Changing "Classics": What Do We Want? Not What Some People Keep Saying We Want

By Rebecca Kennedy and Maximus Planudes

At the end of my last blog post, I (RFK) pleaded for an immediate halt to uninformative, poorly written, inaccurate responses to the recent New York Times Magazine article, which focused on our colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta and current debates in the discipline known as "Classics". Why this heartfelt plea? Isn't open debate good?! Only if those involved in the debate understand the ideas and commit to representing them accurately. In many cases, the inundation of op-eds show either little understanding or disinterest in accurate representation. Some are plain bad faith

In this post, we lay out a preliminary list of some of the criticisms and changes called for by scholars like Padilla Peralta, but by many, many others as well. We want, eternal optimists that we are, to ground the “discourse” in what people are in fact saying. Classifying these views as “attacks,” as some are apparently compelled to, requires a certain blinkered chutzpah when the majority of actual attacks on “Classics” come from outside the discipline by people hell bent on defunding the humanities and ancient world studies everywhere or insisting on a particular nationalist approach.

We start with what is being advocated for and then address some of the false narratives about attacks on the discipline. We should probably make it clear that when we say “Classics” we are explicitly talking about the professional study of the ancient world in educational/academic contexts. We are not talking about what some call “the classics”, which tends to refer to objects of study or enjoyment. In other words, we aren’t talking about Homer and Virgil, but about the discipline. 

*Note: we have tried to link to relevant already existing writing, podcasts, videos, etc. if/where statements and arguments for the positions listed have been made. But, honestly, after about 20 of them, we got tired and just needed a break because SO MANY PEOPLE ARE WORKING TOWARDS AND SUPPORT INNOVATION-EVOLUTION-REFORM-WHATEVERYOUWANTTOCALLIT we can't keep up. We will continue to add links, though. Many are already listed on the blog here in the anti-racism and teaching resources pages. Please also see the Community link for organizations within the field working for change.


1. Changing the Name: The disciplinary designation “Classics” is, of course, not used everywhere, but mostly in the US/UK where its obvious elitist connotations are somewhat balanced by the popular ignorance of its specific meaning in the academic jargon. “Oh, you teach Jane Austen and Mozart?” indeed. Recognizing this elite connotation and the historical usage that mark out literature from ancient Greece (basically Homer to Aristotle for many people) and Rome (with emphasis on works from the late Republic and Augustus) as superior to other world literatures, some would like to change the name to be less elitist. 

Others wish to change the name because of the history of the discipline’s complicity in colonialist and white supremacist actions (see more below); others, because some students, unaware of the jargon meaning of Classics, think we teach the Scarlet Letter and Tribe Called Quest; still others, because the disciplinary jargon historically referred primarily to the language and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, thus not reflecting the broader realities of how we study and teach today. Name changes frighten some people, but Classics is a relatively recent jargon term and we support a change.

This change, of course, will happen, if it does, locally. We are changing our department name to help our students more accurately and easily recognize what we do. It is also more respectful to certain colleagues who teach other “classical” topics, but do not get the name. We will become Ancient Greek and Roman Studies. It says where our focus is and, because we are limited to 3 full time and 2 part time faculty, covers what we can reasonably admit to teaching: We teach languages, literatures, histories, cultures, and receptions of ancient Greece and Rome. 

A name change isn’t going to solve the problems outlined by advocates for structural and institutional changes to the discipline. It will not, it should not need saying, end racism. Instead, the change of name can function as a signal of willingness to change, of understanding (some of) the history of the discipline’s problems, and as a show of respect to our colleagues in other disciplines by not pretending that our field is inherently better than theirs (except for evo-psych; we are definitely better than them). 


2. Structural Changes
: A name change, however, may be bundled with suggestions for structural changes to programs and departments. Different suggestions imply different recommendations for structural change. e.g., Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Global Antiquity, [Critical] Ancient World Studies, [Ancient] Greek and Roman Studies, or [Ancient] Greek and Latin Studies. It should go without saying (alas) that changing the name Classics only addresses programs that are currently called such (many are not!) and is a local, not universalist project. Not all programs can or will do the same thing, nor should they. We do not expect changes to be free of controversy; we also do not believe it is helpful to frame them as attacks, except, I suppose, for certain reactionary purposes.

Padilla Peralta (in the NYTimes article) and Josephine Quinn have suggested Ancient Mediterranean Studies, a suitable name for some programs which can, in fact, do what this name entails. Programs taking up that name should (ideally) do so because they are broadening their programs beyond ancient Greeks and Romans to include west and central Asia, the Levant, and north Africa. They explicitly want to extend their departments to be more inclusive of non-langauge/literature based approaches, giving equitable emphasis to material culture, specifically by expanding the number of archaeologists and material-based historians.  

We have also seen advocates for Global Antiquity or “[Critical] Ancient World Studies”, encompassing even more places like China, India, Nubia, Axum, Arabia, the Black Sea, the Americas, etc. Anywhere where there is accessible ancient material for study. 

Suggestions such as these are ideas, subject to debates. One might imagine a program focused narrowly on Latin, but covering its full history of use. In fact, it is not even clear that it is advisable for every program to look the same. At the same time, broader discussions help shape local ones, since the dynamics facing programs have many similarities. It is also important to acknowledge that structural changes of any sort have obvious staffing consequences. Some changes de-center Greek and Latin languages and/or add other languages like Sanskrit, Hieroglyphs, Akkadian, Hebrew, etc. These are hard issues.

We imagine that the staffing consequences entailed by proposed reconfigurations may encourage the (unmerited) charges that people want to “cancel languages” or “cancel Plato”. Departments or programs that opt to embrace a broader view of “Classics” under the auspices of AMS or GA or [C]AWS may reduce the centrality of these texts, but won’t abolish or abandon them. And, of course, any changes that would occur would occur at the local level of individual departments and in specific institutional contexts--Harvard may not be interested in such changes, but UCLA might and it would provide more avenues for people to enter graduate study and then, jobs willing, the broader profession. It would be nice also, of course, if, instead of the continuing use of “trickle down” approaches to defining the discipline’s parameters, where graduate programs decide their requirements and undergraduate programs feel compelled to shape themselves around them, they looked to see what sorts of changes these smaller and often more nimble programs are doing and adapt to us for a change.

There is, simply put, more than one way to do “Classics” and many are advocating for changes that reflect that simple reality. The fact that material culturalists and historians in our discipline have been advocating for these changes for DECADES shows this isn’t some fiendish, cultural Marxist, post-modern, far-lefty wokeness attack, but the perennial request for equal valuation.  


3. Racism and Whiteness. The structural changes discussed above are a long-standing issue in the field and they may leave untouched a core issue for many: racism and a history of disciplinary complicity with white supremacism, colonialism, and imperialism. This issue is likewise not new, but has taken new urgency in many places, with different underlying dynamics. Colonialism and imperialism, for example, are more prominent terms in debates in the UK and other European and European colonized countries. In the US, we generally speak of White supremacism

The diversity of situations should not lead, as it too often does, to outright dismissal. It is far too easy to ignore the discussions of racism. They are uncomfortable and ignorance is easy. We all, us included, could do more listening, a lot more listening, to those who generously share their experiences and ideas.

There have been many many excellent discussion of these issues by our colleagues. For framing of the issue in the UK and how it and the US differ, we suggest these excellent essays by Mathura Umachandran. We also highly recommend attending events held by The Christian Cole Society for Oxford Classicists of Color. There is also the manifesto of the Critical Ancient World Studies group. We will also happily add links for other contexts if anyone can provide them. Our own knowledge and experience is of the state of the question in the US, so this is where we will provide the most info. 

Most in the US advocate for changes to the discipline to address historical complicities with white supremacism. There is a lot of work to do. What is being sought:

  • acknowledge how the academic discipline and scholarship has facilitated and encouraged racism, especially anti-Blackness, by serving as a vehicle for slavery apologism, educational gatekeeping, forms of scientific racism, elitism, “Western” and American exceptionalism, Islamophobia, and other forms of white supremacism. 
  • recognize that white supremacism exceeds far right extremism, that it exists in institutional practices, even in our landscapes. The far right appropriations are insidious and harmful to the public image of the field, and public facing scholars are doing good work in combating them. They are, in some senses, an easy distraction because we can write about how they are wrong, mock them, document them. None of this addresses white supremacism in our institutions or discipline. We acknowledge, however, that our students sometimes come to us influenced by these views and we must be prepared to confront them.
  • discuss and advocate for changes to how we work within the discipline to promote our programs and discuss the ancient past so that we do not provide facile narratives that can and have been used to support racist policies and institutional forms of white supremacism, i.e. the practices and policies within academic institutions and professional “Classics” that work to exclude Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) students and professionals. Some examples:
    • An appeal to the “foundations of Western Civilization” narrative. This critique is often misunderstood as a rejection of the works often included in the narrative or of the idea of influence itself. It is, rather, a critique of the narrative, a relatively recent (19C) myth of a continuing trajectory of cultural inheritance from the time of Homer to now in certain modern European, but mostly Anglophone, nations (including the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). It is a particularly toxic origin myth, a just-so story designed to explain a relationship to the past that justifies modern power hierarchies and socio-political exclusions. 
    • An appeal to a color-blind “Meritocracy,” another just-so myth frequently used to avoid talking about racism in admissions, hiring practices, publication access, and more.
    • Citational practices and peer review problems within our scholarship that privilege a closed circle of white, mostly male authors and approaches, that reproduce elite hierarchies of scholars, and that reject certain types of analysis and critical methodology, approaches that are often central to disciplines focused on critical race studies, gender and sexuality studies, or ethnic studies. Things like the forthcoming TAPA special issue edited by Patrice Rankine and Sasha Mae Eccleston are moves to combat this. It is also a place where Padilla Peralta has done important work (he presents the data starting at min. 32). Curiously (?), this work is rarely discussed. 
    • Writing and talking about the ancient Greeks and Romans as if they were White. The Whitewashing of the ancient Mediterranean by Classical scholarship has a long history. The assumption that modern racial categories were perennial and would have been used and understood in antiquity is based, in part, of mid-19th century slavery apologism works like Nott and Gliddon’s Races of Mankind. and promoted to the general public through museums, world's expos, and other institutions. When we avoid engaging in serious study of ancient identity formation processes, we perpetuate the myth of ancient Whiteness and the idea that “Classics” is the inheritance or history of White people only. We also impose the idea of Europeanness onto the Greeks and Romans, many millions of whom (including many famous ancient authors) would neither have identified as such (and never as White), but as from places in Asia and Africa. This ties back also into the “Western Civ” narrative and use for promoting our programs or as frameworks for our scholarship.
    • In this same vein, expanding what count as “mainstream” topics by working to normalize teaching and  studies that focus on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, slave systems, immigration and mobility, economics from below, the experiences of people and not just the processes, etc. Instead of avoiding these topics that often require us to set aside triumphalist and nationalist narratives of the past, advocates argue that they should be embraced in order for us to have more accurate understandings of the past. 
    • Using more diverse theoretical and methodological frameworks--much of “Classics” still thinks reading Discipline and Punish is cutting edge and trendy. They actively ignore and even discourage engaging with Critical Race Theory, in particular. This is a major talking point for the political right generally, not just in op-eds on “Classics.” See the “1776 Report”.
    • Reading and discussing, holding workshops and conferences on, and creating resources around teaching and writing about “difficult subjects” that appear in our sources like rape, genocide, enslavement, xenophobia with more nuance and care for how our students may interact with the texts. This is often dismissed as “coddling” or creating “safe spaces” when it is, in fact, just being a conscientious teacher and scholar.
    • Acknowledging and working to change language textbooks rooted in slavery apologism—lazy and happy slave narratives are a particular problem in the Latin textbooks, but show up in Greek ones as well. This is a problem that spans the US and UK language textbook industries. 
    • Encouraging more respect for the study of and engagement with both reception studies and disciplinary history and not treating them as ancillary to the primary discipline and a hobby for people who already have tenure and have proved themselves “Serious Scholars” with more traditional publications. In this sense, we debate how “Classics” has historically been used as a gatekeeper to elite education, how needing extensive pre-graduate training in both Greek and Latin can inhibit access to the field by those who come from economically distressed backgrounds, which frequently falls along racial lines because of the US history of red lining and other anti-Black policies that date back to Emancipation and the end of Reconstruction. The overwhelming Whiteness, middle-upper classness of the field is well-documented. The numbers hardly budge decade after decade regardless of outreach efforts because the disciplinary structures themselves (some mentioned above) can make participating in “Classics” departments or programs toxic for BIPOC. Here is the data from the most recent survey of the US (there is also data from the UK).  
    • As part of disciplinary history, focus in on those histories that have been occluded and erased, like Black Classicisms, the place of Afrocentricity, and “Classics” as it has been done in contexts outside of Europe and the US and Canada, for example, by Egyptians in Egypt or in post-colonial Ghana (EO Talks)
    • Acknowledging the experiences of racism that our BIPOC/BAME, but in particular Black-identifying, colleagues encounter within academic classrooms, conferences, publication, departments, social media, etc. Claims that these experiences aren’t “really racism” (yes, these statement have been made) because they are subjective are dismissive and reproduce racism in the discipline. Attempts to sideline or interfere with anti-racism initiatives by organizations and departments because they “overly focus” on the problems our Black colleagues and students face (yes, this also happens) ignore disciplinary history and the history of the US generally.
    • And, on the languages front, recognizing that in this broader “Classics”, not everyone will need to have training in ancient Greek and Latin. Maybe they need both, maybe one, maybe (gasp!) neither. Or, understanding the role the languages play in gatekeeping by race and economic status and adjusting how much experience students are expected to have in them before they start a graduate program. Or changing how languages are taught based on local conditions and reconsidering what it means to have language mastery. Again, this one isn’t about ending study of the languages, just being more thoughtful of how and when we require them and recognizing how access to language training falls along racial and economic lines and so leads to unequal access to professional training in graduate programs.

These are some examples of what is being advocated for in the debates around “Classics” and its historical ties to and complicity in White supremacism. These are complex problems that need serious engagement. We recognize that even just this list is large and it would be impossible for any op-ed to address them all. It is telling, however, that they address none of them. 

Some of the problems will take decades to solve, even with the will to change. Advocates are asking that we have these discussions, listen to the experiences of BIPOC who are in (or have left) the professional discipline (as students or faculty), and problem solve ways to unbind ourselves from this past and move forward in (re)building an academic field that is more equitable, self-critical, inclusive of the variety that is the ancient world, and better for more people. Ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist hasn’t worked for decades. No reason to think it will start working now. 

So, we can have serious discussions or, we don’t know, complain about cancelling Homer. 


We struggle to see within the ideas discussed above the strawmen planted to scare people while sowing division and crowding out meaningful discussion. Where, we wonder, are the “attacks”? We know of no one within the discipline advocating a halt to teaching the languages or our favorite ancient texts. No one is suggesting “yielding” Juvenal and Aristotle to the far right. We know of no administrators or funding organizations who are cutting Classics because it is attempting to reckon with its racist past—administrators at colleges don’t need this as an excuse to shutter programs, when they have for decades used under-enrollment in language courses, dropping numbers of majors, and strategic plans that focus on STEM and job placement initiatives. We don’t know everyone, though, so perhaps these mythical beasts exist. 

The people we know are suggesting that we might continue to broaden the canon, accept a more broadly defined classics, embrace a diversity of methods, recognize the importance of reception and history of the field, and -- importantly -- support those in our field from underrepresented groups who feel the alienation that comes from being made to feel they do not belong. They also suggest that these changes might help our field weather the series of financial crises that have enabled dismantling of the humanities writ large in academic institutions while also making Classics programs in particular more equitable.

It is possible that many of these op-eds are addressing things that have happened outside of the discipline proper, such as removing the Odyssey from a middle school general language arts curriculum (not linking because all articles are attacks and are not fully honest) or protests by undergraduate students groups (like at Reed, Columbia, and Brown). There are solid reasons why middle schools may want to change/update their curricula. Also, student groups have legitimate reasons for feeling like “Classics” is yoked to White supremacism. Or, in the case of Columbia, that Ovid’s poems can read like incel handbooks when taught badly. We should not dismiss these concerns out of hand because, after all, they are coming from students and we teach them and want them in our classes (see Sarah Ahmed's Against Students). They don’t think these things because advocates for change within the discipline are telling them the field is racist. Advocates for change often have their own experiences of racism in the field and are still in it despite the racism. They want to make it so other BIPOC students don’t have to have those same experiences of alienation and, instead, can see the ancient world more accurately and find it interesting and worth study. 

In fact, the only person within the discipline we have seen who has explicitly said “let’s dismantle Classics departments” in a longer twitter convo, in which they advocated for Classics department members to ask to be reassigned to other disciplinary departments (history, languages, art history, philosophy, religion, etc), which I (MP) discussed here. [UPDATE: Walter Scheidel has also advocated this and may be the originator of the idea.] We don’t think this is intended to be taken literally (or is a serious recommendation in any sense), but is best understood as another discussion about the nature of the field—what would a “Classics” look like without departments. This is the reality for many programs at smaller and non-elite state colleges already. Best to discuss it on its merits. That is how fields stay relevant. 

Sure, the “burn it down rhetoric” is incendiary, and White Classicists tend to be a bit fragile and think we own the discipline, but it’s better to be the person who reads the whole article before commenting and not just the headline. Because, it is, in fact, nearly impossible to find people within the discipline who want to “destroy Classics.” Instead, we see increasing numbers within the discipline (every link here represents at least 2 more also advocating similar change), ranging from undergraduates to full tenured professors at a wide range of universities and secondary programs, working to make “Classics” more accessible, more equitable, more self-reflective, and open to innovation and new ideas. 

Burning, after all, is part of the agricultural cycle. Sometimes you have to clear out the brush in order to prepare the ground for new crops. When our colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta says that maybe Classics should die, he explicitly says “Classics in its current form”. That isn’t “attacking” Classics, that is begging Classics to (once again) change itself or risk irrelevancy and continuing down the path of white supremacism. In this, we are with him as are many many others within the discipline. 

Some Things are too Embarrassing to Talk about or Ignore

I tried not to read this last one. They have all been so bad and I am aware that anything about "Classics" published in the National Review regardless of who writes it will be at the least subliminally racist and stuck in the worst Dreams of Whiteness. This most recent one by well-known translator Sarah Ruden is no exception. It is also long, which means I simply cannot do justice to all of it in a response, so, I won't even try. Instead, I want to point out some of the most egregious moments. Some of it is undoubtedly unconscious--living lives insulated from people who are different, who have to navigate the world as not White can put blinders on people and make them miss lots of things. But other parts? I can't believe anyone is that naive and uncritical and poor at basic analysis. So, anyway, here we go:


I appreciate that from the beginning, we are informed of which elite halls the author has been traveling down. I hate it when they wait to flex the Ivy credential until the 3rd or 4th paragraph. When it is in the first sentence, I know how the narrator is positioning themselves and how I should feel about my own state school PhD: "Clearly, the [author] wanted me — a [working]-class, [midwestern/west coaster], very young woman — to contemplate what a glorious opportunity I had [not] been given, my [lack of even a] small share in so much wealth, power, and prestige." [changed from the original].

"And in fact nothing ever moved me to denigrate or pity classics as a discipline, though I had already seen, and would keep seeing, hardship of all kinds, phaseouts, and accusations of irrelevance and iniquity inflicted on institutional classics." 

It's called Stockholm Syndrome. Joking (not really), but no. "Classics" is not a person to be pitied. And critical assessment is not "denigrating". Its...critical analysis and engagement. And the things you describe are neither actions of pity nor denigration. They are institutional actions around an academic discipline within the structures of the modern university. Can you pity an institutional structure? That is just odd.

Nice that we can skip all that stuff about origins of Harvard and stuff and Puritans and Classics. I've read a lot of better and more accurate histories. You can, too.  (Maximus Planudes suggests, however, that Panine's Sanskrit grammar would have better accomplished the goals that she ascribes to early Harvard education, but they chose Greek and Latin for some reason. Probably the Christianity thing or something, right?). 

"But this is not the fault of the classics, which are just a set of sturdy and adaptable tools." 

Not very adaptable if moves within the field to change it are treated as hell freezing over. But, perhaps more accurately, it is just wrong. "Classics" is not a set of tools. "Classics" (see above) is an academic discipline moored within academic institutions. Maybe this is where we can see the beginning of the source of our problems--conflating "Classics" the discipline that people want to change--change the educational goals and institutional structures of and extend the content we include within it--with objects of study like languages. Also, as one colleague said on Twitter, "Pretty sure there is something about this tool stuff in Plato's Gorgias." But no one ever reads the Gorgias

A century later, the Founding Fathers came to their clear thinking about governance by way of the classics.

Wow. Clear? Have you studied our government? Or read the Federalist papers? Or been engaged at all in the the last few decades of American politics? CSPAN is always on for you.  


This next paragraph is a doozy:

The prevailing accusation in cancel-culture America is that the classics are inherently authoritarian, and never even a potential tool of liberation. But a look back at the beginning of the modern Western tradition, where classics merged with Christianity, suggests the opposite [side note: I thought Kagan taught at Yale]: Classics is tantamount to the prize itself, so that you might as well righteously resolve to keep money away from the poor. 

Sentence one is pretty much just all filled with wrongness. Cancel culture? PLEASE STOP WATCHING FOX NEWS. If there are people saying "the classics"--which I think is meant to be different from "Classics", no?--are inherently authoritarian, they are wrong. But, just no. Almost no one says this. The only thing most of us say is inherently authoritarian is the political machinery seeking to silence criticism of entrenched power (you know, White supremacism?). If by "the classics" you mean books like the Iliad or Aeneid or Herodotus' Researches, then this is a willful misrepresentation of any serious person in our discipline's assertions when we speak of the complicity between the academic discipline of Classics and White supremacism. It's the most useful straw man y'all can trot out though, because then you can get headlines like "Wokeness Brigade Hates Homer". It's a lie, but it riles up the base. 

I don't even know what that last sentence means. If Classics does mean giving money to poor people, I am all for that. 


The (rather long) point of the Augustine passage is hard to see. As a translator of Apuleius, I would have hoped that '"the docile mule" of "Classics" would have hidden something more interesting. Skipping it.  


All of this was on my mind as I read about a present-day clash in the field of classical studies.

Not surprised she totally misunderstands Dan-el's position, if all that muddle is in the way. 

If you can master the hard, linguistic part of classics — the inner structure, as necessary as anatomy is to medicine — you are by rights the master, the magister or “teacher,” in the M.A. abbreviation; it would be tough for any racist politics to deprive you of that distinction...

Well... for many of us, the languages are the easy part. For some people, the hard part is synthetic analysis across genres, chronologies, and materials. I never found the languages difficult (neither did the author, apparently, but says it way later in the essay because the structure of this thing is awkward). I found them fun. The hard work for me was always ideas and figuring out how to make the initial idea into something more substantive and meaningful. Reading most of the responses to the NYT article, I can see this is a struggle for many others as well.  

More importantly, yes, people do dismiss the credentials of BIPOC scholars ALL THE TIME. There are DOZENS OF STUDIES ON THIS. We are watching it happen in real time. It happened in the NR essay.  I don't know why people think it is totally ok to makes such insipid statements that are easily countered by evidence.   

Without the language standard for advancement, classics becomes — has to some degree already become — a mere soup of feelings about the past and its influence on the present, a soup heated or cooled by whoever commands the institutional stove. In his classroom, Poser observes as Padilla directs a mash-up enactment of Roman power struggles, with a student in a football shirt eventually winning the empire by seven votes.

HOLY NON-SEQUITUR, BATMAN! But, seriously, the ignorance and absolute dismissal of demonstrably good pedagogy is depressing. Like, do people not spend any time actually doing the research on how students learn? And does the author really think that reading Caesar's propaganda is the best way to understand Roman history? If so, no wonder so many people who have done a Classics degree think authoritarianism is good. (OOPSY. I used the word authoritarianism, but I think it is ok, because Caesar actually did overthrow the Roman Republic with his legions and set himself up as Dictator for life). 

Not gonna talk about the soup.


I am going to say something that may make the author of the op ed livid with me, but I get her. I really do. I too live(d) in the midwest (in Ohio even!) until I was 13 (and again later) and understand how utterly depressing it can be as a place. I am sorry the midwest hurt you. But, your inability to write a check properly or heat up pizza at the age of 21 is not even remotely connected to or similar to experiences of racism. You felt ignored? Its nice to be White in the midwest that way. You can just blend right in. Try doing it while not White. I'll wait for the detailed description of that experience. 

I should stop with the running commentary. I am being needlessly cruel here. Instead, I will just list the remaining moments in the essay I found where the Whiteness of the author reared its head and the (unconscious?) racism pops through. Because, honestly, a lot of this just reads like sour grapes (luscious overseas grad student mistress? trading desirability for publishing translations? WTF? Did you not have someone edit this for you?) because someone who thought they were superior to others turns out to be just like the rest of us in most ways--non-celebrities plodding along. Some of us are, however, interesting-- I just want to point that out. 

1. "I’m sorry, but I do understand what it was like for the young Padilla to have someone (in his case a photographer who was semi-homeless himself) make sacrifices for the sake of his talent: I can’t count the number of hours of off-the-clock, one-on-one tuition and classroom auditing teachers gave me over the years. These people stocked my brain and pushed me forward. As I was finishing my B.A., Berkeley offered me the country’s leading fellowship for graduate study, but I matriculated at Harvard instead, as its placement record for new Ph.D.s was better."   Unnecessary flex (as my Gen-Zer would say). Also, please stop pretending your experience was anything like Dan-el's. It's almost worse than the multiple invocations of MLK. I mean, if only Dan-el had written a book about his experiences that could help us truly understand him better. 

2. (Racism could be daintily avoided; none of us had ever heard of “minorities” except on TV.) WOW. This is a deeply damning critique of your education that might suggest that BIPOC in our discipline, like Dan-el (who, ya ya you totally get), actively experience racism in the field. Why do you not frame it that way instead of just tossing it out as an aside and quickly moving on?

3. The entire section on South Africa and Zimbabwe. I think a commentator on Twitter summed it up best with something like "I needed European literature to remind me what beauty was after being subjected to Black violence in Africa." Like, this is just so so bad. But, of course, if plays right to the base audience of the NR, who are invested in the notion of "western" chauvinism and in a European-only "Classics". Interesting coming from a person who is well-known for translating African authors from antiquity.  


I admit that I have not been particularly gentle in my comments. Do such badly written, bad faith misrepresentations of our colleague and his hard work trying to turn the discipline towards a more productive, equitable, innovative, "sturdy and adaptable” future deserve such? It's angry-making. It's frustrating. It's fundamentally dishonest. Please make it stop. 

Changing Classics to Save Classics? A View from Below

Statue from Herodias Atticus' mini-Nile River installment near Marathon, outside of Athens.
By Rebecca Kennedy and Maximus Planudes

Changing classics?! Un argomento trito e ritrito, worn out, beaten as only a dead horse can be. It has urgency, however, for those whose livelihood depends on teaching, especially the contingently employed who only have jobs so long as classes are offered and there are students in the seats. As the pandemic worsens an already terrible academic labor market, humanists are likely to see even more difficulty in finding work as teachers and researchers. The numbers are bleak all around for the humanities, including “Classics.” People are rightly scared, an emotion not helped by the op-eds dropping every 10 minutes, insisting that we fear the “radical far-left wokeness brigade” who is killing the discipline. “Ignore,” they imply, “institutional disinvestments or the pressures of transnational capital. The real worry is wokeness ‘canceling’ Virgil.” Unhelpful.

This post is not a response to any of the “Discourse.” We’ve been thinking for a while about humanities in the university, the place of “Classics,” and what shape it may take under continuing disinvestments. MP, for example, thought about it as a member of the SCS’s committee for contingent labor; RFK, when trying to reconfigure a museum slated to be closed because “there just doesn’t seem to be any energy around it right now.” And our attention focused again when our college president and provost started to hold meetings with various humanities faculty to discuss, ominously, “the future of the humanities.”

We want to fill a gap, as it appears to us, by explaining a bit about the situation in our small liberal arts college. Many conversations, online, in the national press, and at our disciplinary conferences focus on Classics' complicity with white supremacism and our continued efforts to change the problems of racism that ravage our discipline. They focus also on the Ivy Leagues or Ph.D. granting institutions, or other traditional elite private colleges, where there are endowments and traditions and lots of faculty to fight with. And yet, many humanists work unnoticed because they fall below this prestige threshold or lower in the Carnegie classifications. They work in smaller programs and colleges, in community colleges, in secondary or primary schools.

Though starting small and local, we do offer some ideas for the academic “thought leaders.” Because the pressures on Classics don't only come from our entrapment with white supremacism but also from more mundane problems. What we hope our readers will see is that change is coming to Classics. It is, in fact, already here for many of us. Although we know that our specific situation does not necessarily generalize everywhere and that the US system will seem bizarre to many, we hope that the detailed local focus can (mutating the mutandas, ut ita dicam) prove some value to the conversation.


Before 2009, Classics at our small college had 2 faculty (philologists), housed in history (in the ‘80s), anchoring a program with colleagues in Art History, Religion, Political Science, and Philosophy. It was an interdisciplinary “studies” program. In the ‘90s, the classicists were moved into their own 2-person department. This division came from an initiative by the then provost, who was pushing hard for departments to create majors that would track into graduate programs and was made after an external review by 2 esteemed members of the discipline (one from a SLAC, one from an R1) recommended a stand alone department. Since entry to graduate programs in Classics is essentially determined by language preparation, the revised major centered on Greek and Latin. Even at that time, the number of language students was not overwhelming, but they dropped precipitously after the financial crisis of 2008. This was not a unique situation--check the minutes of the last decade of Small Liberal Arts Chairs meetings from the SCS; it is a problem for many. 

I (RFK) arrived in 2009 as the first department historian. Even with three faculty, Classics remained and remains one of the smallest departments on campus (it will not get any bigger). The pre-professional major was 14 total components--9 courses in Greek and Latin, 2 courses in translation (history survey or myth), and a senior symposium where students presented their senior thesis, along with a comprehensive languages exam. With 3 faculty and this structure, we offered a total of 15 courses per year (when all of us were there) and 10 of those courses were in the languages. The remaining 5 were distributed in myth, civ, and contributions to the university writing program. Our students were good at the languages, but had very little knowledge of the broader content or context.

Even then, the language-based major was just getting by, graduating about 4-5 majors a year (but our courses in translation were always full, just not with majors). But it was shrinking, and after 2012, the numbers dropped again. The enrollments in advanced language classes, the core of the major, could not enroll the minimum six required to run a class. Perhaps someone might say, “wait it out! The numbers may return” or “Bring them in through a large general course!" -- small program enrollments and majors are often built upon “cults of personality” of the professors and positive word of mouth among the students” helps -- or “New pedagogies and better marketing would resolve the problem of lowering enrollments.” Basically, “Do something to allow the status quo to continue!” Campa cavallo! How many years until a provost comes knocking on one’s department doors and asks whether you really need that 3rd tenure-line or those spousal positions? 

A change in administration allowed the department to shift from a pre-professional program, changing its course offerings and educational goals by emphasizing classes in translation, which were (and remain) popular. The department decided not to scaffold or make prerequisites for these courses--mythology, Greek and Roman history, literature surveys, special topic seminars; this openness allows non-major students to take any class that strikes their interest. We all had to adjust our pedagogy and reframe our expectations of what sort of background the students will have. They typically have none. The one class they take with us may be the only class on antiquity they ever take. We want them to get as much out of it as possible.  

We want to note that our most popular courses are Myth (easily the most popular), Greek and Roman history (which include role-playing pedagogies), and thematic courses on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, law and democracy, war and society. Students love that most of our courses feature modern reception or explicit connections to the modern world. We often eschew the traditional research paper for more creative assessments. They love thematic courses and projects that have them thinking across genres, times, and spaces. The lowest enrolling classes are traditional seminars in translation on Roman authors like Ovid and Vergil, although Athenian Drama still fills. It seems to us that most students want courses that touch on issues of contemporary concern and allow for synthetic, critical, and creative engagement with the past. 

But what about Greek and Latin, you ask? Students still must take two semesters of one language for the major, and minors in both Greek and Latin still exist. We still teach first-year classes, although Greek often struggles to meet its minimum six. The rest of the language classes we teach as independent studies, that is, as overloads. We typically have about three to five students doing various independent studies for language work per semester. These classes are often 1 on 1 or in small groups of 2-3. 

[Begin rant: we get frustrated when people say we don’t care about the languages: dude, we teach them unpaid! We don’t even get to bank the credit hours towards future course releases (and we already teach five courses a year as full time and have to do general advising). Our life would be so much easier if we didn’t care about them. End rant.]

Our program is clearly no longer a pre-professional program. A student wanting to continue to graduate school will struggle to find programs willing to provide them with additional language training to meet their minimum expectations. We have had students, even underrepresented students, rejected from terminal MAs and new bridge programs for insufficient language preparation (e.g. a BIPOC student with 1 year of Greek, 3 of Latin, and French). For many, the costly post-baccalaureate programs are out of reach and who can recommend in good conscience that a student move to a new city or state and pay thousands of dollars on the off chance they may get enough experience to get accepted to a terminal MA next time? Even so, we aren’t upset that our program is no longer pre-professional; we do not believe the study of the ancient world needs to end in a Ph.D. for students to be successful. Rather than invest everything in a small handful of students who might get into graduate school, we believe our program should be welcoming and open to anyone, regardless of whether they take one class, five classes, complete the major, or only take a language for the general education requirement. #classicsforall

Still, we are conflicted about graduate school. On the μέν hand, we fully support students who want to continue their studies and do what we can to prepare them and help them, despite the lack of good teaching jobs (we are honest with them). On the δέ hand, it seems irresponsible to structure our work around a system that, even when it is not exploiting student labor, will not end in an academic job. Graduate schools still occasionally admit our students, so we hope that programs work hard (1) to provide robust job assistance for students to leave academia (we now have Christopher Caterine’s Leaving Academia) and (2) to de-stigmatize not getting a tenure-track job (success in Classics). And in the current environment, we do not mean just alt-ac jobs. We mean any goddamn job. Normalize humanities PhD-holders outside the academy in all and any form!

Our Classics (soon to be Ancient Greek and Roman Studies) program has de-centered the languages, not because we do not value them, but because broader social changes made it necessary. We would happily reinstate full languages course work if someone gave us a large endowment that allowed us to teach 1-2 person classes, but we would not go back to a pre-professional, language-centered program even if we could. We like and believe in our program. Classics should be for everyone and not just the few who will continue into a graduate program. For a while, it looked like ancient studies would not survive on our campus. We are surviving because we adapted on our own terms to the pressures facing not just Classics but the Humanities more generally. 

Not only small departments but even some middle and larger humanities departments are struggling on our campus. English, History, Religion, Philosophy all face similar pressures and are losing tenure lines or having them “held up.” A major factor is reduced student interest, while the typical academic department infighting continues to wreak its usual havoc. The administration has also been reallocating a small number of lines to our new interdisciplinary majors such as Global Commerce, Global Health, and Data Analytics. The first two majors are staffed primarily by qualitative social scientists and historians and even the third has social scientists and humanists involved. As skeptical as we were at first, these programs enroll and attract students to our campus.

We do not think, we should be clear, that these moves are some evil, neoliberal attempt to destroy civilization. They are pragmatic attempts to provide students and families what they want, ensuring the survival of a small midwestern college in an increasingly hostile landscape. Our sister colleges are closing departments, reducing faculty and staff lines dramatically, and even, in some cases, face the risk of bankruptcy and closing in the years ahead. There is a demographic drop in college-aged students coming, and many schools are simply unprepared to face it. College is also increasingly out of reach financially for many families, so we have to increase financial support to meet our enrollment goals because there are just fewer families who can full-pay, while recognizing that the pool of applicants is going to be shrinking. These new majors are helping us to bring in students who are skeptical of the traditional humanities thanks to decades of negative publicity and also want to study interdisciplinary subjects that they think will help get them jobs after they graduate.

Students and their families consistently cite these new majors as reasons to choose this college over others. It might be fair to say that if I (MP) am still employed in the Fall, I have these departments to thank. Not only do these students come to our college, but, because of the structure of the Global Commerce major, every single one of our department’s non-language courses counts towards the major--it’s basically a humanities major with a few business classes attached (taught, in fact, by the qualitative humanities and social science faculty). And these students love classes on Greco-Roman antiquity. 


We lay all of this out because, in part, small college programs face pressures that the prestige programs may not be facing, at least not yet. Many small departments, more subject to market forces and student demands, have already made the sorts of changes that some of our colleagues are now suggesting for the prestige programs. These suggestions scare a lot of people, who think it will destroy the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. Our experience, however, suggest that making those changes may be the thing that gives new life and energy to its study.  

Certainly, such changes fundamentally alter the way Greco-Roman antiquity is studied and taught, primarily by de-centering the reading of a few selections from golden-age Latin or Classical Greek authors. These traditional advanced language courses, often seen by our students as the last thing they can add to overwhelmed schedules, play a smaller role in programs. The numbers are anemic in many small programs already--we can no longer justify to our administrators emphasizing them in case one or two students might want to go to graduate school. We do not want or think the languages should disappear from our campus or from the discipline, but the number of students going to graduate programs with 3 or 4 years of both languages (especially from small programs like ours) is going to continue to diminish whether graduate schools change their requirements or not. 

These changes will also change the way we hire and are, in fact, the way we will justify to administration why they should let us retain our third tenure line when a colleague retires in a few years. We won’t hire another philologist. We don’t need one; all of the current faculty (including the spouses) can teach both languages and all of our core courses. We will justify hiring another faculty member by pointing to the excitement around and enrollment in our history and special topic courses. We will hire a material culture specialist who can add to what we already do and integrate with our colleagues in Anthropology, International Studies, Global Commerce, Black Studies, MENA, ENVS, or even Data Analytics. We will hire someone who can stretch us out of Europe further into Asia or Africa and past Alexander. Because this is what the university will most likely give us. In the end, we have and will have students that have a much broader and well-rounded understanding of the ancient world than our previous language-focused majors did.

Classics is changing whether people want it to or not. Graduate programs will have to decide what they will do about the situation. Under the current structures, the pool of possible students who even meet the minimum language requirements is going to continue to narrow. Eventually, it may be that only students from PhD and MA granting schools and a few select east coast privates remain who can enter the profession. How this will impact the continuing desire to make Classics less white and elite remains to be seen. But Classics is not defined by graduate schools and a classicist isn't limited to someone who has advanced levels of Greek and Latin only. We already know this.