Category Archives: graduate school

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.
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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.

Academic family trees

One of the side projects that I’m never going to do anything with, probably, is a social network of Aegean prehistory. One of the first things I became aware of when I got serious about archaeology were academic family trees. In archaeology these connections can be very important, and talked about a lot, but the orientation of the discipline to research in the field, and especially to large field projects, means that doctoral supervisors may not be as important as in disciplines where research primarily takes place in the library.

One of the side benefits of doing this project would be to interpret the data in pretty deterministic ways. I say this with a wink: it would actually be really annoying to most people, and part of me thinks that would be fun (and funny). The reason that I think hard determinism would work as an analytic mode is my own background. I’m in the Blegen doctoral tree: my dissertation supervisor, Tom Palaima, was supervised by Emmett Bennett Jr., who was supervised by Blegen. Blegen didn’t have many students by modern standards, which surprised me a bit, but pre-WW II universities in the US weren’t quite the PhD factories they became; Blegen did, however, supervise Bennett, who went on to a long career at Wisconsin, and Jack Caskey, who supervised a great number of doctoral dissertations at the University of Cincinnati. (Thanks are due here to Jack Davis for helping me understand Blegen’s role as dissertation director at Cincinnati).

Blegen’s approach to the field probably explains something like 99% of my career to date. I work primarily on the Linear B tablets from Pylos, the very tablets that were excavated by Blegen himself (ok, not with his actual hands, but in the “heroic archaeology” sense). I’m working on volume IV of the Palace of Nestor series, inaugurated by Blegen himself. The other major area of my career has been archaeological fieldwork, especially survey, in the Peloponnese, and again, Blegen is central. His prescription for fieldwork in Greek prehistory (parts of it, at least) could almost be a stand-in for the way that I currently think about the field, over 75 years later. Blegen was in fact instrumental in the development of archaeological field (or pedestrian) survey in Greece through his support of the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, or MME, the granddaddy of ’em all. Blegen was a devoted excavator not just of palatial sites, but of towns and villages across the Peloponnese: Korakou, Tsoungiza, Zygouries. These are the types of sites that I think we need to keep excavating, albeit with a much more modern and scientific toolkit than Blegen had at his disposal; but his own scholarly writing makes it clear that he would have made full and enthusiastic use of these methods if they had been available to him.

I remember reading somewhere an argument that scientific research labs should be shuttered and buried when the lead researcher retired – I think there was even an archaeological analogy to burying dead pharaohs under tons of rock – on the grounds that these labs tended to self-perpetuate approaches and results, leading to a bit of a rut. I don’t think that this was the case with Blegen. His view of the field was so expansive that he could set the agenda for multiple generations, way beyond his own lifetime. There have been revolutionary changes to method and theory since Blegen’s retirement, but his fundamental view of the field remains valid.

See what I mean? Hard determinism works!

 

Thinking archaeological futures

In just over three weeks, I’m giving a paper at a one-day symposium at Smith College entitled “The Futures of Classical Antiquity” (link). I’m the lone archaeologist: the other speakers are dealing with digital approaches to texts, public humanities, reception studies, and race & ethnicity. I’ve thought very informally about the kinds of things that I want to say but I need to start disciplining my unconnected thoughts into something more coherent, especially since I only have 40 minutes. This is all still very rough indeed, and more of a rant than a talk, but here are some things that I’ve been worried about:

(1) In some ways, archaeology and classics are closer now than they have been in recent years. When Classics focused on the individual genius of individuals like Euripides and Horace, then the contribution of archaeology was pretty marginal. Archaeologists and art historians could, of course, come up with their own geniuses like the Berlin Painter, but whether or not there was a Berlin Painter had very little bearing on the study of Euripides. The other move was to use archaeology to illustrate the world of the texts. But now most literary scholars would be much happier to understand the texts that we have as the complex products of various socioeconomic forces. The example I often use is Homer and hero cult. It was natural for Coldstream in 1976 (link) to understand tomb cult as the product of Homeric epic. As he put it (1976, 14), for 8th century Greeks “the great size of a Mycenaean tomb, and the richness of the offerings, would fill him with superstitious awe; so he would leave some offerings as a mark of respect, after his imagination had been stirred by the first Panhellenic circulation of Homeric epic.” Now virtually nobody would make such a claim, that Homeric epic engendered hero cult, but rather the opposite: that hero cult engendered Homeric epic, or rather that both are reflexes of deep currents running through Archaic Greece. This means that in one way archaeology is more relevant to literary and historical research than ever.

(2) In other ways, archaeology and classics are miles apart, for a variety of reasons, but chiefly, it seems to me, the very rapid proliferation of evidence, scholarship, and methods. This avalanche gives archaeology extraordinary power – it means, among other things, that archaeological research is rapidly expanding our understanding of the ancient world on an incredible number of fronts – but it also presents a series of challenges to the 21st century archaeologist. It is simply no longer possible, if it ever was, for archaeologists now to control the vast quantities of materials being published every year. Even an Aegean prehistorian can’t keep up with the incredible quantities being produced in her sub-subfield. And, although the scholarship is naturally of variable quality, it can’t be said that diminishing results are reached very quickly. In ancient history, as Robin Osborne has put it (link):

“X” years ago, the bibliography on any sort of ancient historical subject was perfectly cope-able with, and although the law of declining returns set in, it set in quite far down the (as it were) percentage of literature on the subject, so you read 50% of the literature on the subject and after that you discovered that… there was very little in the rest. Now, on most mainstream subjects the literature on the subject published last year is hard enough to get through, let alone the total body of literature, and the law of declining returns sets in after about, you know, 3% of the items… [laughter in the audience]

In archaeology, on the other hand, most publications aren’t dealing with the same evidence, but rather with new evidence applied to new problems. Archaeological projects now produce an enormous quantity of data, and they produce data of widely varying kinds. One of the great changes in archaeological practice in the past 50 years is the emergence of specialist and scientific analyses of material. If radiocarbon engendered a revolution (link), that was only the first of many that swept through archaeological practice. Most recently, what we might call “digital methods” have become increasingly important, from photogrammetry and remote sensing to things like GIS and databases. I’ve been critical of what seems to me to be a kind of naive faith among some archaeologists in how these technologies operate and help us, but there is absolutely no doubt that virtually all of us are now “digital archaeologists.” These are not skills that are marginal to archaeological practice: they are absolutely central to them. The data avalanche is not cope-able with without digital technologies.

(3) Like all scholars, however, archaeologists need time to learn their materials in such a way that they can work creatively with them to solve problems. My spouse looked 4.5 metric tons of Hellenistic pottery for her dissertation, for example. I spent an awful lot of time puzzling over each and every single personal name from the Linear B tablets from Pylos and all of the texts that the names appeared on (which is pretty much all of them). That work takes time; all of the databases and statistical packages and data visualization programs in the world, assuming that we’ve sufficiently mastered them (in all our free time?!?), they don’t give us any real shortcuts when it comes to interpretation. The proliferation of evidence coupled with this need to master it to achieve real interpretive results means that archaeological interpretation has become increasingly independent from “the Classics” as traditionally understood.

(4) Our graduate programs, undergraduate programs, and hiring practices largely do not acknowledge this reality. What counts most in Classics is knowing ancient Greek and Latin. What this means, in practice, and what I have told students, is: you need to be as good as the rest in the languages, and do whatever else you need on top of that, in the summer and in your spare time. I “learned” GIS not in any classroom – I’ve never taken a single class in GIS, although I’ve taught them – but in the field, on EKAS (the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey [link]). I read a lot of archaeological theory on weekends in graduate school, in anthropology courses that I audited, and in the field; for example, I read Ed Soja’s Postmodern geographies (link) on EKAS in the summer of 2001 (don’t ask me how). There is thus a growing chasm, it seems to me, between what makes good archaeology in the Mediterranean and how one gets a job in a Classics department. A good friend of mine even admitted that they included a chapter in their dissertation about a literary text not because it was intellectually necessary but so that they could get a job. They did. (Yes, I used singular they: deal with it). This is clearly unsatisfactory, since it means that there is a mismatch between how archaeology moves forward and professional incentives.

This has been a pessimistic take on archaeological futures, and that’s not the message I want to take to this symposium, so I’ll have to think of ways to incorporate this material into a more optimistic message about where archaeology in the Mediterranean is headed.

Time to degree and the 10,000 hour “rule”

This morning over coffee I was describing the enormous amount of work that went into a mutual friend’s dissertation that I happened to be reading for professional reasons, and it reminded me of the 10,000 hour “rule” that originates from research written by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell summarizes the rule as follows:

…  excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice … In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

Of course, Gladwell’s summary is simply not true. Ericsson made a much more limited claim:

Our research on expert music performance focused on objectively measurable performance and claimed that this type [of] performance is improved gradually by deliberate practice (defined as the engagement with full concentration in a training activity designed to improve a particular aspect of performance with immediate feedback, opportunities for gradual refinement by repetition and problem solving) and by maturation (responsible for increases in height and body size). …

Our main point was that the best group of violinists had spent significantly more hours practising than the two groups of less accomplished groups of expert violinists, and vastly more time than amateur musicians. There is nothing magical about exactly 10 000 h.

It occurred to me that in my little corner of the Academy, 10k hours is indeed often necessary to research and write a really good dissertation. My wife’s dissertation is based on 4.5 metric tons of pottery from ancient Corinth, which, she estimated for me, probably took her about 10,000 hours to study.

This means that if you work 10 hours a day, every day (and she worked much harder than that!), it will take you 2.74 years to write your dissertation. That seems about right; the PhD in Archaeology at UCL, for example, is a three-year degree. But this is a research degree. In North America, we require more than just a Ph.D. from our Mediterranean archaeologists and historians in Ph.D. programs: we require them to be expert at both Greek and Latin language (or at least one of the two), literature, history, and culture.

How long does it take to become an expert in the ancient languages? (We’ll set aside all the other material we require students to master, like history and literary analysis). A long time. The average undergraduate course in Greek/Latin will consume at least 180 hours of “deliberate practice” (15 week semester * (3 hours of class per week + 9 hours of work outside of class per week)) and it is wonderful if students applying to Ph.D. programs in Classics have four years of each language. So, by the time a student gets to graduate school, s/he will have logged about 1500 hours in Greek and another 1500 hours in Latin. Once in graduate school, s/he’ll need to refine her skills and increase her reading speed to get through the reading lists that are required for all Ph.D. programs. I’d guess that a good graduate student spends about 1000 hours per year on each language (25 hours per language a week * 40 weeks per year), normally for 3 years. That means that after three years of graduate school, our hypothetical student will have 4,500 hours of practice in each ancient language.

Adding those together gets us pretty close to our (wholly arbitrary) 10,000 hours, and we’re working graduate students at the languages alone 50 hours a week! Then, once they’ve passed their exams proving that they’ve read, understood, read about, and thought about these texts, we ask them to write a brilliant dissertation, which may (depending on the project, of course) require another 10,000 hours of work to become expert. (Reading Homer doesn’t help you to identify pottery, after all!)

This is why I am skeptical when I read about proposals to shorten time to degree at humanities Ph.D. programs. The “time to degree” issue has gotten a lot of press, including this 2007 piece in the New York Times (featuring, I’d add, a Classicist who planned to finish his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2008, which would have been a time-to-degree of 5 years; he actually finished in 2010, so seven years, and now he’s a lawyer). The MLA released a report in May of last year suggesting that

Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years from entry
into a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree attained.  If
departments change the structure of the curriculum and examinations, articulate
and monitor a reasonable scope and time frame for the dissertation project, design a
careful mentoring process, and provide sufficient financial support to allow students
to progress appropriately, a five-year doctorate ought to be achievable.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) they didn’t tell anyone how to achieve this goal.

I have a hard time seeing many departments in my area improving this situation, since I don’t see the number of expertises we expect from our students decreasing over time. Archaeology is increasingly requiring less and less of the languages in research (but graduate students need to be able to teach the languages if they want to have access to the widest pool of jobs once they graduate). On the other hand, archaeology requires more from graduate students in respect to non-Classics skills: GIS, database management, working with techniques for digital imaging, understanding (and/or making use of) archaeological science, and so on.

It took me eight years to get the Ph.D.: two years doing the M.A. and another six doing the Ph.D. One of those Ph.D. years was spent doing the regular program at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. My year in Athens was formative, personally, professionally, and intellectually, but it slowed down my time to degree. I took a long time to actually write the Ph.D.: about three years. Again, that time was well-spent, I suspect. It meant, among other things, that I could publish articles out of the dissertation while I was swamped with the work of teaching full-time for the first time at a series of one-year positions (an increasingly common experience for most Ph.D.s) while applying for tenure-track jobs.

The 10,000 hour “rule” isn’t a rule, of course. But it does point at something meaningful. How can we expect to reduce time to degree without reducing the expertise of the students who graduate on the other end? I see no substitute for spending lots and lots of time reading Greek and Latin, learning GIS and other software programs that are increasingly necessary for graduate students to learn, and sorting through 4.5 metric tons of pottery. Not if we plan to produce students that are well-trained Classicists and have done the requisite work to make an original contribution to knowledge about the ancient world.