literature class with an “introduction to the humanities” label affixed. Personally, I would expect an introduction to the humanities to start with a text like the Odyssey and follow the thread through Euripides, Pound, Joyce, Walcott, and maybe Wallace and Atwood. It’s unsurprising to me that the students saw through this mismatch.

We could get out of this bind by claiming, with Bernard Knox, that “The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision imposed by higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance” (The Oldest Dead White European Males, p. 21). Although I think that Greek literature is really, really great, where I would part company with Knox is the idea that this justifies its primacy, since the very idea of having a meaningful comparison between world literatures seems like a joke. I’d rather debate LeBron vs. MJ.

My main observation, then, is that Classics has a problem. We lean on the Western Civilization narrative in lots of ways, but we can’t benefit from it then refuse the parts of that narrative that we don’t like. Or rather, we can, but we should expect our students to call bullshit. The solution, I think, isn’t to ignore the problem, but to make an argument to students that the ancient Mediterranean is inherently interesting (not superior). That means listening to students and responding to them in a serious way.

In fact, students are already very interested in the material. We don’t have to water down the syllabus, just refashion it. My students learned an enormous amount about antiquity in my class, through a different lens than any I had previously used. They were extremely curious about the ancient world. A common question was, “Why were we never taught this?” They are not, on the other hand, very interested in taking Dead White Guys 101. Nor am I in teaching it.

On “the classical debt”

I was once describing to a non-archaeologist Hellenist colleague and friend how archaeology works in Greece. In the course of that discussion I mentioned in passing that the directors of regional archaeological offices are called “ephors” (Greek έφορος). “Really?” she asked, before exclaiming, “How cute!” I didn’t say anything, but privately I was annoyed at the remark. I guess that it is kind of neat for a Classicist, who naturally associates ephors with ancient Sparta… but is it really so remarkable that the word for “supervisor” in Greek (ancient) is also the word for “supervisor” in Greek (modern)?

There are two ways that I think about this little anecdote. They’re interconnected, and both have been stimulated by recent work by Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University. The first part is from an article in the journal Eidolon entitled “On not knowing (modern) Greek“, where she argues (in short) that “our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek” and that “classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language.”

She’s absolutely right, of course. One little example: I almost lost my mind when, just two years ago, a new Journal of Greek Archaeology was announced with the following statement:

Announcing an international journal printing contributions in English, French, German, and Italian…. Work from Greek scholars is particularly welcome, but should be either translated into English or sent to us for English translation or assistance.

Yeesh. I saw that statement on July 22nd, 2015. On social media there was palpable anger about the policy’s neo-colonial implication (and much gallows humor too, of course). Through direct intervention on the part of more established scholars, with cooler heads than mine, the policy was changed (to English only! Huzzah?). Part of my irritation at my colleague’s off-hand comment was, to be sure, the implication that modern Greek was cute: just cute. It didn’t really count, as demonstrated by the fact that she, a specialist in ancient Greek, didn’t really have any acquaintance with the modern language.

But this blog post was supposed to be about the second part of this: a book, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press 2017), which I just finished last night. (There’s also a nice review in the WSJ by Alicia Stallings). This book pulls on a thread and traces it through time, that thread being the idea of the debt owed to Greece by the West because of the achievements of the Classical (senso latu) age – democracy, philosophy, and that – and especially how that idea has manifested itself and been reacted to since the economic crisis. In pulling on this thread, she deals with many interrelated issues, all dealing with the productive and strained relationships between Classical antiquity and modern Greece and the West. In the end, Hanink suggests that the debt ought to be understood as “a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of the ancient past have wrought.” It’s a really thoughtful, accessible, well-written book, and one that I’ve been recommending to anyone who will listen.

It’s also helped me to think about why the “cute” comment so rankled. As so many commentators have noted – including Hanink, who is very good on this – Greece is caught in a bind. Here’s how Michael Herzfeld describes it in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987: 19):

the West supported the Greeks on the implicit understanding that the Greeks would reciprocally accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization – the standard, for most romantic writers, of civilization in the most general and absolute sense.

And yet the terms of this tacit agreement were unequal in the extreme. Whereas the Greeks sought genetic confirmation of their cultural destiny in the link with the ancient past, western observers, operating on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy, more often saw in it the evidence of Greek backwardness and “obsession.” The Greeks of today are still living out the consequences of that imbalance…

Or, maybe better, here’s Nikos Dimou (translation mine; cf. Hanink, p. 206):

Η σχέση μας με τους αρχαίους είναι μία πηγή του εθνικού πλέγματος κατωτερότητας. Η άλλη είναι η σύγκριση στο χώρο και όχι στο χρόνο. Με τους σύγχρονους «ανεπτυγμένους». Με την «Ευρώπη.»

Our relationship with the ancients is one source of the national inferiority complex. The other source is a comparison of space, rather than of time. With contemporary “developed” people. With “Europe.”

I’m sure that the title of έφορος for the head of a regional archaeological department was motivated by the word’s antiquity. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t, and that corresponds to the desire to forge the “link with the ancient past” that Herzfeld refers to. Indeed, early in the history of the Greek state, the creation of a purified Greek language (Katharevousa) was extremely important (this too is well-covered by Hanink). But this purified Greek wasn’t the same as ancient Greek; it was equally built up from modern European languages, especially French. And it was crucially important to the image of Greece, internally and externally. As Herzfeld writes (1987: 52):

Katharevousa would be the means of liberating the Greeks, not only from the cultural corruption that was the legacy of the Turkocracy, but also from the shackles of their humiliatingly dependent status in the European community.

This linguistic link to antiquity, then, well illustrates the bind of being Greek. “Cute,” then, for me at least, was rubbing salt in the wound. It pointed to the inevitable failure of the attempt at Greek linguistic liberation and to both sources of the Greek inferiority complex.

I hope that this too-personal post doesn’t divert attention from my intention, which was to reflect on what I think is a remarkable book. Hanink richly traces the contours of the issues I’ve mentioned here (and many more), sensitively and perceptively, and shows the reader how they played out through much of Greek history, from the 5th century to the present day. It really should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in Greece, past, present or future.

 

Tools of the Mycenological Trade, 2017

When I started working on Linear B in graduate school (late 90s), there were a handful of books (beyond corpora of texts) that I always kept on my desk for consultation:

What a difference in 2017. I’m working on a paper about Mycenaean “taxation” (really more like extractive regimes) and although I do have my Aura Jorro handy, as well as Docs2, I am leaning on a new set of super useful texts:

  1. Maurizio del Freo’s and Massimo Perna’s Manuale di epigrafia micenea. The only downside to this volume is that it’s in Italian, which is not my strongest language. (Yes, I realize that this is my fault entirely). But it’s very recent (December 2016), authoritative, useful, and cheap: 41.56 euros for 784 pages! It’s got a glossary of Mycenaean words, and although it doesn’t have an index verborum, it does have an index locorum. It’s great to be able to consult Nosch on textiles, Zurbach on the economy, Perna on fiscality, and Garcia Ramon on Mycenaean Greek all in one handy (two-volume) book.
  2. John Killen’s collected papers in three volumes, formally entitled Economy and Administration in Mycenaean Greece, and edited by Maurizio del Freo (2015). Oh man, this thing is the greatest. To be honest, I never really understood the point of collected papers. I had photocopies of pretty much all of these papers, now they live as PDF scans on my hard drive. So what’s to be gained from having all of the papers together physically? Answer: the index. Killen is so productive, so important, and his work so varied, that sometimes it’s hard to remember where any particular discussion is. The great thing about having all of Killen’s papers to hand and indices (verborum and locorum) attached is that you can immediately zoom to the page that you need. It’s really amazing, especially if you’re working on economic or administrative matters in the Linear B texts.

P.S. What do you listen to when you’re working on Mycenaean taxation? If you’re me, it’s Bob Marley and the Wailers pretty much all the time. For some reason I’m especially into the live version of “Punky Reggae Party” on Babylon by Bus.

My summer “vacation”

This blog post is an expansion of an article by Mary Beard in the TLS, where she is responding to Andrew Adonis’ accusation that academics have 3 months of holiday in the summer, basically for no good reason. Not that it’s necessary, but perhaps I can add to the discussion a little bit by piling on. So what am I doing with my “3 mth summer holiday“?

(1) Six weeks in Greece working on two projects, one in the field and one in the museum, during which time I had not one day off. I literally went to the beach zero times, even though that is one of my favorite things to do and we were living less than 200 meters from said beach.

(2) Another six weeks at home, during which time I am taking not one day off. I’m working on two articles, reading a dissertation, correcting proofs, doing administrative work associated with my duties as associate chair of graduate studies from the 2016-17 academic year, evaluating manuscripts for journals, and so on. I also really need to write a series of reports for the six weeks of fieldwork that we just finished. (That’s usually the first thing that I do at the end of a summer of fieldwork, but I’m late on the articles, so I’m putting that work off).

(3) That leaves me one week to prepare for the start of the semester, although I’m already doing a little bit of that so I’m sure that will bleed into my “summer holiday.”

I will admit, however, that I have a bit more spare time over the summer (when I’m not in the field, that is). I’m spending that extra time with my family, listening to a lot of music while I work (especially the new Kendrick Lamar), reading the occasional book (I’m still chipping away at Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt), and taking the dog to a park with a pond so that she, at least, can have a swim this summer:

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