Category Archives: teaching

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.

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).